Sanjeev Gupta: The trader turned steelmaker
Some observers have characterized the Head Office column as a “detective series”, where workplaces are scrutinized for “clues” to the subject’s personality and leadership style. The analogy is particularly apt on this occasion, for a sense of mystery surrounds Sanjeev Gupta, the Punjab-born executive chairman of the Liberty House Group, a global commodities and steel business.
I am waiting at a modern, central London townhouse in Mayfair for 44-year-old Gupta, who is best known as one of the bidders for Tata Steel’s UK business, a purported sale announced by the Indian conglomerate earlier this year. Tata Steel announced recently that it is now in talks with other European players, including Germany-based ThyssenKrupp AG, a multinational industrial corporation.
Despite being operational for more than two decades, with offices in Dubai, Singapore and Hong Kong—apart from the London headquarters—and stated revenue of over $4 billion (around Rs.26,800 crore), Gupta and Liberty House had kept a low profile and were largely unknown to the wider business community in India until the Tata Steel bid was announced. Google doesn’t provide clues either, so I wonder if a close look at the office environment will dispel the fog surrounding its occupant.
A nest in central London
Only a tiny signpost on the front of the five-storeyed building, with the street number, tells me I am at the right place. Inside, there is a reception, but no receptionist, and I make my way to the first floor, where I am greeted by Gupta’s colleague and escorted to the executive chairman’s office on the third floor. As I wait for him, his 45-minute absence provides an opportunity to examine the suite.
The rectangular suite occupies an entire floor of the townhouse. The top two floors of the building consist of a flat, where Gupta lives when he is in London (his primary home is near Chepstow in Wales). The remaining floors below are occupied by senior management teams of different units of the business, as well as from Simec, a diversified energy and commodities group owned by Gupta’s father P.K. Gupta; the two groups are closely allied in business.
A small entrance lobby on Gupta’s floor divides the sun-lit suite into two sections—an eight-seater conference table on the left side of the suite, and a conventional C-suite on the right, comprising a line of cabinets, a set of sofas, a height-adjustable sit/stand desk in the corner, and a desk with a view of the length of the suite.
An array of objects, including maps, photographs, art and sculptures liven up the whitewashed interiors. Among the offices I have visited, the interiors of this suite offer one of the best narratives, the assortment of mementoes serving as a surrogate timeline of Gupta’s business and personal history.
He finally arrives, apologizes, and makes up for lost time with a fast-paced account of the space, its objects and his working style.
For the love of artefact
First, the choice of location. Gupta moved into this building a few years ago, choosing the central West End neighbourhood over the financial district for its “atmosphere” and the opportunities, he says, that it provides for “entertaining over lunch and dinner, as we have a very social way of running business”.
Second, the working style. The conference room and sofa suite provide options for two different kinds of meetings, formal and informal. And these often take place simultaneously, with Gupta moving from one to the other as required. He prefers to stand when he works on the computer, and in any case, he “hardly uses a PC now”, relying on his BlackBerry.
Next, the objects, which together symbolize three aspects of Gupta’s life: his Indian origin and family roots, his interests in steel and, finally, his presence in the UK.
Born in India, Gupta went to boarding school in the UK as a teenager and stayed on to study and work there, starting a trading business while he was at Cambridge University. The family has deep roots in India, where his grandfather owned a steel mill and his father, who now lives in London, a bicycle business.
Symbols of his Indian heritage abound: A pair of old maps (one of Punjab, the other of India) is placed above the sofas, a birthday gift from a friend, says Gupta. Elsewhere, a reclining Ganesha statue, a coconut and brass kalash, and a Radha-Krishna statue decorate the cabinets.
The conversation-piece, however, is placed in a corner near the conference table—a glass-topped coffee table made of bicycle parts. “I found it in a flea market (in St Tropez, France). This was actually a gift to my father, because obviously it was his industry, where I first started working. I don’t know if you’ve been told, but we are launching our own bicycle brand in the UK. So that’s sort of full cycle,” Gupta says. No pun intended.
The Indian-themed items are complemented by the bust of an African warrior, placed on a windowsill near the coffee table. “We have a strong African heritage. The family had its first main success and fortune in Africa, Nigeria in particular,” says Gupta, adding, “We always had an industrial DNA, but I spent a good chunk of my life building the commodities trading business, which took us to all corners of the world, and today we have operations in 32 countries.”
The office is also populated with expressions of Gupta’s interests in steel, such as a sample automotive casting of a brake. “We are one of the premier braking system producers in the world for high-end cars. This is one of our newest products,” says Gupta.
The entrance lobby is framed with a prominent photograph of the Liberty Group’s steelworks in Newport, Wales. Acquired in 2013 and closed for restructuring operations, the steelworks reopened in 2015.
A finely sculpted steel statue of Ganesha, bearing the Liberty House logo, is flanked by several photographs. “It’s the symbol of beginnings, of good fortune and luck. At the launch (of the Newport works), we gave everybody one of these. This is a miniature of the large one, which was installed at the launch in Newport and is currently in Scotland (Liberty House’s newly acquired steelworks in Lanarkshire). The workers from Wales lent it to (the workers in) Scotland while that plant is being restarted, to bring luck,” says Gupta.
Finally, the walls of the C-suite are dominated by the artefacts of two British icons —a signed copy of one of former prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s most famous speeches (“The Lady’s Not For Turning”), and a circular print of butterflies by contemporary artist Damien Hirst. Both are placed near Gupta’s desk.
“It’s a monumental speech; it’s the pinnacle of her career. As always, it’s a mixed bag, but on balance I think she has done a lot of good for the country,” says Gupta, who acquired the speech at a charity auction.
Gupta, who collects Damien Hirst artwork, says he has pieces elsewhere in the office and at his home. The circle is particularly symbolic, he adds. “Everything is circular, even in terms of our business philosophy, we like circular economies (industrial economies that do not produce waste or pollution), recycling and the idea of the circle of life. The circle is the most sustainable solution in everything,” he says.
The objects underline Gupta’s transition, both geographically, from India to the UK, and in terms of business focus, from trader to steelmaker, with an unequivocal emphasis on investing in his adopted homeland.
“I see a clear opportunity in the UK to basically make a sustainable circular business model where you are using local scrap, local energy, make steel locally, make engineering products from that steel locally and serve growing sectors in the country. So that whole ecosystem is a very powerful business model which we are excited about,” he concludes.
Gupta has been steadily executing this ambitious vision of “green steel”, most notably by buying steel plants when others are closing them down, and investing in renewable energy. However, he continues to face sceptics—some of them believe he is asking for too much government support, while others are not convinced of his financial viability, his sources of funding or his fundamental business capabilities in taking on projects where others have failed. Liberty House is a closely held, unlisted group, and the fact that financial information is guarded and hard to come by adds to the intrigue.
As I leave, I encounter the last but perhaps the most important, and witty, artefact: a stone bulldog placed at the lobby entrance. “It was a present for my 40th birthday, from a friend. It’s supposed to guard the door,” Gupta smiles.
Clearly, it’s doing a good job.
Aparna Piramal Raje meets heads of organizations every month to investigate the connections between their workspace design and working styles. She is the author of Working Out Of The Box: 40 Stories Of Leading CEOs, a compilation of Head Office columns, published as part of the Mint Business Series.