The Most Celebrated Icon : Grandhi Mallikarjun Rao

The Most Celebrated Icon – Grandhi Mallikarjun Rao

Billionaire industrialist Grandhi Mallikarjun Rao, or GMR as he is more known, lives his life like anything but how a billionaire would. He has built his eponymous infrastructure conglomerate from scratch. From dreaming of studying to be an engineer and owning a Fiat car, the 65-year-old entrepreneur who is among the country’s richest and most powerful men, has transcended his dream a million times over.

RITZ salutes the iconic businessman who made it to the list of Forbes’ 100 richest Indians for several successive years. His story is an absolute inspiration and we are honoured to be the ones to tell it.

The Beginning

I was born and bought up in a very small remote town of Andhra Pradesh. Since the beginning, I never had any big dream. I always had small dreams in my life journey. My first little dream was to pursue my education and become an engineer, and subsequently to shift from my village and settle down in the nearest big town Vishakhapatnam with a nice house, a car and a small business of a scooter agency.


However, destiny had its own plans and my life journey took its own turns. I started as a trader, then moved from trader to manufacturer, to banker and eventually to infrastructure developer. At 65, I have surpassed my dreams many times over. People see me as a very successful entrepreneur, however they do not know that the last forty years of my journey have been full of adversities which threw up challenges all the time. I strived hard to do my best overcoming the situations and turning them into opportunities. Learnings from those adversities have been phenomenal and have shaped me into what I am today. In fact, this helped me build GMR Group to what it is today.

The Journey

When I look back at my journey and try to figure out what made me successful, I believe there are some basic traits required for being successful and I would like to advise people on the same. One must have strong self-belief, work fearlessly with strong passion and come out of comfort zones to achieve growth and success in whatever they do. One must nurture core values in life and inculcate positive attitude without ever complaining about the situations. Eventually one needs to keep themselves extremely agile and adapt to the changing situations quickly.

Also, please never expect success all the time, there will certainly be failures. Life is full of ups and downs. One should see challenges as opportunities and accept them as gifts, challenges only create foundations for the next journey towards success. Always remember that ‘success is a great motivator and failure is a great teacher’.

What truly matters, is how one evolves as a successful human being. No matter what business one is engaged in, be it small time trading or a multi-national company, I believe that it should be a purpose-driven and value-led journey. If your means are value-based, the end is always heartening. I strongly believe that we are the authors of our own destinies.

The Success Story

Thinking out of the box or doing things differently has always been my trait since the beginning. I have successfully built and sold 28 businesses primarily because of this quality. I can share numerous examples.

Not many businessmen are able to divest their businesses because of emotional attachment. However, for higher growth it is always advisable to keep churning the portfolio of businesses. I very successfully divested 28 businesses.

I can very humbly say that when I moved to the infrastructure sector it was new to the country, new to the industry and new to me. We built the first PPP road project, first PPP greenfield and brown-field airport projects and first power project for the country.

Family governance is the core of creating a sustainable organization which can successfully run generation after generation. We have been pioneers in learning and implementing ‘Family Constitution’ in our Group, which provides the platform for family governance. I believe family governance is the first step which leads to corporate governance.

Institution Building is closest to my heart and hence has been encapsulated in GMR Group vision to build an institution in perpetuity. Along with the business, we are simultaneously building the institution as well. Institution Building consists of  – people, process, technology and governance. GMR Group is working on each of the parameters to implement them in the organisation and make them a part of the working culture in the Group.

Group Performance Advisory Council (GPAC) is probably very unique in the corporate world. We have constituted a unique body of external, independent experts of great eminence to form our GPAC. This body helps us to overcome our blind spots and gives us frank and sharp feedback on our areas of improvement, compelling us to correct our course periodically. An important outcome of this has been a stress test that we carried out on our business portfolio and evolved our ‘Asset Light and Asset Right’ strategy.

The Turning Point

To elaborate on an example from my life journey, I would like to talk about my banking stint with Vysya bank.

In those days, Vysya bank was a good private bank headquartered in Bangalore with just 60 lac rupees of capital. As per new RBI guidelines in 1985, directors could have maximum tenure of 8 years. So they were looking for new Directors from the same community, I was very active during those days and it so happened that I was nominated for the directorship and I joined the bank.

It is my habit that whatever I take up, I do it with complete focus and passion, getting into details. Hence I started actively participating understanding the operations of the bank. By that time the bank business grew significantly, then RBI said that bank business is big in comparison to its capital which needs to be increased. Hence, in 1987 and 88, Bank came up with 1: 1 rights issue. It was not very successful and only 50% was subscribed. The then Chairman requested all Directors to support the issue.


Chairman was worried about the reputation of the bank and requested all Directors to subscribe but nobody was interested to invest. Even though 18% dividend was being given nobody came forward. I was completely into the bank and decided to invest. But my earnings were less and hence I requested my brothers to invest. But they refused saying since ‘you are a director so you invest, we don’t want to invest’. So, I invested my share of profits I got from other businesses. I pledged my wife’s jewels also, we hypothecated and borrowed some more money and invested that too. I continuously kept on investing in the bank and eventually I became the major shareholder.

