An ‘Anti National’ Takeover Battle

Decades before these two ubiquitous words, National and Anti National, became part of our daily public discourse, the gutsy CEO of LnT, Mr. Naik had turned himself into a living legend by shrugging off take over bids on his organization, mounted by none other than the Ambanis and the Birlas. His pride in LnT’s proven abilities and contributions spanning over decades, towards nation-building, comes out very prominently in his biography, The Nationalist. An engineering behemoth, the LnT group, that Mr. Naik has built with his visionary leadership and foresight, has contributed in an unparalleled way and continues to shoulder varied responsibilities related to India’s strategic sectors such as submarine building, nuclear, aerospace, defense, hydrocarbons, critical infrastructure etc. It is no wonder that Mr. Naik, very much deservingly, calls himself a staunch Nationalist and always wears an Indian flag on his jacket!

In the book, The Nationalist, the author’s storytelling skills come out in a most riveting way in the chapter detailing the takeover battle which LnT faced in the late 90’s and early 2000’s from the house of Ambanis & Birlas, respectively. The entire chapter is a fascinating read and is laced with anecdotes full of Mr. Naik’s ingenuity & entrepreneurial networking skills, in taking on these money bags, head-on and convincing the political powers of the indispensable “National” character embedded in a professionally managed business like LnT and harping on them the need to maintain the independence of LnT. At the end of it, though the Birlas managed to get the cement business of LnT – Ambanis had to just cash out quietly.

After reading this book and coupled with the deadly combination of a layman’s naivety and an innate appreciation for humongous value creators like RIL and its founders, I can’t help but wonder:

  • Was RIL eying just the hydrocarbon/cracker business? Obviously, Ambanis were always too visionary to settle for some few hundred crores of supplier credit from LnT! But what would have attracted them to LnT, apart from its hydrocarbon engineering business?
  • LnT Hydrocarbon Engineering is now a giant, separate entity within LnT’s fold, doing a topline of Rs. 15,000 crores and PBT of Rs. 1,500 crores. Had the then powers that be agreed to demerge this business from LnT and induct Ambanis into it – would Mota Bhai’s Midas touch (of legendary project management) and Dhiru Bhai’s blessings, have turned this business into something of unimaginable proportions?
  • What made Ambanis a docile passive investor in LnT for almost 14 years, from 1987 to 2001? Did late V. P. Singh and late P. V. Narsimha Rao indeed play an important role in saving LnT? Or was it the defense business of LnT which made the successive governments shield it from a hostile takeover?
  • Did the Birlas play it smart by remaining focussed on just cement business and walking away with it, in a win-win deal?

Obviously, after reading Mr. Naik’s biography, The Nationalist, one is free to draw his own conclusions on many such ambiguous issues. But what does come out clearly upon reading of the book is the undeniable fact that The Nationalist did manage to quell and cull the hostile takeover bid, without naming and shaming anyone as Anti National!