Candid chat with Ambuja-Neotia group chairman Harshvardhan Neotia
As a child, Harshavardhan Neotia remembers being encouraged by his grandmother to help her with gardening. “I built a rock garden with a waterfall in our back garden,” he tells us during a relaxed conversation.
Harshavardhan Neotia says early lessons in gardening and painting helped him in his career
Many of his family members were also deeply into the arts — his uncle was an art historian and his family connected to the cultural centre Anamika Kala Sangam. “I didn’t know it then but art, architecture and landscaping left a deep impression on my life from an early age. No wonder when my father wanted me to join the family’s cement business, I silently rebelled,” he smiles.
Today as chairman of the newly rechristened Ambuja-Neotia Group (earlier known as Gujarat Ambuja) Harshavardhan Neotia runs a Rs 2,000 crore real estate empire that has created offices, homes, malls, five-star resorts, hospitals, schools and even mini townships.
Neotia chills out with his children — son Parth and daughter Paroma
But his move into real estate was both accidental and difficult. “I had just completed college in 1982 and considering getting into the family’s cement business when one day I heard my father’s friend talking about selling his house, as he was moving to Mumbai. He wanted someone to redevelop the property. I had neither the money nor any clue about real estate but something inside me told me to take the plunge. I offered to build a house there,” he recalls.
Two years later, the multi-storied apartment was complete and Neotia’s journey had begun. “My father was hoping I would get involved in the cement business but it was too complex for me. I felt it was a lot more exciting to try something new and excel instead of being a small fish in a big pond,” he jokes.
He still remembers his joy when an English newspaper and a business magazine carried his first ever interviews after he built a club in Kolkata. “They even carried a small photograph of mine,” says the man who has since been awarded the Padmashri (in 1999) and appeared on magazine and newspaper covers across India.
In the past three decades, Neotia has built malls such as the City Centre and the iconic Swabhumi in Kolkata — the latter a one-of-its-kind open-air that is home to shops, restaurants and cultural shows from across India. He has also built state of the art hospitals, schools, several of Eastern India’s landmark office complexes, housing societies and townships.
And then, of course, he owns two wonderful five star properties on the bank of the Ganges in Raichak — the five star Fort Raichak and the super luxurious resort, Ganga Kutir. “A few of my relatives live in Varanasi on the banks of the river. I always wanted to own property somewhere close to the river therefore, so that we could sort of remain connected. It’s a romantic notion in a way but I am happy I could fulfill it,” he says.
So how does it feel to strike gold in everything he does? Making money is a happy habit after all. “I really do not think of making a lot of money every time. I am focused on the work. Money will happen if the job is well done,” he says rather philosophically.
And strangely enough for a Marwari boy growing up in a business family, Neotia has an equal inclination for the arts as he has for philosophy. He is an avid reader, a collector of art works, landscapes many of his own projects, loves gardening and has a keen ear for music. “One of my uncles was an art historian. My aunt was a disciple of musician Girija Devi and the entire family was connected with Anamika Kala Sangam. As the only son in my generation and growing up in a joint family, I was introduced to all art forms pretty early in life. That is why I could express myself through architecture, landscaping and art when executing many of my projects,” he says.
As a teenager in fact, Neotia was not only good at the arts but played tennis too — a habit he continues even today. “I play tennis with friends at the club every week. I hate the gym. It’s like a cage for a person used to sports,” he laughs. Of course he loves his cricket and watches every match he can. And when he wants to just relax, this ever-smiling businessman retires to his library and reads. “I primarily like reading Indian philosophy. Business biographies are my favourite, too,” he says.
And no, on Sundays he doesn’t even look at the excel sheets. “I’m usually at home till evening. Sometimes we go watch a film with our friends. I love wacky Hindi films,” he laughs. And then he lets us in on a secret. “I want to make a film one day. Produce one maybe. I haven’t really thought this through, but soon…” he signs off, in rather filmy style.
Education: La Martiniere for Boys, St Xavier’s College, OPM from Harvard Business School
First job: When I built my first house
Mantra in life: Work hard. Be sincere. Have passion. The rest will follow
Best advice I ever got: Don’t plan too much. Unexpected turns and twists will happen. Just keep working towards making a small positive difference to the people you come in touch with
Magazine: Harvard Business Review, Architectural Digest
Film: 3 Idiots, Sholay
Book: Complete works of Swami Vivekananda
Destination: Kolkata and London
Hero: Amitabh Bachchan
Animation character: Mickey Mouse
Quote: For those who live magnanimously, the entire world is a family