Neelkanth Ratnakar Dongre died last week. He was 64. No obituaries were written. Except for friends and family, nobody seems to have taken notice. But those who have followed the capital’s corporate scene closely will tell you that his life was an extraordinary journey of ups and downs.
He started out in the 1960s at DCM – it was called Delhi Cloth Mills at that time and was a great training ground for executives. Quickly, he entered the good books of Lala Charat Ram, the youngest son of Lala Shri Ram. In the 1970s, when one of his factories in Kolkata as besieged by agitating workers, Dongre loaded all the papers in a truck, smashed a wall to make way and drove the truck all the way to Delhi.
At his home in an up-market South Delhi neighborhood, Dongre kept a room full of medals and trophies he had won when he was young. I never like to lose, he would often say.
Lala Charat Ram too relied explicitly on him. On overseas trips, Lala Charat Ram would quietly upgrade Dongre’s hotel room. So much so, he gave all powers in the group after it split in the late-1980s to Dongre and not to his two sons, Deepak and Sidhharth. Together, they formed what came to be known as the Charat Ram-Dongre group. The two were together in a number of businesses – hotels, real estate, automobile components, trading, furniture etc.
In his autobiography, Lala Charat Ram sang fulsome praises of Dongre and had only harsh words to spare for his sons. It was an open secret that Dongre had become the bone of contention between the Lala Charat Ram and his sons. They saw him as a usurper who was trying to take what was rightfully theirs.
Then things took another turn in the late-1990s. Charat Ram and his sons made up and Dongre overnight became a liability. After a bitter boardroom battle, he was evicted from most of the companies and consigned to the margins. The inevitable had happened – blood runs thicker than anything else. Lala Charat Ram died some time back. Now, Dongre too is gone. But the uncomfortable question remains: Can an executive ever replace family?