He is a man on a mission to invest in emerging markets. And play on the world’s best golf courses. Now a private equity (PE) investor with Clayton, Dubilier & Rice (CD&R), Manvendra Singh ‘Vindi’ Banga, formerly of Unilever, loves his golf, something he inherited from his dad and later passed it on to his two sons. Now, for the family, the game is a big reason to compete, holiday and bond. “I am so happy to have two sons both of whom are thoroughly interested in golf. I, in fact, sometimes take a day off to play golf with my sons.”
When we spoke, Banga was teeing off at Sotogrande (Andalusia, southern Spain) with an appointment a day later at the neighbouring Valderrama -- the top two golf courses in Spain that are counted among the best in the world. While golf has proved to be a good bet of late, the economy in India continues to trouble Banga. “We’ve a problem, no doubt. We’ve to redefine our own goals.”
Sitting in London, like a mascot for India among his PE peers, he is often engaged in debates about the state of the economy, the declining rupee, the hiccups in rolling out a clean and clear foreign direct investment (FDI) policy.
“FDI is our biggest issue at the moment. We need to get investment back on track and that’s the key point in my discussions with investors in London,” Banga says.
He was present at the meeting of big industrialists with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently when India Inc’s luminaries displayed their displeasure over tightening controls and complicated foreign investment laws. He admits sentiment around India is at a deep low.
Last month, the government relaxed investment caps for foreign investors in a range of sectors, including telecom, high-tech defence production and insurance; but business leaders, Banga says, were of the view these weren’t enough.
Moreover, there is fresh clamour that the government needs to simplify deregulation in sectors such as retail where no significant investment has been made even after it was opened fully to foreigners. No doubt, if FDI improves, dollars will flow in and help stem the rupee’s massive fall, says Banga.
But like golf, the economy has its cycles and can turn choppy – that is something Banga has learnt from his favourite sport. Concerns about India as a market bother him and he is learning to keep an arm’s distance from them. At least for now.
Where Banga sees a silver lining is agriculture. The monsoon has been good and the sector can come to the rescue, if right steps are taken. Not just to tame inflation but also generate employment.
Banga is of the view that India can improve its agricultural productivity in a big way, something that might support manufacturing and other sectors in making higher contributions to the GDP. “A small group of us is working on ideas to reform agriculture. Agriculture has shrunk in terms of GDP contribution, but the hunger and the need for food is only going to rise.”
The Indian market remains quite close to his interest. He talks strategy on the golf course and points out, “We at CD&R are participating in the global economy through our investments which are companies that are well spread. We are, of course, considering how we must invest more directly in the Asian markets and India in particular.”
The move from being an ex-FMCG honcho to a PE man has given Banga the chance to ruminate over different deals, some on the golf course and some off it. He can be spotted at the world-famous Gleneagles golf resort in Scotland when he isn’t catching up with fellow global Indian Rana Talwar via a game of golf at the plush Wentworth Club just outside of his home city London.
No matter how good you get at golf, there are good days and bad.
But at the end of it all, a golfer can redeem himself by hoping his best shot is yet to come. Banga wishes it were true for India’s economy as well. Sadly, it’s more complicated than that.
Shaili Chopra is an award-winning business journalist and founder of www.golfingindian.com