Ambuja Cement Foundation (ACF) is fortunate to have a visionary Chairman at the helm of its Board of Directors, whose success in business is widely lauded – having built one of India’s iconic companies. However, as a humble and quiet gentleman who doesn’t like to stand on his own soapbox, it is often difficult to get inside the mind of Narotam Sekhsaria to understand what makes him tick. In an intimate interview with Thrive, Mr Sekhsaria shares his bold dreams and desires for the future of Ambuja Cement Foundation.
“ACF is still not big … “
I start our conversation by congratulating him on the growth of Ambuja Cement Foundation (ACF) over the years – taking it from a mere 15 lakhs in 1993 to a whopping 160 crores in 2022, and Mr Sekhsaria quickly corrects me. “As per my vision, ACF is still not big,” he quips. This excites me to no end and quickly prod him for more detail.
“My vision is to impact millions people – there is a lot of work to be done in India, and so we have to think at this level of scale if we are to even make a dent in the need,” he says. “160 Crores is still small in my mind – we should aspire to be 1000 crores, because that is the kind of dramatic impact needed to turn things around in rural India,” he said.
“But first you have to impact people and make a difference – have a proven model, something that works. Only then can you scale to these heights. I feel ACF is ready. If we have found a way to do things effectively, we have a responsibility to try to do so much more – engaging more partners, reaching more geographies, enabling more people,” he outlines.
With partnerships playing a key role in the growth of Ambuja Cement Foundation over time, Mr Sekhsaria believes they are crucial to the kind of growth required for the future. “Partnerships are a fact of life – after all, man is a social animal – you can’t do anything without partnerships. There is no greater joy than finding the perfect partner and putting your heads together to help others. We have so many wonderful, collaborative stories of partnerships where it’s been a real win-win for all parties. We simply need to do more of that,” he said.
When I ask him who he admires and aspires to, he quickly mentions the Tata Trusts. “They have been in the sector for 100 years and they have sustained it. Their work is very dedicated – they have gone over and above what is expected of most companies and it has served them in the long run. I too wanted to emulate something like that,” he said.
“Invest in people …”
When I quiz him about the early days and some of the stories when ACF began to invest in people, he immediately regales the story of the Kutch earthquake. “The local collector was asking us to ‘adopt a village’ and make it right. Instead of doing this, we thought why not invest in Masons who would be doing the work. There simply were no masons in Kutch, and in order to rebuild, we would have had to bring them in from other states like UP,” he said. “So we decided to train local people as Masons, who could then not only rebuild Kutch, but earn a livelihood and take that forward over the period of their lifetime. We crunched some numbers and realised that by investing merely 7000 rupees on a mason today, we were creating an opportunity for them to earn almost 35-40 lakhs in a career spanning at least 36 years. We felt it made good sense. From this seed, came the thought of ‘building people’s livelihoods’ – skilling them, building their capacity, holding their hands so that they could generate their own prosperity, and that become the driving force behind everything Ambuja Cement Foundation would do going forward.”
He grins from ear to ear when he recalls the genesis of ACF’s Skilling Program – SEDI. “I was excited when we first introduced the idea of setting up skill and entrepreneurship development institutes for ACF. This is one of my great joys today – to see how it has been institutionalized and developed up from just a seed of an idea. I envision more great things for program in the future,” he says.
“This was one direct way in which we could give a livelihood to 1 million people. To increase the economic earning capacity of another human being, there is a ripple effect as that man benefits, his family benefits, the society benefits… this has been our experience, as we see the communities thrive around a skilling hub like SEDI.”
“ACF gave us a purpose beyond cement …”
As he recalls the early days of ACF, he shares some of the challenges they faced. “Frankly, nobody wanted a cement plant in their backyard. But by leading our work in communities via ACF, it gave us a purpose beyond the cement business – enabling people to prosper and grow as the company prospered and grew,” He recalls.
“Back then, one of the big International NGOs published a report which was very negative about Ambuja Cements (ACL) and its presence in rural India - as if ACL was some monster which had moved into the area. The report declared that ‘there would be no agriculture, no water, no lands available’ once the cement company entered the region. This insulted me gravely, and gave driving motivation to prove them wrong. I hated how they decided to ‘tar all cement companies with the same brush. But from the beginning, our intention was different.”
“We wanted a reputation as being honest and fair to the community – and if we wanted a reputation of being honest, then you have to actually BE honest. And we HAVE proved them wrong! Today, the benefits to communities are multiple times what we have invested, and we have established a reputation of trust and transparency along the way. This makes me proud.”
“The joy of helping another human being …”
Known widely as a philanthropist, Narotam Sekharia shares the source of this life philosophy. “I learned this from Late Mr KC Shroff, CMD of Excel Industries way back in the beginning – he guided me by saying ‘You can build a good business, but people around you should also prosper.’ This was a guiding light that I took on as a life philosophy.”
“He was an exuberant and joyful person, who taught me that the secret to happiness in life is when you give to others. It is also the core essence of the Bhagavad Gita. It was something my father also said - so many people have reinforced this message in my life, and it has stood the test of time,” he shares.
In short, he believes one should just be happy. “Everybody rests on his own pleasure. It may be a small thing, with a neighbor or a friend - someone who needs help at that time. By nature, Indians want to give and be helpful to others.”
One remarkable time which showcased this was the floods of Mumbai in 2005, he recalls. “It was such a devastating time. But strangers came and helped strangers, people were building houses, communing at railways stations to distribute rations… the citizens of Bombay really rose to the occasion. Ordinary people came out on the streets to help and do small things to help. Everyone had a role to play.”
“Now the challenge comes when we want to go to the next level. How do we ignite the right cause in people so that more and more people want to come forward to do something and play a role? People do charity because they have heard something or they are following a pattern. However, the motivation needs to be purer. We simply need to encourage people to experience the joy and feeling of helping another human being.”
“For me, that time is crystal clear. My first happiness was going to an eye camp in my home village of Chirawa – this experience ignited something in me and I simply wanted to do more,” Mr Sekhsaria outlines. “When you help a blind man to cross the road, you feel nice without expecting anything, that feeling of niceness is invaluable.”
“When you have given birth to a child, you don’t abandon it …”
At the age of 72, Mr Sekhsaria shows no signs of stepping back from his commitments at Ambuja Cement Foundation. “This gives me purpose in life! Many people have asked me when I aim to retire, but when you have given birth to a child, you don’t’ abandon it. You see it graduate, grow and fly.
ACF is my child - I love it – and will be with it to see it grow and fly.”