Feature

A Breed of its Own

Strategic overseas acquisitions and diversified revenue make UPL the best bet in the agrochem space

Soumik Kar

Rajnikant Shroff started off his business on an explosive note, literally. A 36-year-old Shroff, a chemistry graduate from Gujarat, as the R&D head at his family-owned unit was mixing various chemicals in search of a formula that would enable him to manufacture red phosphorus at low cost. Unfortunately, that exercise led to an explosion at the plant. A very worried uncle asked him to stop his risky experiment, but Shroff was obsessed about his idea. He chose to start his own venture, UPL, to continue with his dream.

In 1969, he set up a red phosphorous factory in Vapi. The company started production with a paltry sum of Rs.4 lakh with over 25 employees. In those days, a Swedish company that went by the name of Wimco made matchboxes and used red phosphorus for its matches. When Wimco heard of Shroff’s venture, it couldn’t digest the news. By any measure, phosphorus production was considered an expensive energy-intensive process. Energy costs could account for as much as one-third of production. However, against all established notions, here was a small company that was producing phosphorus at a fraction of the costs prevalent in the industry.

Wimco sent a letter to the Indian government, alleging some mischief at the Vapi-based company. According to them, manufacturing red phosphorous required at least Rs.4 crore (100x the money Shroff had invested) and an extensive knowledge of the sector. A team of Director General of Technical Development and the National Research and Development Corporation landed at Vapi to solve this mystery. But they found nothing wrong after investigation. They sent a report to Delhi declaring the plant safe and project perfect. Far from penalising the company for its low-cost red phosphorous production, the government instead awarded Shroff a gold seal to recognise his company’s R&D efforts — a first of its kind award for a small-scale factory in India.

Since then, Shroff has come a long way. He went on to successfully create a low-cost manufacturing base in India and through product registrations (6,000 pesticide registrations at last count) and wide-reaching distribution across the world, entered the global supply chain of agrochemicals. Today, UPL is the eighth-largest agrochemical player in the world and the second largest generic player with a turnover of over Rs.17,000 crore.

The Mumbai-based company has 33 ma

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