Rise of a pharmaceutical giant
Nirmal Sandhu

The Ranbaxy Story
by Bhupesh Bhandari.
Penguin, Viking. Pages 240. Rs 450.

The Ranbaxy StoryTHE first suspicion a book of this sort arouses is:"Is it company sponsored?" The sedond is : "Is it a PR job?"

The answer to both is: not exactly. The writer does view Ranbaxy and its founders more often in praise than an impartial narrator should, but the company’s rise from its humble origins to its present status does evoke admiration. Bhupesh Bhandari does not forget to mention Bhai Mohan Singh’s political links while telling the story of the company’s growth.

However, a hard critical look was certainly desired at the most crucial issue: Ranbaxy’s future under the new team. With Bhai Mohan Singh sidelined by age and his son’s global ambitions, Dr Parvinder Singh consumed by cancer, and D.S. Brar, who brilliantly executed company decisions, taking early retirement, how safe is India’s pharmaceutical multinational in
new hands?

Before his death, a visionary Dr Parvinder Singh had put the company in professional hands, ejecting from the board the relatives and friends his father had appointed to safeguard the family’s interests.

If the company is intact and growing, that is the reason. But corporate culture today is more lethal and unforgiving, making survival difficult.

Born on December 30, 1917, at Nareli village in Rawalpindi district to a Hindu father and a Sikh mother, Bhai Mohan Singh was raised as a Sikh. Being descendants of Bhai Gurdas, they pre-fix Bhai with their names. His father, Bhai Gian Chand, made good money as a government builder. After Partition, they shifted to Delhi, where Bhai Mohan Singh started and soon flourished as a moneylender.

Ranbaxy was originally an Amritsar company floated by two cousins—Ranjit Singh and Gurbax Singh—to distribute medicines supplied by foreign companies. When Ranbaxy defaulted on a loan, Bhai Mohan Singh bought over the company on August 1, 1952, for Rs 2.5 lakh.

With no knowledge or background of medicines, the odds stacked up against him, but he emerged victorious from a string of legal wrangles, nullifying attempts at takeover.

His connections with the powers-that-be combined with government policies favouring domestic companies at the cost of foreign multinationals helped Ranbaxy grow. But it was Dr Parvinder Singh’s vision and the unbeatable team of professionals he built over the years, coupled with early investment in research, which catapulted Ranbaxy to the national centrestage. Aggressive marketing and cheap, quality products led Ranbaxy to foray into foreign markets, particularly the US.

Then the family split and the bickering soon became public. The father-son battle for control of the company reached such a level that, according to the writer, at one board meeting, Capt Amarinder Singh, then a board member and now Chief Minister of Punjab, threatened to lift Bhai Mohan Singh and throw him out of the boardroom.

Dr Parvinder Singh’s brother, Manjit Singh, resentful of unequal distribution of the family assets, felt that Ranbaxy’s financial numbers were doctored at the time of division of family property. His other brother, Analjit Singh, was equally bitter. He described Dr Singh as "cold and calculating, devoid of any emotion" and would later frequently lecture on how joint families destroy wealth.

A weakness of the book is that it is largely based on what those in Ranbaxy have to say. The "story" could have been more gripping, had the writer avoided frequent digressions and focussed more on coherence. For instance, in the chapter "A Legend Passes Away" one expects the focus to be on Dr Parvinder Singh, but the writer digresses to describe in detail, Dr P.S. Joshi, Tejinder Khanna, Malvinder Singh and Mashlekar. In sum, the book is readable.