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Veterans Unpacked | D.S. Brar: “Your network is your net worth, and your credibility is your currency”

July 31, 2021


D. “Davinder” S. Brar has been a pharmaceuticals industry veteran with a career that spanned over four decades. He joined Ranbaxy in 1977 and became part of its leadership team in the late 1980s.

During his tenure as president and later CEO, over a ten-year period, Ranbaxy grew around 10 times to become a billion-dollar player.

Brar, known as a fearless leader, spent over $100 million to establish Ranbaxy in the United States at a time when most Indian firms hadn’t developed the appetite to plant their flags in American markets.

After Ranbaxy, he joined GVK Bio (now Aragen Life Sciences) as promoter-chairman.

He has also been on the board of the Reserve Bank of India, and continues to be on the boards of Maruti Suzuki, Essel Propack, Mphasis, and Wockhardt, among other leading companies.

What have you been up to since hanging up your boots?

A lot. Leaving Ranbaxy in 2004 was the end of a fantastic journey; and what transpired after that was the beginning of another exciting chapter – as an entrepreneur and an investor/ adviser.

Ranbaxy proved that Indian companies could stand tall in the global arena of Pharma and Life Sciences by becoming perhaps India’s first MNC across sectors. By then, I had sensed a great potential for venture creation in emerging areas of contract biopharma services – very much like the IT (information technology) industry. The thesis was based on the trend of increasing Pharma R&D (research and development) outsourcing and abundance of high-quality scientific talent in India.

Aragen Life Sciences and Excelra Knowledge Solutions are two companies that have emerged from this pursuit – both leading science-driven CROs (contract research organizations) in Drug Discovery & Development and Data Sciences.

I have served as a board member with many prominent companies across diverse industries. I have also been engaged as a consultant/adviser with top private equity funds, global consulting firms and pharmaceutical companies.

In every role in my career, a guiding principle for me has been the “Global Imperative” – the core belief that companies should aim to compete and grow in international markets. Scale can only come by having a global reach backed by domestic strength. This is no longer an option, but a necessity.

“There are a few things I wish I had known in my 20s. Firstly, no matter how small your current circumstances, dream to achieve big things.”

What keeps you busy now?

I no longer have an operational role as before, my work now involves visioning and strategy, policy and governance, M&A and global partnerships to take new ventures to the next level of growth and value creation.

Besides Aragen and Excelra, I am now working on a third venture, around agriculture, plantation, and integrated supply chains, interfacing at the grassroots level with small and marginal farmers, social sector, and public agencies. It would be an enterprise which will increase livelihood opportunities, empower rural communities while improving productivity and sustainable practices.

I have followed the exciting evolution of the start-up ecosystem in India for the last decade or so. I immensely enjoy interacting with innovative entrepreneurs with terrific new, out of the box ideas. We receive several investment ideas and pitch decks from start-ups on an ongoing basis. We deep-dive into 15-20 proposals every year and I get involved in a select few as an investor/mentor, and in exchange I get to learn from their unorthodox approach to organisation building.

On the personal side – I have a passion for travelling – although the pandemic has put a dampener on this for the last couple of years. I love visiting wildlife sanctuaries in Africa, and among the various countries I have visited, Italy remains my perennial favorite. At home, I like to unwind by reading fiction / management books and watching movies – especially mysteries / thrillers. I am a cricket buff and follow matches across formats from around the world.

Looking back, can you tell us about three interesting events or anything that has stayed with you since?

One incident that is etched in my mind forever is from a trip I made to the US in 1987. Over the course of three weeks, I met about two dozen companies pitching the idea that Ranbaxy could manufacture and supply generic medicines to the US.

In meeting after meeting, I was met with disbelief and rejection. The worst was when the CEO of a company broke a pencil and hurled it towards me in a fit of anger at how presumptuous and absurd was the idea that a third world country could supply quality medicines to the Western world!

The experience firmed up the determination in me to make exactly that happen. Our indefatigable team did the rest. By 2003, Ranbaxy had become the sixth largest generics company in the world with the US as its primary market. We opened the floodgates for the Indian pharma industry, which today supplies 40% of the US demand for generics. I was invited by Harvard Business School to take a session on the Ranbaxy case study which was taught at a few other top universities also.

From a public health perspective, the Indian pharma industry worked with global philanthropic organizations such as the Clinton Health Access Initiative, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Indian government agencies to save millions of HIV patients globally (especially in sub-Saharan Africa) by supplying affordable Indian anti-retroviral drugs.

(US) President Clinton visited our R&D centre to express his personal gratitude in a moving speech to India’s pharma industry for doing the unthinkable. Several years later, I was fortunate to cross paths with President Clinton at a private event. Stunningly, he walked up to me, addressing me by name and thanked me for what he termed as the debt he owes to the Indian pharma industry. This is a testament both to the global health impact India made, as well as President Clinton’s famed memory and charisma!

What do you miss most about the C-Suite?

