In her second book, Sonu Bhasin writes the history of Dhingra’s business career and intertwined personal life in fine detail, and ensures ably that neither of these dual strands dominate each other.
Unstoppable: Kuldip Singh Dhingra and the Rise of Berger Paints
by Sonu Bhasin
Penguin Random House
Sonu Bhasin has played many distinguished roles in Indian businesses. She has occupied top positions in finance and banking companies, and now serves as an independent director for a clutch of big companies. Moreover, according to Bhasin’s Linkedin profile, she is an independent director on the board of Berger Paints. This is presumably the reason why Bhasin got access to the publicity-shy Kuldip Singh Dhingra, the patriarch of the business. But it is not the sole reason why Bhasin is well-positioned to write about Dhingra.
Bhasin is also a historian of family businesses. Her first book, The Inheritors, also brought out by Penguin Random House, speaks of family businesses, the challenges they faced and the victories they enjoyed. In that book, Bhasin has written of a number of businessmen including the Dhingras of Berger Paints. In Unstoppable, her second book, she writes the history of Dhingra’s business career and intertwined personal life in fine detail, and ensures ably that neither of these dual strands dominate each other.
The book relies on interviews with Singh and his inner circle – mostly his family, but also a few friends and business associates. Among other things, the book amounts to a very complimentary pen-portrait of Dhingra that stresses upon his qualities, as one might expect. The tone of the book, however, never comes across as fawning.
The book brings out the mercantile ethos of Singh’s family through the history of his family’s business, going back multiple generations. We are given brief pen portraits of the patriarchs and female elders of the family. This serves to establish the milieu that gave Dhingra his business values.
Then, a few studied brush strokes are devoted to Dhingra’s formative years – the impact of his upbringing on his later trajectory is evident. This deep dive into the past segues into a profile of Dhingra’s childhood and youth, highlighting his characteristics such as will to win, fearlessness, intelligence, charisma, leadership skills, loyalty, and ambition, among others, that were key to his subsequent success. The point of all this exposition is to highlight Dhingra’s risk-taking nature and derring-do.
The book brings out well the early successes and growth pangs of the business– the tale of how Dhingra shifted from distributing to making paints, how he expanded his business, getting orders from the Soviet Union (as it was then), and how he fought to manage the business in the event of his brother Sohan’s illness.
But the book is far from a dry report replete with statistics. Unstoppable is the story of a company that is seen through the eyes of its founder, a company that owes almost everything to its founder’s personality. So the book naturally segues into entertaining and thrilling anecdotes from Dhingra’s life. We are given an account of the youthful Dhingra’s six-month-long backpacking trip to Europe, how he coped with the death of his father and his brother’s aneurism, and how he fearlessly dealt with anti-Sikh riots in Delhi following the murder of then-prime minister Indira Gandhi. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the impact of the collapse on Singh’s export business are also dealt with swiftly. More chapters are devoted to Singh’s purchase of Berger Paints from Vijay Mallya, and how Singh made the company into a prime money-maker. With that, the narrative brings us to the present day in which Dhingra tells us he has no plans to retire.
The smooth and lucid writing, which is pacy as well, enables the book to be scanned swiftly. The book can be finished in a few days. Most of its pages have at least one point of interest each, whether it is a nugget of business insight, a moment of drama, or a light-hearted anecdote. The writing is tight and the number of details just right per paragraph – neither overwhelming nor too scant. The book is also well-structured. The writer knows well how and where to end her chapters – at the point where one chapter sets the stage for the next. The chapters are bite-sized for the most part, enticing the reader to finish reading just one more, and then one more. This is all to the good – the book after all, deals with the growth of a paint company, not exactly glamorous as businesses go. Yet the book is extremely readable and does not flag at any point.
Unstoppable offers insights into the reasons underlying Dhingra’s success (of which I won’t give spoilers here). For that reason, the book is recommended to new and would-be entrepreneurs as well as leaders of family businesses who want to ensure that their businesses flourish and grow.
Suhit Kelkar is a freelance Journalist. He is the author of the poetry chapbook named The Centaur Chronicles.