Anybody else may have been intimidated - but not Sharma. He managed to carry the Japanese along and grow the company at an impressive clip without ruffling feathers. Lupin Japan is still run by Japanese, with few Indians on its staff. And the Japanese business has grown well: it clocked net sales of Rs 1,304 crore in 2012/13 compared with Rs 860 crore the previous year, or 14 per cent of Lupin's consolidated revenues.
How did Sharma manage to crack the Japanese market which has traditionally been a tough one? By focusing on creating efficiencies, targeting hospitals that treat patients with complex diseases, and by canvassing doctors. "Doctors are diffident about generics in Japan, but Sharma has managed to successfully navigate that," says Ranjit Shahani, Vice Chairman and Managing Director of pharma company Novartis India Ltd.
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Sharma's success in Japan was particularly impressive for a company that was a late-entrant to overseas growth. He came into Lupin after the company went through tough times. For one, the pharma firm was saddled with a massive Rs 500-crore debt after it dabbled in real estate, and failed. For another, it had missed the bus on global expansion while its peers such as Ranbaxy had started operations in the US. In July 2003, CVC International, a Citigroup company, bought 12.55 per cent of Lupin and the promoter family's stake fell to 55 per cent. The investors wanted a professional manager - that's where Sharma came in. Shahani says Sharma's big contribution was transforming Lupin into a professionally-run company.
Industry experts say Sharma, now vice-chairman, has played a key role in helping realise founder Chairman Desh Bandhu Gupta's vision of reaching a revenue of $3 billion by 2015/16 - from about $250 million in 2003. Already, the company's turnover has jumped to $1.75 billion (Rs 10,780 crore) in 2013, catapulting it into the big league. "When Nilesh Gupta (D.B. Gupta's son) takes over, he will get a very different company from the one Sharma took over. The credit goes to both DBG and Sharma," says Dilip G. Shah, CEO of Vision Consulting Group and Secretary General of Indian Pharmaceuticals Alliance, who has worked with Lupin and Sharma.
From being a company best known as one of the largest manufacturers of anti-TB drugs, Sharma helped Lupin diversify into a range of affordable generic and branded formulations in many markets. Lupin has also acquired several pharma firms across the world and Sharma has made it the first Indian company to successfully market an individual branded drug, Suprax, in the US. Suprax is used to treat infections. Lupin's US sales leapt to about Rs 3,835 crore in 2012/13 from Rs 2,200 crore in 2010/11, mainly due to Suprax.
Sharma's biggest strengthsFormer colleagues say Sharma's impeccable understanding of the pharma industry is his biggest strength. Suresh Mathew, Executive Director at RPG Life Sciences, where Sharma worked a few years, says Sharma has "very high technical knowledge" which he used to pull off a coup in a licensing deal while at RPG. Sharma beat a licensor down to $500,000 from $7 million it had sought. "He has the knowledge required to strategise. He goes into minute issues, builds a rapport, negotiates," adds Mathew.
are his impeccable understanding of the pharmaceutical industry and his extraordinary negotiating skills
Sharma says he favours a "sit-and-negotiate" culture. He remembers the time he faced huge resistance from workers at a Mettur Beardsell India factory near Mumbai early in his job as works manager in the 1970s. Despite the charged atmosphere, he would take his subordinates out for a drink after office hours and talk to them informally. The initial resistance slowly withered away. "Later, these same employees came to me asking for counsel," says Sharma
Former colleagues also say Sharma has extraordinary negotiating skills. "He is a man of few words, humble, low-key and sincere," says Shah. He looked like a top-class professional manager at his business presentations, remembers board member Dr. Vijay Kelkar. "What impressed me was his complete command over numbers," says Kelkar.
Business isn't all Sharma cares about. He's a person of immense style and taste. His first designer purchase was a Versace tie 25 years ago. Sharma loves cooking, and friends say he enjoys grilled fish and wine. His favourite wines range from Sangiovese and other Tuscan wines to Barolo and Barbaresco.
However, he has not lost sight of the basics. Many years ago, he was marketing refrigeration material for cold-storages in Uttar Pradesh. His competition was the traditional mixture of cowdung and straw, used as insulating material between the outer and inner walls of a storage. One of his favourite pitches, he says, was that the traditional mixture was inflammable. It never worked. His potential clients would say: "So what if it catches fire, alu pak jayenge! (The potatoes will get cooked)." The lesson, says Sharma, is that there is more to business than the pitch. "It is the difference between your perspective and their perspective you need to bridge," he adds.
Clearly, Sharma is both about style and substance.