This is the story of an Indian industrialist who insisted on doing things better, whether it was something related to pesticides, chemicals, hybrid seeds or pollution management equipment.
In 1969, the Indian industrial sector was nascent, the only cars on Indian roads were Fiats and Ambassadors, TVs and refrigerators were regarded as affluent symbols, and match sticks were used to light cooking stoves.
In those days, a Swedish company Wimco made popular match boxes. This company used Red Phosphorus to ignite its match sticks.
Around the same time, a fledgling company in Vapi (GIDC) was commissioned with a mere Rs. 4 lakhs and 20-26 employees to produce Red Phosphorus.
When Wimco discovered what was happening, its management wrote immediately to the Indian government about their suspicion that there was something curious afoot as manufacturing Red Phosphorus required a minimum Rs. 4 crore and an extensive sectoral know-how.
Adequately unnerved, a team from the Director General of Technical Development (DGTD) and the National Research and Development Corporation (NRDC) descended on Vapi. After carrying out a comprehensive investigation of the plant and facilities, they dispatched a report to Delhi with an unambiguous pronunciation: ‘This plant is safe and its project perfect.’
Exactly a year later, on January 26, 1972 the Indian government awarded the fledgling company with the President’s Gold Seal for Research & Development. The first award of its kind in the small-scale industry in India.
There has been no looking back for UPL since. For the next four decades, Mr. Rajju Shroff, the proprietor, did what he knew best. Walk the road less traveled.
And out of this spirit was born a business that has now extended to multi-national presence and multi-cultural employership across five continents.
For Rajjubhai Shroff, the initial Vapi days were challenging.
There was no organised public transport in that town. The only available means of getting through was a horse cart.
Even as Vapi GIDC had been constructed to promote local industry, the location lacked basic amenities like power, telephone and water. Besides, Vapi-Mumbai commute consumed seven hours.
These challenges notwithstanding, Rajjubhai Shroff trained 25 employees, invested in the facility and commissioned a plant to manufacture Red Phosphorus.
United Phosphorus was born out of a spirit of ‘can do’.
The Shroff family, promoters of UPL, had been engaged in the textile business before India became independent in 1947.
Following the recession of the Thirties, Rajjubhai’s father Devidasbhai and uncle Chanprajbhai embarked on the manufacture of pain balm and hair oil. They didn’t just manufacture; they marketed these products door-to-door.
When World War II started, there emerged an acute shortage of chemicals. The father-uncle duo responded to the situation; they commissioned a small chemical factory in a
Jogeshwari buffalo-shed. The young Rajju watched with curiosity; the seed of what would one day morph into one of the fastest growing generic agrochemical companies the world was sown in that buffalo shed.
Rajjubhai Shroff completed his B. Sc from Bombay University and promptly joined the R&D department of the family’s Jogeshwari factory.
By the time Rajjubhai joined, the family had embarked on the manufacture of mercuric compounds. Though used extensively across Europe, the product did not enjoy a sizable market in India.
However, the family took an unusual decision. Since there was no demand for the product in India, the company would commission a factory in England. In 1956, the family founded Excel Company in London.
Rajjubhai ran the company successfully for two years. A British rival made him an offer: - provide him with royalty for ten years equivalent to the profit quantum that the family had generated in its British operation in just two years!
Having successfully proved a point on foreign soil, Rajjubhai made an adventurous journey back home: not by an aircraft in a day but a three-month road adventure via France, Germany, Italy, Austria, Bulgaria, Turkey, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Rajjubhai worked at the Mumbai family factory for eight years. He managed the one aspect of the business that most entrepreneurs would have glossed over – research and development. Research was a relatively inconsequential word in the Indian chemical industry of the Fifties; customers often insinuated that a number of chemicals just could not be manufactured in India because of competence issues.
The one man who seemed to disagree was Rajjubhai. He resolved to make products that nobody in the country had manufactured. And he resolved to do one other thing. He said he would make these products at a cost lower than anywhere.
This was the start of a dream that would one day lead him to Vapi, Red Phosphorus and the creation of UPL Limited.
In 1984, UPL was listed on India’s stock exchanges. Thanks to a mix of entrepreneurial initiative and economic liberalization, the company reported aggressive growth into the early Nineties. In 1994, when Rajjubhai discovered that a British chemical company was on the verge of bankruptcy, he decided to acquire and turn this company around. Even as they were required to make frequent visits to the Reserve Bank of India for the necessary permissions, the company went ahead and emerged as the only company in the Indian chemical industry to acquire a foreign company (subsequently turned around). That one acquisition was the start of a number of such initiatives. The reality is that two decades later, Jai and Vikram, Rajjubhai’s sons, along with an experienced management, have acquired a number of sick units in The Netherlands, France, Italy, Spain, Argentina, Brazil, Vietnam and US. They companies were not just acquired for attractive prices; they were subsequently turned around and now account for a clutch of the lowest-cost agrochemical companies the world over, complementing the company’s Indian operations (Ankleshwar, Jhagadia, Hallol, Jammu and Haldia).
When Rajjubhai commissioned his Vapi factory, the farmers in the vicinity possessed little farming knowledge. UPL’s Jai Research Foundation that had been commissioned in the vicinity began to work with these farmers, providing them knowledge on crop protection through prudent pesticide use. What started as a facility to assist farmers has now grown into arguably the best agrochemical institute in Asia; from an institute commissioned with the singular objective to assist farmers, it has evolved into a trusted location where a number of agrochemical companies get their products evaluated; from an institution commissioned at a single Indian location; Jai Research Foundation has extended to branches in US and UK. Gradually, UPL extended its coverage. The company extended from the manufacture of agrochemicals to equipment that detects and measures air pollution (Uniphos EnviroTronic) and which helped the police introduce breath analyzers in the country for the first time. The result is that Rajjubhai’s one-town start-up has evolved into a multi-continental and multi-product success story.