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From banker to builder

A man who has turned from being a conservative banker to become an aggressive player building showpieces of India’s 21st century economy. BS Srinivasalu Reddy finds out.

business Updated: Jan 21, 2008 21:58 IST
BS Srinivasalu Reddy

Grandhi Mallikarjuna Rao grabbed the headlines in January 2006, when the GMR Group that takes its name from his initials won an international bid to develop, operate and manage the Delhi Airport. But that is just scratching the surface of the empire built by the banker-turned-infrastructure builder, who started off with the Hyderabad airport project about five years ago.

Even as the Delhi airport awaits take-off and Hyderabad is due for inauguration in March, GMR has gone and bagged a similar project at Istanbul in Turkey, proving his mettle again. Rao has come a long way from his origins in Rajam, a village in Andhra Pradesh’s remote Srikakulam district.

The group has set a scorching growth pace for itself in the next five years in piloting airport projects, power plants, highways, special economic zones (SEZs) and agribusiness. “We are expected to take our group asset base to $10 billion (Rs 40,000 crore) in the next five years on a conservative estimate, from the present $900 million (Rs 3,600 crore),” says the 57-year old Rao, told Hindustan Times from Bangalore, where he is now based. He spent the Sankranti festival last week in his native village, distributing clothes to the poor.

Rao’s decades-old work was in Vysya Bank, which he nurtured as a rare private institution while nationalized banks ruled the roost. He has been shedding control of the bank, now led by Dutch ING group, and pumping cash into his new dreams. Like in banking, he goes for pedigreed partners, such as Germany’s airport operator Fraport and Malaysia’s airport retailer Eraman. He has also carefully nurtured a professional culture in a family-controlled group, putting in place a strong succession plan.

Rao has also earned a sobriquet as the ‘Mover of Mountains’ from some industrialists for his ability to get various clearances for his projects, at a time when several infrastructure projects are saddled with innumerable implementation delays.

“Once the officials (bureaucrats) come to office, their time is not in their hands. So, by design, we have kept a four-member team in Delhi for apprising and convincing them at a time of their convenience. I feel it is our job to bring the best practices followed globally to the notice of officials,” says Rao.

“We have got 17-year funding for the Hyderabad project. For Delhi project we required Rs 5,000 crore, but we had got offers for Rs 12,000 crore. That enabled us to accept the best offers,” Rao added.