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Harry Banga: The commodities captain

The master mariner, who founded a start-up after two decades at one of Asia's biggest commodity trading firms, on Chinese hotels, Sunday dinners and god

Harry Banga. Photo: Bloomberg.
Harry Banga. Photo: Bloomberg.

Harry Banga always thought he would retire from a career in trading commodities when he turned 60. Much to his own relief, however, things didn’t go according to plan or he would have been at a loss for things to do. He tells me he has no hobbies.

Banga, now 66, is immersed at work when we meet. His office is where he is happiest. It probably helps that it has a breathtaking view of Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour, dotted with ships.

The Amritsar-born, Hong Kong-based Harindarpal Banga—“Harry" to everyone who knows him—is the chairman and chief executive officer of The Caravel Group. “It’s a start-up," Banga chuckles. But one with grey-haired managers, an experienced team, and a billion-dollar balance sheet. “We created something new," Banga demurs. “That’s what a start-up is."

A diversified global conglomerate, Caravel was founded in 2013 by Banga and his two sons, Guneet (37) and Angad (33). The Bangas own all of it. He says his sons, who were working elsewhere, forced him to start his own venture, promising they would join him if he did. Though both have leadership roles within Caravel, Guneet, who is the executive director, is currently on a sabbatical, working on philanthropic projects in Thailand. Angad, the group’s chief operating officer, plays an active role in the day-to-day operations and heads the asset manage-ment division.

Harry Banga made a name and fortune for himself over two decades at Noble Group, a commodity trading company based in Hong Kong. As group vice-chairman, he was widely credited with turning the company into one of Asia’s biggest business successes.

He had joined Noble in 1989 to head its new shipping division. It was the perfect match: Noble could trade commodities and transport raw materials from suppliers to buyers. The timing was fortuitous. China’s economy was regaining momentum and the government was spending liberally on domestic infrastructure projects. It had a voracious appetite for raw materials. Banga quickly realized the impact an emerging China would have on the world stage, so that’s where he focused his attention.

Illustration: By Jayachandran/Mint

“I pretty much lived there, not in five-star hotels but in dirty, filthy, smelly guest houses," he says, remembering the years he spent travelling to remote corners of China. “And the food was terrible." It was rough, but he persisted, even picking up Mandarin during those years of travel and establishing key contacts within China.

“For an Indian national to be so respected, to have such ‘guanxi’(relationships) within China, is very rare," says Sam Chambers, editorial director of Asia Shipping Media, which controls global maritime news portal Splash.

Banga left Noble in 2010. He doesn’t say much about why he stepped down, except that the way Noble was growing (“too fast") and diversifying (“becoming asset heavy") didn’t match his sensibilities. He continued with them as vice-chairman emeritus till their 2013 annual general meeting to enable a smooth transition.

His exit was well timed. Noble has been plagued by accounting problems, several high-level departures, and a downturn in the commodity market. The company is nowhere near the darling of the stock market it once was.

Rich with experience and cash from selling his stake in Noble, Banga set up Caravel. It is named after a small, nimble, 15th century sailing ship developed by the Spanish and Portuguese to explore uncharted waters. The business has three verticals: logistics, which includes maritime services such as ship management, commodities trading, and asset management. Asset management was introduced to attract Angad, who has a background in private equity.

In a little over three years, Caravel has put Banga back on the list of Hong Kong’s 50 Richest People, with a fortune of $1.02 billion (around Rs6,800 crore), according to Forbes magazine. Caravel, which posted a revenue of $80 million in its first year of operation, estimates a jump to $1.8 billion last year. Banga looks embarrassed when I talk to him about his wealth. “What means more to me is when they compare Caravel to companies that have been around for 50 or 80 years," he says, adding, “At this age, if I have more than three drinks, the doctor’s bill is bigger than the drinks bill, so where will you spend the money?"

