If he could live his life all over again, says Jagdish Saxena, he would prefer not to be an entrepreneur. It's a surprising remark from the 72-year-old founder and Chairman of Elder Pharmaceuticals Limited, or EPL, considering the group he heads - with a turnover of over Rs 1,000 crore, and annual growth of about 20 per cent for the past three years - has joined the ranks of India's leading pharma companies within just 23 years of existence.
But Saxena still considers himself an 'accidental entrepreneur'. He had no plans of getting into business when he began his career with the Indian Air Force in 1960. In 1964, he quit to join a private company as liaison officer, rising quickly up the corporate ladder to become managing director of Walter Bushnell, a pharma company, in 1987. That very year, the management informed him that it intended to shut down a few plants and lay off around 300 employees.
Saxena refused to accept this. With the company adamant, he walked out to launch his own pharma start-up in which he employed all the 300 who were about to lose their jobs. The initial capital came from his own savings and loans from banks and friends.
Founder: Jagdish Saxena, 72
Daughter: Shalini Kumar, MD, Elder Instruments
Sons: Alok, Director, Elder Pharma and Anuj, MD, Elder Healthcare
Why I did it: "When the company I was with laid off 300 people, I felt responsible for them. I quit, started my own unit and employed them all."
Total turnover: Rs 1,000 crore
Main companies: Elder Pharmaceuticals (flagship), Elder Healthcare, Elder Projects, Elder Instruments
"When my father quit, even some of those who were in no danger of losing their jobs like his company driver, the peons and even the marketing head followed suit, preferring to join him," says Alok Saxena, Director, EPL and the eldest of Saxena's three children. "He has this amazing charisma that makes people believe in him." Alok himself was just 22 when, at his father's behest, he quit studying law and joined Elder.
The curious name 'Elder' has its own backstory. On holiday in Australia, Jagdish Saxena says he saw a really l-o-n-g trailer truck for the first time, which had the inscription 'Elder' scrawled along its side. Both the sight and the name appealed to Saxena. He decided to name his company, Elder Pharma. EPL started small, manufacturing just two products. But the tipping point came soon when Saxena had the brainwave of producing calcium supplements from natural sources. That was the beginning of 'Shelcal', which has since become a household name among the calcium-deficient, capturing one-fourth of this niche market. "Initially no chemist was willing to sell it," recalls Alok.
Today, the Rs 700-crore flagship EPL manufactures and markets prescription pharmaceutical brands, as well as surgical and medical instruments and devices. Its core strength has been the prescription arm, a business which chimes well with the conservative approach of both Jagdish and Alok.
When Elder decided to expand into over-thecounter products and the fast moving consumer goods business, which requires aggressive wooing of consumers, the Saxenas realised a person with a different mindset was needed to run the show. Enter Anuj, Jagdish's second son, a qualified doctor.
"Anuj is very marketing savvy, the consumer business needed somebody like him," says Alok. Anuj says he had never wanted to be a businessman, but six long years of studying medicine left him disillusioned. He joined EPL on New Year's day, 1991, initially in the marketing department of Elder Pharma. But he soon moved to Elder Healthcare, or EHL, which was hived off as a separate FMCG branch. Anuj expects his Rs 100-crore EHL to grow five times in the next three years. "The biggest hurdle was changing the cautious mindset of the company and of my family," says Anuj. "FMCG is a high investment, high profile business. (It needs visibility). What you see, sells."
Daughter Shalini Kumar, the youngest of the three siblings, who studied bio-medical engineering in the US and returned to India in the early 1990s, also joined soon after. "I thought, why not, and decided to give it a try. The rest is history," says Shalini, who is managing director of another group company, Elder Instruments.
Elder Instruments had been conceived in 1994 with the idea of catering to a niche segment of industrial and medical instruments. In the first, it specialises in instrumentation and weighing machines. In the second, machines that are used to treat respiratory and sleep disorders.
"Ten per cent of India's population suffers from sleep or respiratory disorders so I see huge potential for our business," says Shalini. She is working towards doubling Elder Instruments' revenues to Rs 100 crore by next year from Rs 50 crore at present.
"The family tradition fostered in the organisation is a great strength that puts us in a different league," says Alok. Jagdish Saxena says he is glad all his three children have decided to take up the mantle of the Elder Group and hopes they will carry forward his legacy. He believes in their abilities and is ambitious for them, saying confidently that the Elder Group will grow fivefold to become a Rs 5,000 crore group in the years to come.