Here, I want to stress on the point that at that time all other directors in the bank were many times more economically sound, much more educated and experienced than I was; in fact I was no one among them. Even then, nobody came forward to invest in the bank. However, I understood the importance of the bank for the economy and the country and thought what has happened in the West is definitely going to happen here as well. So, I invested everything into it. Later on my out of the box thinking and doing what none had even attempted, proved to be one of the biggest game changers of my life.

After I invested all the money, came a major setback. After the economic liberalization, in 1994 the then Chairman got the license for new bank and he left the bank with the core team. Suddenly, there was a big vacuum created in the bank.

While I was still based out of Rajam, as the biggest shareholder with the investment of all my hard-earned money, in 1994 I had to ensure the survival of the bank. That was a major inflection point in my life – my life’s savings in the bank, moving to a city from a village, and entering into a much broader playing arena .… eventually I moved with family to Bangalore in 1996.

Also, I realised that if we want growth, one should come out of his comfort zone. Moving from my village having stayed 45 years there, with the big time social life and all the emotional connections, being the most sought after and recognised businessman of the entire East coast region, it was not at all easy for me to move to Bangalore.

Settling in Bangalore, I worked hard taking control of the business and also steering the turnaround of the bank; this was the time I met a lot of bankers, businessmen, industrialists and bureaucrats.

I brought for the first time banking core solution technology to the bank; recruited number of professionals; implemented processes and improved operations. When I took over the operations, NPAs were more than 15%. I created an exclusive committee to focus on NPA reduction and brought down NPA to less than 5% in just two years.

I brought foreign Bank Brussells Lambert to have an international experience. The Bank Brussels Lambert was later acquired by the ING. Then, ING bought more equity into Vysya bank.

I significantly improved the operations and governance processes at the Bank. Because of this turnaround, I was made Chairman of the Bank. Later on, I sold my shareholding at a huge premium and this money helped me in entering into Infrastrcuture sector, therefore I was able to build landmark assets for the Country.

The Crowning Glory

Honestly, there are several businesses and projects which have been real turning points in my life journey. However, here I would like to talk about the Delhi Airport.

In 2005, came the opportunity for Delhi and Mumbai airports as both the airports came up for privatisation. We submitted our bid for Delhi and Mumbai airport privatisation amidst stiff competition.  Leading companies of the country participated and we were the only bidder to be technically qualified for both the airports. Then the government asked our choice and we chose Delhi Airport.

It was a great challenging experience with heavy passenger and airline traffic which could not be interrupted as we went about constructing Domestic Departure Terminal 1D and thereafter the giant Terminal 3, the world’s 8th largest terminal, which we built in the record 37 months of time ahead of Common Wealth Games 2010.

We faced many challenges but we had established strong and respectful relationship with all stakeholders. We had to interact with over 58 government departments on one side and on the other side we had to manage a peak of 40,000 workers and engineers from 19 nationalities. To add to it, we had to work with three thousand airports authority employees with a different mindset. It was a very challenging project but very satisfying too as we built the ‘Gateway To India’ which has been consistently ranked the best globally in its category. When we took over the Delhi Airport, it was among the worst airports globally and today it is ranked as the Number One airport in the world. Delhi Airport is certainly the crowning glory.

Expansion Plans

Well, one thing which we in GMR Group have learnt is ‘adaptability’. In today’s so called world of VUCA (Volatile, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity), continuously adapting to change is essential for survival. Hence, lately we have been continuously changing our future plans and strategy depending upon the business and economic environment.

For the past few years infrastructure has been going through a challenging phase, hence, we devised a very unique and innovative strategy ‘Asset Light Asset Right’ (ALAR). We realised that it is the right time to shift focus from asset building to liquidity, profitability and cash flows. We have refocused our business model as Develop – Create Value – Monetise – Reinvest. We do a portfolio analysis. We exit assets which are either close to their peak of valuation or the assets which are not doing as expected. These proceeds are reinvested in new projects. The future will not be the same as today. The key is adaptability and flexibility, to be able to sail successfully in this complex and volatile global market. Therefore, we are in a consolidation mode today and creating liquidity for the next phase of growth.

The Accolades

Titles and recognitions constantly inspire and motivate me to further work hard and keep building assets for my country. In fact, titles such as ‘country’s richest men’ and ‘most influential man’, which have been coined by the media themselves, bestow me with much greater responsibilities.

The Value System

If I look back at my journey and think about what made me successful, despite no financial support being from a weak family background and no political support, I find that a few important traits from the beginning have helped me and the most prominent among them are our values and beliefs.


Our seven values and beliefs are Humility; Teamwork and Relationships; Respect for Individuals; Learning; Deliver the Promise; Entrepreneurship; and Social Responsibility.

The foundation of our seven values is humility. Our humility helps us succeed in ventures, where we had no prior experience. Humility helped us gain the trust of our stakeholders, even in situations of high stress and anxiety. And, humility kept us open for learning, learning all the time from everyone and everything.