In an understated office, the only sign of Banga’s immense wealth is a gallery-worthy collection of modern and contemporary art. There’s a limited-edition work by Pablo Picasso, pieces by F.N. Souza, several M.F. Husains, an S.H. Raza, a Satish Gujral and a work by Chinese artist Xue Song. A commissioned work by Indian artist Paresh Maity—depicting, you got it, a caravel—hangs in the boardroom.-

Later, I understand where the money goes—well, some of it at least. “I don’t fly commercial, I have my own plane," Banga says in a matter-of-fact tone. “Sometimes I say, why should I go in my own plane? I worry about my carbon footprint. But Angad says, Dad, just enjoy your life."

As we speak in his office, I can’t help but notice that the view makes a perfect backdrop to Banga’s story. He began his life on the seas. He was not really interested in an engineering or medical degree, the traditional career path for most Indian men with his kind of family background at the time, and a chance meeting with a family friend who worked for the Indian Merchant Navy piqued his interest. Growing up in landlocked Punjab, Banga had never seen the sea. Without telling his father, he applied for a position with the Indian merchant navy. An exam and an interview later, he was accepted as a cadet.

Banga loved his life as a seafarer. “It was the lure of seeing the world. You went to a port and stayed there for months. I loved it. Seeing new places, meeting new people. It was amazing."

He went on to become a master mariner (a qualification that allows you to become the captain of a ship) and at 28, the youngest captain in the navy.

It was during his time on the sea that the young Sikh cut his hair. It was impractical, with all that travel and being on a ship, he says. Banga’s father didn’t allow him into the house for three years. “Three years," he emphasizes. Even after they made their peace, Banga had to grow a beard and put on a turban before going to meet his father.

I meet Banga for a second time at a gurdwara in Hong Kong on a chilly Saturday morning. He is there with his family to attend an akhand path (continuous recitation of religious hymns). “I believe in god and god for me is Sikhism," Banga says. “Being Sikh defines who they are, it’s a big part of their identity," Angad says of his parents. I learn that Banga has donated $1.2 million to the gurdwara for a new building and is closely involved in the design as well.

I watch Banga mingle easily with others from the local Indian community. He’s a slight man with a towering personality, the recipient of the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman (the highest award given to overseas Indians) conferred by the then president, Pratibha Patil, in 2011.

Over the years, he has also developed a fiercely loyal inner circle of colleagues. The senior management at Caravel came with him from Noble. His secretary has been working with him for 30 years; the head of iron ore, for 25 years; and the head of his China unit, for 20 years. Perhaps his most endearing quality is his friendly disposition. He’s affable. Every morning, he walks the floor of his office at 10.30 and greets people personally. He has done this for 20 years. He has a monthly list of birthdays on his desk and doesn’t miss wishing an employee.

“It’s a we and us culture, never you, never me. At our Monday morning meetings, there’s no finger-pointing. If someone did something that cost the company, it’s we made a loss, never you made a loss," says Angad. He credits his father’s leadership style—based on developing trust—for creating a family-like atmosphere in the office.

For Banga, nothing in the world is more important than family. I understand that within minutes of meeting him. He talks often of his father, a former civil servant, now 95 and ailing. Banga returns to New Delhi frequently to visit him. His wife of 37 years, Indra, goes through the day’s schedule with him before he comes to office. She has chosen all the art that is displayed in the office. His daughter-in-law Dana (Angad’s wife) works at the Caravel Foundation with Indra.

The family gets together for Sunday-night dinners. It’s not just a tradition, but one that is “sacred", Angad says. If anyone can’t make it, there had better be a very good reason for it. It doesn’t matter that they have seen each other in office every day, all week.

Sometimes, he’s kind of old fashioned, laughs Angad. “There’s so much pressure on my wife and I to have children. He’s like, all my friends have grandchildren, I am the only one who doesn’t!"

Speaking about the next generation (and a potential third), I ask Banga what he would like his legacy to be. He seems puzzled. I haven’t really thought about it, he responds. I rephrase the question. How would he like to be remembered? Banga pauses. Finally, he says, “I think I would just want someone to say, I miss him having a drink with me."

In case you are wondering, that would be single malt whisky.

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