All it takes is a telegraphic message— “7.45 pm tom at the club ok?”—for Sajjan Jindal, vice-chairman and managing director of JSW Steel Ltd, to keep his appointment with his partner at the squash courts of Willingdon Club almost every evening he is in Mumbai. It’s a routine that has gone on for 25 years.
A gruelling half-hour and some 300 spent calories later, Deven Doshi, director, Echjay Industries Pvt. Ltd and one of Jindal’s cohorts for a decade, wryly admits that the best part of the game is when it is over. “In 10 minutes of cool-down,” he explains, “you form a lifetime of friendship: You chat about everything, but never about business.” Affirms Eric Dastur, chairman, K.M Dastur Reinsurance Brokers Pvt. Ltd and another long-standing squash buddy, “Yes, and now, even our children are playing squash together.”
Like much about Jindal, his tryst with the Willingdon Club squash courts actually began in the playing fields of Hisar, Haryana, a small dusty town 150km west of New Delhi, where he spent his childhood years. Coming from a large family of nine—he is one of four brothers—he reminisces: “I grew up playing everything, as Hisar had cricket grounds, badminton, squash and tennis courts. At boarding school in Mussoorie, we played hockey and football. Plus, we had courts in our factories, where everybody could come and play. So, not just me, the whole of Hisar was into sports.”
But sportsmanship came from watching his father, late Om Prakash Jindal, a self-made entrepreneur with a larger-than-life persona who founded the eponymous $6 billion (Rs24,600 crore) steel manufacturing group, of which JSW Group is a part. The Class VIII dropout-turned-engineer, a village headman who became a member of Parliament, was a man with a great sense of humour but whose children were in awe of him.
“He was a good horse rider and pehelwan (wrestler),” says Jindal, “and even tried to make my youngest brother Naveen a wrestler. However, Naveen went on to become an MP, and a skeet shooter and polo player, both at the national level,” he says, laughing.
When the family base shifted to New Delhi, the rural Hisar sporting tradition morphed into a city avatar. “Everyone in Delhi knows that the best place to meet all of us together is in the gym at our family home early in the morning. Today, in my steel plant at Vasind, on the outskirts of Mumbai, and in Vijayanagar in Karnataka, we have every sport facility. But I picked up squash because it’s a quick stress-buster, you build stamina and, in 45 minutes flat, you’re done, and refreshed,” he explains.
But for a man who revels in the quickness of his preferred game, Jindal’s attitude towards the sport is for the long haul. In 1995, he appointed a national-level squash player, Sunil Verma, to help set up the Jindal Squash Academy at the Vasind plant. Verma says, “We have made squash available to the common people. Our employees’ kids, 1,300 of them, study at our school here. We built four state-of-the-art squash courts, even got the village kids involved and gave free racquets and balls to all.”
Today, the Jindal Squash Academy at Vasind has become the hub of squash in India. As coach Verma exults, “If there are 200 players in the whole of Mumbai, we have 180 village kids from Vasind playing squash at our one site. Our Lakshman Joshi will represent India in the World Juniors in 2008 and Saumya Karki will represent the girls,” he adds. Dastur, a former national-level player himself, says, “Sajjan plays the game well because he doesn’t play just for himself. He has put squash on the sporting map.”
JSW Steel is one of the few corporates in India to have earned certified emission reduction units for reducing greenhouse gases. Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and a leading environmental scientist, says, “What Mr Jindal has achieved at his Vijayanagar plant is remarkable and can be a worldwide model. There is no waste produced here and resources are used efficiently. The greening of the region has changed its microclimate and environment-consciousness has percolated to every level of the company.”
But life hasn’t always been this verdant for JSW Steel, which also had its fair share of problems. Jindal’s use of a relatively new, eco-friendly technology called Corex in building his Vijayanagar plant in 1998-99, considerably slowed things down. At the same time, the steel industry went through a global slump. The company’s stock price fell; it received negative press, and Jindal, along with a consortium of bleeding steel manufacturers had to restructure corporate debt. He says, “I told the then finance minister Jaswant Singh that we were paying a ridiculously high rate of interest, 20%. As part of the restructuring package, we wrote down 40% of our equity as I felt that this would be fair to the institutions who were taking a hair-cut. Even as my peers resisted, Mr Kamath of ICICI Bank said, ‘If you do this, you will be in the history books.’”
Uday Kotak, vice-chairman, Kotak Mahindra Bank, who has seen Jindal through different phases, says, “Even in rough times, he always had the mindset that he would make it work. He has a vision which is the core quality of an entrepreneur.” Another old friend, Praful Patel, minister for civil aviation and a former squash buff, says, “The mental conditioning that he got out of his sport is what carried him through.” And Jindal himself says, “All of us—engineers and workers, would play volleyball on our three courts. We would say, ‘It’s good the plant is delayed. Since the markets are so bad, if we were operational, we would have made more losses’.”
The bad times passed, and in 2007-08, JSW Steel made a profit after tax of about Rs1,300 crore.
But on a visit to the Jindal Squash Academy, at his Vasind plant, it’s not numbers that are on his mind. Interacting with the budding squash enthusiasts there, he hums his favourite Jagjit Singh song under his breath:
Ye daulat bhi le lo, ye shohrat bhi le lo
B hale chheen lo mujhse meri jawaani
Magar mujhko lautaa do bachpan ka saawan
Woh kaagaz ki kashti, woh baarish ka paani
(Take all my riches and fame, my youth as well,
But please bring me back those paper boats,
set afloat in the rain,
Of my magical childhood).
And it’s clear that in the steel plant, in rainswept Vasind, he’s on the playing fields of Hisar again.
Name: Sajjan Jindal
Title: Vice-chairman and managing director, JSW Group
Education:BE (mechanical), M.S. Ramaiah Institute of Technology, Bangalore
Pursuits: Squash, creating awareness about global warming, singing ghazals and film songs
Claim to fame: Pioneered the use of Corex technology in Indian steel. Heads India’s fastest growing steel plant, slated to produce 10 million tonnes per annum in 2010. Eco-friendly JSW Steel has efficiently reduced carbon emissions.
(Personal Space runs every alternate Friday and looks at the pursuits beyond work of some of India’s corporate leaders. Write to Sangitaa Advani at firstname.lastname@example.org)