Blood, sweat, but no tears
An old Indian business house still has fire in its belly
WHEN his brother's death in 1984 is mentioned, Ajay Piramal , a big, calm man, still looks sad.
That tragedy propelled him at the age of 29 to the helm of one of India's big, old and flagging business houses.
Since then he has run it with a stark lack of sentimentality and with outrageous success.
Having sold the crown jewels—a generic-drugs outfit—in 2010, for $3.8 billion, he is now busy re-imagining the family firm for the third time.
Given his record, it is worth paying attention.
Piramal's first reincarnation came in the 1980s.
The main textiles business was dying. Its workers were striking; its mills were outdated and packed into central Mumbai.
Mr Piramal cut staff and moved out. Today the land he freed forms a new business district, where snazzy towers sprout from the ruins of old factories.
Some textiles clans have since lived off their property. Others began new adventures.
A branch of the Wadia family, old Mumbai royalty, started an airline.
Piramal began making generic drugs for Indians, buying in 1988 the local unit of a British firm and then picking up similar operations from other foreign pharmaceutical firms which had lost hope in India.
Often multinationals move in a herd mentality, says Mr Piramal.
By the late 2000s Piramal was India's third-largest drugs firm.
This second incarnation ended abruptly.
In 2004, with his brother's sons grown up, the clan split, apparently amicably, with Mr Piramal's nephews and their mother taking the property and textile units.
In 2010 Abbott, an American drugs firm with a history of failing to crack India, bid a preposterous $3.8 billion for the Indian generic-drugs business, which had just $425m of sales.
It was a stiff price, says the diplomatic Mr Piramal, who had not expected the bid and says the negotiations over price took only a few hours.
Mr Piramal has parked part of the proceeds by buying a stake in Vodafone's Indian arm, an arrangement that looks temporary.
He is a critic of crony capitalism in India, which limits his options.
The boom in infrastructure in 2007-10, when well connected entrepreneurs milked government links, did not feel right, he says. Many are now in financial trouble and a few are under investigation.
Instead, Piramal has three new areas of emphasis.
One is a limited re-entry into property.
Land prices have dropped as some Mumbai developers have become overstretched.
And there has been a recent crackdown on the corrupt nexus between developers and officials.
People like us were at a disadvantage, he says.
Now, at least for a while, they are not.
The second new area is health-care services in America.
On May 16th Piramal spent $635m on Decision Resources, a Massachusetts firm that analyses and crunches data on drugs and treatments.
He is betting that treatments will become ever more specialised and that the buyers of drugs in America—state bodies and insurance firms—will become even more finicky and cost-conscious.
Drug firms are outsourcing this kind of activity.
That logic seems to embody a conventionally gloomy view of the pharmaceuticals industry, which seems unable to discover enough new drugs or to protect its patents on old ones.
Piramal's third area of expansion is thus a surprise:
Mr Piramal wants to invent new blockbuster drugs.
Surely that is a business model as obsolete as inner-city textile mills?
Mr Piramal thinks not, especially if research and clinical trials can be shifted to India, where costs could be as little as a tenth of those in the rich world.
We're hopeful that we'll discover new drugs and make breakthroughs, he says.
We take a contrarian view.
My belly is empty.
The princess spent an outrageous amount on clothes.
Buddhists believe in reincarnation.
The property was returned to the original owner.
Her brother is interested in pharmaceutical botany.