Subhash Runwal, Indiaâ€™s newest billionaire, who makes his debut this year with a $1 billion fortune, hails from Dhulia, a small town in Maharashtra state. His grandfather was a jeweler but when Runwal was a teenager, the family had fallen on hard times. The young lad, one of five siblings, left the town of Dhulia and went to study commerce in Pune city. After graduating in commerce, he decided to do his chartered accountancy and moved to Mumbai with less than $2 in his pocket at age 21.
His first job at what was then Ernst & Ernst got him an American posting in St Louis, Missouri. But within six months he decided to pack up and return home. â€œ I didnâ€™t like the lifestyle, â€œ says Runwal, seated in his suburban office in Mumbai. Behind his desk is a painting, the handiwork of his daughter, which he proudly displays.
His first abode as a young lad was a modest studio in a far-off suburb in Mumbai, which he rented after landing a job at a chemical firm as an accountant. A can-do attitude helped him acquire a reputation as the go-to guy for dealing with hidebound bureaucracy. Since he spoke the local Marathi language fluently he was able to strike a rapport with local bureaucrats and politicians. â€ All impossible tasks were given to me, â€ recalls Runwal.
One of them was lobbying the government to ban the import of a chemical, which the company was manufacturing. It took 52 trips to Delhi over a year for Runwal to secure the crucial ban, which enabled the company to start reaping profits. After Runwal had built up his network in bureaucratic circles, he decided to risk everything, choosing real estate as his field of play. He had chanced upon an opportunity hidden in a draconian law called the Urban Land (Ceiling & Regulation) Act of 1976, which he had studied in detail. Under this law, the government imposed limits on land ownership and had the power to acquire vacant urban land. (The law has since been repealed in most parts)
Runwal acquired his first plot of 22 acres in a central suburb of Mumbai, an area that was eventually to become his stronghold. He made a killing on his first property deal and never looked back. His specialty was to buy litigious plots, which had fallen into the ambit of the land ceiling law, and then work his way into getting the titles cleared.
Putting his name on his projects, Runwal got known for providing low cost apartments aimed at the middle class. One notable project called Runwal Nagar in the suburb of Thane, was a cluster of 16 buildings. Within 18 months of the initial sale, the price had more than doubled. â€œ Our customers were people who had never owned their own homes before. They would come to my office with boxes of pedas (Indian sweets) and touch my feet, â€ he says.
Even as Runwal was building his real estate empire, he harbored the dream of becoming an industrialist so he got into manufacturing. He expanded into steel and pharma but those businesses unraveled. He eventually sold out and renewed his focus on real estate. While his Runwal Group still builds middle class housing, it has moved up several notches and now has projects in tony south Mumbai where it is building luxury residences for the uber rich.
The entry of his two B-school trained sons in the privately-held family business, starting from 1995, saw Runwal getting into the malls business. He says they pushed him to market their projects more aggressively and create a new corporate identity for Runwal. Older son Sandeep is an MBA from the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore. The younger, Subodh, is an MBA from Northeastern University.
Runwal has managed to get the backing of the Singapore governmentâ€™s GIC, which invested in one of its malls in Mumbai. He says completing projects on time is critical in his business: â€ My projects never get stuck for approvals. Nothing is impossible. â€ he claims. Lately, Runwal has been picking up big plots in suburban Mumbai, which ensures a long pipeline of new projects.
The patriarch says his efforts now are directed to giving back to society. He donates $1.5 million every year to various causes. Heâ€™s built two hostels in Navi Mumbai and offers education scholarships to the less well off. He walks every morning on the promenade opposite his sea-front home and counts Bollywood actor Shahrukh Khan as his neighbor. â€œIâ€™ve achieved more than I could have ever dreamt of.â€