Dhirubhai - The Man - First Step Backward

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First Step Backward

When Dhirubhai decided to start a textile unit of his own, friends suggested that instead of risking all his money on a costly, new mill of his own, he should buy an old one and renovate it. His staff began looking for one around Mumbai. The first one he went to look for the Gautam Silk Mills at Goregaon, jointly owned by five brothers. Negotiations were held with the eldest who agreed on behalf of other partners to sell the mill for Rs.3 lakh. He even took a token amount of a few thousands of rupees as advance. But just when the deal was to be initialed, one of the partners reneged on the agreement. "You keep your juna dabla (old tin)," Dhirubhai snorted, "and the advance too." He left the meeting without turning back.

Although one of his friends took him to yet another mill at Ambernath, he no longer liked the idea of acquiring an old one. He decided to set a brand new mill of his own. Not just a new one, but an absolutely brand new one, the best and the latest from the frontiers of the then available technology. "That was the first time I decided that whatever I ever build, I would always have the best and the most advanced in technology, come what may and whatever be the cost," he later said,

"In all my life I've never compromised on the principle whether it was Patalganga or Jamnagar or Hazira." Once the decision to go in for a new factory was taken, he sent out his two brothers, Ramnikbhai and Nattubhai, and his other colleagues to search for a suitable site. Land for a mill was costly in and around Mumbai, the centre of the textile trade. Just then Ramnikbhai reported from Ahmedabad that adequate land for a factory and for any future expansion was available at a comparatively cheap rate of Rs.8 per square yard at an industrial estate being developed by the Gujarat State Industrial Development Corporation at Naroda, close to the textile city of Ahmedabad. Only Rs.2 a square yard was required to be paid initially, while the rest could be paid by way of easy monthly instalments.

Naroda had then just been chosen for developing an industrial estate. There was only a semi-tarred road leading to the site from Ahmedabad. All around was hard, dry, barren, brush land. Even the industrial plots had not yet been marked out with chunam (lime), as was the practice those days. Power lines were still being erected and water pipes being laid, and only two factories (Coca Cola and Ingersoll Rand) had come up in the estate. Reliance moved in on plot numbers 102, 103, 104 and 105, altogether measuring 5,000 square yards. Today Reliance facilities at Naroda are spread over 125 acres there.


"Naroda was not a venture but an adventure, a raw adventure," recalled Dhirubhai when a journalist asked him how he had felt when setting up his first factory. "I had utterly no experience, nor had any of my brothers or my colleagues. Actually, today no one will believe that Naroda was set up by a bunch of totally raw, uneducated, inexperienced young men whose only asset was their indomitable will to do something in life.

"Only one of my team members was an engineering graduate. Just two or three were matriculates. All the others were middle (eighth standard) pass and middle fail. Think of a team like that wanting to set up a first class textile mill."

Someone Dhirubhai met on one of his routine flights to Ahmedabad was aghast to listen that he wanted to set up a factory like that with such a team. "How are you going to do that," he asked me, "with such know-nothing street urchins?"

"Why?" I said, "If Lord Ram could win Lanka with the aid of a force of monkeys, why can't I build my factory with the help of my team. Aren't they better than monkeys?"

"You see how audacious I was those days. Naroda was a big dream, a great thrill, great excitement, not for me alone, but for all of us engaged in the task. Those were the days when my entire being cried out loud with immeasurable passion what are today's popular slogans: Hum kisi se kam nahin and Kuchh kar dikhana hai. The only thought that ran through my mind all the time was Yeh manushya janam paaya hai to kuchh karke yahan se jaana chhahiye, kuchh kar ke dikhana chhahiye."

The Naroda project started with just six people, three of them in their thirties and two still in their twenties. Dhirubhai was the troubleshooter of the team, its conceptualiser, visualiser, leader, planner, project manager, operations coordinator, cheer person, gadfly, pincushion, hunter master, all in one. He flew in and back from Ahmedabad to Mumbai every weekend, checking the progress of the project and fixing the more troublesome nitty-gritties.