These 7 values have been the bedrock of our growth trajectory, despite various challenges.

The Family Man

What is important is that all family members should have an emotional bonding and follow family governance process. Which I am glad to say, is being done.

My philosophy has been “run the business like a family and the family like a business”. Let me tell you something, today in our country, family disputes are the biggest social stigma which is eventually destroying our economic wealth. In the developed western countries all the big multinational empires like IBM, Ford, Walmart, Bechtel, Cargill, BMW are family owned businesses running successfully generations after generations. They are contributing significantly in the economic development of their respective countries.

However in India, where our economy consists of more than 75% of family run businesses, hardly few of them survive till the next generation. This is a great loss for our nation and our economy. We Indians are tremendous entrepreneurs, but we have not been very successful in creating multi-national empires, just because of the lack of family governance.

Therefore, I have proactively implemented family governance. Over a period of nearly 8 years, we developed a formal family constitution, which has been agreed to and is binding upon all members of the family. It covers areas like compensation, conflicts resolution, media policy, succession planning and so on. Very importantly, it is agreed upon not only by the family members working in the business, but their spouses as well.

I would say that it has been a building block for our institution building process. I believe that sustainable growth cannot be achieved without institution building; hence we are now focusing on four pillars of institution building – people, process, technology and governance.  Family governance is also part of our institution building process. Actually, corporate governance and family governance are inter-linked blocks completing the cycle of institution building.

There are guidelines for each family members for their roles and responsibilities, behaviours and so on. Being the Group Chairman, my children handling the respective businesses are accountable for the performance of their businesses and report to me.

The Patriarch

Women from my family do not look after the business. The ‘family board’, which consists of only the men in the family, reviews the business, looks at future growth plans and direction for the group. There is the ‘non-family business board’ that is run by the women and is meant to maintain the emotional bonds in the family.

The constitution lays down the selection of my successor. I don’t nominate my successor. He will be selected by the next generation. It also spells out a system of good family governance, conflict resolution and value system. The process of inducting new family members into the business, in-cluding their level of induction and qualifications required is addressed; if some members do not want to enter the business, the required provisions are dealt with. It also articulates the family values. All the ladies in my family – my wife, daughters and daughters-in-law – are well versed with the family constitution. That is important because otherwise they will not own and commit themselves to the constitution.

The Philanthropist

I have seen people living in acute poverty and vulnerability and later when I used to travel on business trips across the country, I noticed that social realities were more or less similar across the country. While travelling my thought process used to often go round the people starving and suffering due to lack of basic amenities. At that time I was just a small business man, but my deep feelings of empathy for the less fortunate made me take a decision that I will not wait to become very successful or very rich to start helping the less privileged. My journey of service started with establishing a small primary school in my village.

In fact, our reaching out to the less-privileged is a tradition set by my parents. Every year, on Sankranthi all our family members gather at Rajam which is our hometown in Andhra Pradesh and undertake ‘annadanam’ and ‘vastradanam’ for over 25,000 destitute people. Our family inculcated this sense of social responsibility in each one of us and the same has been translated into our business too.


My father used to say – ‘manav seva is madhav seva’. He used to say that one should serve with humility, love and compassion. Also, one should feel that people have given us the opportunity to serve them. Hence, I feel blessed that I got the opportunity to serve humankind. On my part, I have pledged my entire shareholding to the Foundation which we run.

When it comes to the GMR Group, we have set a long term vision for ourselves which states “GMR Group will be an institution in perpetuity that will build entrepreneurial organisations making a dif-ference to society through creation of value”. Thus, making a difference to society is a part of our culture, values and belief systems. Social responsibility is one of our group’s core values and we seek opportunities to deliver that responsibility in whatever we do.

To further professionalize our giving initiatives, we registered our GMR Varalakshmi Foundation as a Section-25 Company which is governed by a board of eminent personalities in the field with me as the chairperson. It is managed by professionals drawn from top academic and social work institutions. We have deployed all the planning and monitoring systems we follow for the business for our foundation too.

Our Foundation is today working in 23 locations in the areas of Education; Health, Hygiene & Sani-tation; Empowerment & Livelihoods; and Community Development. We also felt that we should draw geographical boundaries, as otherwise, we would never be able to make an adequate impact. The decision was that we would primarily work with communities around our businesses. I strongly feel that, for giving to be effective, there should be a focus on areas that are critical to improve the quality of lives of communities. Hence, we have a very unique approach to deploy the foundation team much before the project is started for researching the area, in order to identify the most re-quired basic necessities of that area. Then, we make a comprehensive plan around the requirements so that the impact on the community is maximum.

The Message

My message especially to youngsters is that you must have strong self-belief, work fearlessly and come out of your comfort zones to achieve growth and success in whatever you do. You must nurture core values in life and inculcate positive attitude without ever complaining about the situa-tions. Eventually to sustain this for a long term, please have a work-life balance, which can be at-tained through inner excellence or in other words spirituality. Also, please do give back to the society because it is our fundamental duty to give back as we owe so much to the society where we live in.