Man of steel: Nrupender Rao


28 October 2022

Book chronicles Nrupender Rao\'s journey and how he overcame obstacles to establish one of the most formidable companies in the world

BOOK: Forging Mettle: Nrupender Rao and the Pennar Story
AUTHOR: Pavan C Lall
PUBLISHER: HarperCollins India


“My father never wanted us to enter politics. It was taboo for us. For the 15 years that he was a minister, not once did I go to his office.”
– Nrupender Rao, excerpt from the book

Forging Mettle is a one-of-a-kind tale of how a firm founded on ethics, social responsibility, and environmental stewardship can be profitable and sustainable. Nrupender Rao took a chance in 1987 when he bought the losing Pennar Steels and turned it around. Decades later, the Pennar Group is a well-known name in a wide range of endeavours. The story teaches budding entrepreneurs how to construct a principled and ethical organisation.

“In many ways, the spirit of what the book’s protagonist, Nrupender Rao of Pennar, is attempting to achieve is similar to what the country is attempting to achieve today. Of course, there is a hint of alchemy in Rao’s journey as he encounters highs and lows, wins and losses, and the constant fork in the road as to the type of company he wants to build. Deeper business management lessons will become apparent to the reader, but one factor that was ahead of its time is the unwavering focus on people in a large organisation,” claims author Pavan C.

Lall, whose first two books — Flawed: The Rise and Fall of India’s Diamond Mogul Nirav Modi and Yes Man: The Untold Story of Rana Kapoor — were on corporate wrongdoing and white collar criminals – in short, everything that was wrong with the corporate system.

Politics vs Business

Nrupender Rao’s journey does not follow the typical entrepreneurial life cycle. In the sense that he was born into a family of political leaders. He is the son of J.V. Narsing Rao, who served as deputy Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh. He could easily have followed in their footsteps. Instead, he chose to first improve his scholastic abilities, then work for other organizations abroad before returning to India and working for big corporations. He passed out of IIT Kharagpur, then at Purdue University. Later, he climbed the corporate ladder — the National Cash Register, Coromandel Fertilisers, and Union Carbide.
Against All Odds

Forging Mettle was an opportunity to do something entirely different for multiple reasons. “Due to a crippling disease that limited his speech, Nrupender Rao was unable to communicate. So getting some answers from him needed a completely different strategy, such as speaking with his family and reviewing all of his previous interviews. Then, being from West Bengal but having spent the majority of my career in Mumbai, I hadn’t had much exposure to companies in South India, which was something I had always wanted to learn more about,” says the author.

The book correctly identifies an accidental meeting with Raju in 1969 at the Union Carbide factory in Chennai. It was a watershed moment in Nrupender Rao’s life. Raju relied significantly on Rao when he founded Nagarjuna Steels in 1973.

“Most of all I was surprised by how the Pennar Group at large let me have total journalistic freedom in the way I want to tell their story with balance and accuracy,” says the author.

Tough Lessons

Everything will not go as planned, or even the best of plans fall apart, but one must continue with the race. “Rao was able to forge his own degrees of connection, demonstrating how important it was to be able to achieve one’s social, professional, and business objectives in a world devoid of technology platforms and social networks at the time. At the end of the day, people are what make any organization, even a technocracy, and the last lesson that any entrepreneur must learn is that you must also be there for them when the chips are down,” says author Lall.

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