The other five included Raminkbhai (eldest brother of Dhirubhai), who was the project-in-charge; R K Sen Gupta, a textile engineer who had studied in Germany and who had erected a similar factory in Colombo before Dhirubhai invited him on the team; Kishore Doshi, a science graduate just out of college; two raw hands for odd jobs, and a driver for the only car the team had for running about for dozens of permissions required from different government departments.

Dhirubhai put the team together in March 1966, showed the four barren plots allotted to Reliance and set 1 September 1966 as the target date for starting production. "No way," said Sen Gupta who was the only one with the experience of having set up a factory like that.

"So find the way, make the way, and do it," growled Dhirubhai and asked, "Tell me why you think we can't do it?"

"Simply because we haven't even decided what machines to buy and how many, and from where!"

"Then come to Bombay on the weekend and let us decide," said Dhirubhai.

At the RCC office, which had now been shifted to Dhobi Talao, Dhirubhai told Sen Gupta to suggest what machines to buy. "That depends on what you want to do, how quick and with how much funds," he said.

Dhirubhai told him that he wanted to make the best quality nylon material in the largest possible quantities by the quickest and most efficient way possible in the world, and he wanted to start at the earliest. "Nylon material is in great demand in India and elsewhere," he said, "We can sell the material here and earn a big profit. We can export the material overseas to earn foreign exchange for the country and also earn a big profit for ourselves from the government scheme. The scheme is there now but it may not remain there for long. That is why I want the factory so quickly"

Sen Gupta suggested setting up a warp knitting unit, saying that was the best way to convert one ton of nylon yarn into an equal quantity of nylon material in the quickest way possible. Dhirubhai already had that in mind. He was happy to see Sen Gupta coming out with the same suggestion. Once they had agreed to go in for warp knitting at Naroda, Dhirubhai told Sen Gupta to rush to Germany, Italy and other countries to select the machines. "We are already in May and so much has been done at the site," said Sen Gupta. Dhirubhai told him to do his part of the job and leave the rest to him.

Construction at Naroda started in May. Dhirubhai told Ramnikbhai to double, treble the work force, if necessary, and ensure that he had the site ready for installing the machines by the middle of August. Construction continued day and night even through the rainy months. A huge quantity of canvas sheets was ordered to cover the newly raised walls and roofs from the rain. In Europe, Sen Gupta selected four German made Liba warp knitting machines and a Then dyeing machine. A stenter machine made in India in collaboration with Germany was ordered locally.

Then, just after the machines had been ordered from Germany there was a bolt from the blue. On 6 June 1966, the rupee was devalued by 36.5 per cent. The government also wound up major export promotion schemes, including tax credits, direct subsidies and import entitlement schemes like the nylon for rayon one.

Devaluation steeply raised the project cost. Scrapping of import entitlement schemes upset the nylon for rayon plan. There were suggestions for calling a halt to the project. "No," called Dhirubhai, "We are going ahead with the project as planned."

Work continued at a hectic pace at Naroda. Machines began arriving from early August just when the civil works were nearing completion and machine platforms were being finished. Installation of knitting machines began even as the site was being readied for the dyeing machine. However, one crucial machine had not yet been ordered. That was a boiler for generating steam. It was decided that instead of going in for a big, new boiler, a second hand, small one should be bought to save time.

Just then someone reported that a 1920 make Lancashire boiler was being dismantled at the Bombay Dyeing plant at Patalganga to make room for a bigger, new one in its place. The discarded Bombay Dyeing boiler was bought and taken to Naroda. Everything was being done simultaneously, some on the nick of time, to beat the September deadline. The pace of work all over the site was simply maddening.

Now arose the problem of locating trained and experienced textile mill workers. Naroda was too far off in a jungle to be attractive to workers from the textile centres of big cities. With great difficulty a disparate team of 35 machine men, knitting masters, boiler operators and dyeing masters was organized from Mumbai, Calcutta and Indore. As Dhirubhai had wished and planned, production started on the four knitting machines on the morning of the target date of 1 September 1966. It took another two months for production to stabilise.