What I miss the most from being in the C-suite at Ranbaxy is the magic of leading a group of dreamers who produced extraordinary results, which ushered in a new era for the industry. We had a shared vision, a collective of ownership and worked almost like a close-knit family. Those relationships and bonds are priceless; and perhaps the ethos of that journey is unrepeatable.

Otherwise, I do not really miss the trappings of the C-suite which include high-quality stakeholder interactions, well-organized review meetings, not having to worry about financial resources, and the perks of position, recognition, and status.

In fact, I have enjoyed the freedom and achievements of my entrepreneurial journey even more than controlling the reins and driving the growth of a large global organization. I can still drive vision and strategy, without carrying the weight of operational execution, which I can delegate to able young executives on the ground. As a person, I have always believed in moving ahead and not looking back. There are always new and exciting challenges ahead.

“Today’s leaders need to embrace decision making under uncertainty and continuously learn and adapt to stay ahead of the curve.”

If you had to relive your corporate career, what would you do differently?

On the professional side – I always had the entrepreneurial bug, but I could only indulge this passion later in my life, when I was 52. In hindsight I should have taken the plunge earlier. Being at the helm of a stable top position (company), there was an element of risk aversion to jump into the unknown but looking back, it would have been worth the risk. I have often let my dedication and focus to work consume me. At the broader societal level, I miss not having engaged enough with more stakeholders from public and social spheres. At a personal level, I was often guilty of not managing a healthy work-life balance and I wish I had spent more quality time with my family.

What are the changes in the corporate world that you see now that are vastly different from your time?

In terms of business models and culture, technology and digital transformation has accelerated at a bewildering pace. One just needs a handheld device to work from anywhere. Even traditional industries like manufacturing are getting reshaped by data, digital and analytics. Several companies have used technology and its power to ‘de-layer’ organization structures with less management. Flat hierarchies foster a more agile and responsive culture. Many remain mired in old pyramid structures with stagnant productivity. The visible contrast is staggering.

Another significant change has been the burgeoning of the Indian start-up ecosystem driven by mobile, internet and digital technologies. We will soon rival global VC/ Tech hotspots like Silicon Valley in terms of innovation potential. This expands possibilities across many sectors of the industry. Back in the day a $1 billion valuation was considered a huge deal. These days, unicorn valuations are everyday news and it is estimated India will have more than a 100 unicorn companies by 2024. This is mind-boggling, and was unthinkable two decades ago.

Corporate governance frameworks have matured tremendously in India. Respect, Integrity, and Transparency are much valued and rewarded. There is greater awareness of business as a citizen of society, country and even for the globe through sustainability initiatives and frameworks.

Which business leader in the current crop impresses you?

At a global level, Elon Musk is a gamechanger. Back home, the achievements of India’s $200 billion IT industry have been phenomenal with their profound impact on Indian business ecosystem. I greatly admire the founding pioneers of this industry such as S. Ramadorai, Azim Premji and the founders at Infosys for their leadership to envision and execute the game-changing role for knowledge-based industries in India’s economy thereby creating an iconic niche for IT services on the global stage.

More recently the new-age companies led by young and enthusiastic entrepreneurs have wowed everyone by scripting perhaps an even more impactful story. These leaders have brought in more foreign capital, executed brilliantly in an intensely competitive environment in creating unparalleled market capitalisation. All this in 10 years. I am awestruck by their speed of implementation and ability to take risks to consolidate strength in their chosen areas.

How did you plan for life after retirement?

Like I mentioned earlier, retirement is just a state of mind. Even when I left Ranbaxy, I had the hunger and passion to build new businesses and create future value. I have the curiosity to learn about new markets, and new business models. In my mind, it is more a pitstop than a finish line. I planned judiciously to find avenues to deploy my experience and knowledge and found the right partners to help me along.

As long as I am healthy with a sharp instinct, I will continue to do something useful and learn new things in the process. In my case, retirement would be more of a gradual dialling down rather than a sudden transition on a specific date. At a personal level, I walk, travel to the hills and walk at least six kilometers a day. I don’t drink any liquor except red wine.

Is there anything you would tell your younger self?

There are a few things I wish I had known in my 20s. Firstly, no matter how small your current circumstances, dream to achieve big things. Learning happens outside your comfort zone – so always go the extra mile. Learning from others is easier than learning from mistakes – seek out the right mentors and learn from their experiences. Be humble and surround yourself with smarter people and invest in relationships. Business is a team sport, trust and integrity are as important as talent to build great teams. Do not forget to stop and smell the roses, work is only one part of life.

What is your advice for the next cadre of corporate leaders?

Being a leader means that you can create a vision, drive ethos and culture, inspire commitment and deliver results. The pace of change in the market has accelerated, so today’s leaders need to embrace decision-making under uncertainty and continuously learn and adapt to stay ahead of the curve. It is important to have a firm grip on short-term execution while building strategically for the long-term. Most important of all, I would advise today’s leaders to focus on relationships and building trust with your customers, your partners and your employees. Your network is your net worth, and your credibility is your currency.