N. Sankar: An innings of understated achievement ends

The chairman of the chemicals-to-shipping Sanmar Group passed away on Sunday

April 17, 2022 06:33 pm | Updated 09:45 pm IST

N. Sankar.

N. Sankar. | Photo Credit: MANIVANNAN

N. Sankar, 76, chairman of the home-grown chemicals-to-shipping conglomerate Sanmar Group, passed away at his residence here on Sunday after a brief illness. He is survived by his wife Chandra, son Vijay Sankar, who is the Deputy Chairman of the $1-billion group, and a daughter Madhurika, who is a venture investor and writer.

The elder of industrialist K.S. Narayanan’s two sons, Sankar obtained a B.Sc.Tech in Chemical Engineering from the AC College of Technology and a master’s degree from the Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago.

A third-generation entrepreneur, Sankar started his career as a 21-year-old trainee at the group’s flagship chemicals company, Chemplast, in 1967, when his father was overseeing the business. At 26, he made his first entrepreneurial move by helming the acquisition of a major stake in Industrial Chemicals and Monomers, a carbide manufacturing company.

His stewardship of Chemplast, and the Sanmar Group as a whole, saw the group widen and enlarge its industrial and business footprint significantly. A pioneer in PVC manufacture, Sankar came up with some of the original choices for highly integrated manufacturing processes at various facilities of Chemplast.

“Sankar was a rare entrepreneur who was tall enough to see miles ahead, who steered the Sanmar Group to remain relevant with changing times, at the same time with feet very firmly on the ground, measuring every step,” said R. Seshasayee, vice- chairman of the Hinduja Group. “He was forthright and clear in his views on all matters. He was a quiet benefactor of many social institutions in Chennai. I have lost a personal friend,” he added.

“Sankar was one of the pioneering industrialists of south India,” reminisced Venu Srinivasan, chairman of the TVS Group. “I have known him over many decades and watched him lead the Sanmar Group with foresight. He was early to adopt modern management practices and focused on building competence in his companies. He pushed international growth and investment to make Sanmar a leading player globally,” Mr. Srinivasan added.

He also oversaw a string of joint ventures with various specialist chemical companies and established the Sanmar Group as a leader in several of these product lines.

“If there was one attribute that marked him apart in his business leadership, it was his handling of the multiple foreign collaborations that the group had,” observed Sushila Ravindranath, a veteran business journalist. “Even while exiting or having the venture partner buy out a business, he always maintained a great degree of cordiality with the foreign firms.”

Corporate governance was an article of faith with Sankar and the group echoed this philosophy in its vision statement “Combining Integrity with Excellence”.

Among the pioneers to separate ownership from the management, Sankar was known to be both a hands-off boss who would delegate and trust the professional managers identified by him and at the same time tough and demanding when it came to delivery of the work at hand.

“Tasks must be completed in the proper timeframe, decisions should be based on irrefutable logic, information should be communicated clearly, honestly, and such communication has no hierarchy,” V. Ramnarayan wrote in the Madras Musings in November 2020, in a piece titled ‘N. Sankar, at 75’. “It only takes him a couple of minutes to see through bluff and inadequate preparation for meetings.”

An ardent lover of both tennis and cricket, who had played both sports with great passion in his younger days, and in his later years won many a doubles tournament in tennis at the university and club levels, Sankar became one of the biggest patrons and administrators of the two sports.

“In the early 1960s, he played league cricket for Jai Hind CC as an attacking batsman, a medium pace bowler and a ‘slip’ catcher,” S. Prabhu wrote in a November 2020 blogpost titled ‘Jolly Rovers N Sankar @ 75’. “As a teenager, Sankar was more inclined towards tennis,” and was coached by the legendary T.K. Ramanathan (Ramanathan Krishnan’s father) and would have gone on to a singles career in the sport but for being derailed by polio at the age of 17, Prabhu wrote.

Along with his father, he ran Jolly Rovers, a highly successful first-division cricket team, which gave the State and the Indian team many an illustrious player, including former captain S. Venkataraghavan and wicket keeper Bharath Reddy.

He also served as the vice-president of the All India Tennis Association and the president of the Tamil Nadu Cricket and Tennis Associations.

He was also a passionate patron of the letters and arts and was chairman of Sruti Foundation, which publishes one of the country’s best known magazines on the performing arts.

Sankar also headed a number of industry organisations, serving as president of Assocham (1991-92); chairman, Indo-U.S. Joint Business Council (1998-99); chairman, Madras Chamber of Commerce and Industry (1986-87); president, Madras Management Association (1981-87); and president, Indo-Danish Business Council.

He also served as the Honorary Consul-General of Denmark in South India from 1989 to 2017.

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