In the Fast Lane
Four years of at least 12-hour working days. Convincing Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone. A $400 million investment on a world-class circuit. It took all this and more for Sameer Gaur to bring the ultra glam F1 to India.
What it took for the Jaypee scion to bring the ultra glam Formula One to India.
It’s 2.30 p.m. on Thursday, November 2, when Sameer Gaur, managing director and CEO of Jaypee Sports International ( JPSI) and the man behind India’s first Formula One Grand Prix race welcomes us into his office at the Buddh International Circuit in Greater Noida, outside Delhi. Sameer, 40, looks nothing like the corporate bigwig that he is. Dressed casually in navy blue jeans and a black shirt and sporting a two-day-old stubble, he greets us by bowing gently with his hand on his heart. He seems to prefer this to the conventional shaking of hands.
Another CEO might have taken a vacation after the 16 to 18-hour working days in the run-up to the race weekend of October 29-30, but Sameer is hard at work. He has just rescheduled a meeting to talk to us. Though messages congratulating him on the success of the race continue to pour in, he has his feet firmly on the ground.
He insists on attributing the success to the Jaypee Group rather than take credit himself. “For this event, the entire organisation pooled together,” he says. He goes on to elaborate on the roles played by his two elder brothers, Manoj and Sunny Gaur, and his cousins, all of whom have important roles across the Jaypee Group. “Imagine, my elder brother Sunny Gaurji (he always suffixes the names of all elders in the family with a ji), managing director, Jaypee Cement, was looking after lifts and electrical work. Sunil Gaurji, executive vicechairman of the Group, was in charge of buildings and roads. Pankaj Gaur, joint managing director, hydropower, was looking after waste management, and Manoj Gaurji, my eldest brother and Group chairman, was supervising their activities.” He adds with a smile,
“That is why all of ups should be giving this interview. In Jaypee, it’s never about an individual. This isn’t Sameer’s success. It is the success of our unity.”
The Jaypee Group’s Rs 18,000 crore turnover and interests in real estate, civil engineering, power and hotels, says Sameer, makes it the perfect partner for Formula One in India. “There are a few things you need to be in the business of Formula One. The most important is a proper organisation which Jaypee is. Then you need to have land which Jaypee has; you need finances and civil engineering expertise which we have and lastly, you need hospitality expertise, which we possess,” he says.
Asked about his role, Sameer simply says he does what he is told to by the Group’s patriarch and his father, Jai Prakash Gaur. When JPSI was set up in 2007, the senior Gaur sent him to meet Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone who was on the lookout for other Asian venues after the success of Singapore and Malaysia. Sameer sold him the dream. India lapped it up.
Sameer insists that he knew nothing about Formula One before 2007. What made him believe that Grand Prix racing would be a commercial success? Says Sameer, “All of us are lovers of cricket. But there is no one big event or one big sport which can challenge cricket. After much research we found that motorsport, if backed by a private developer, had potential. We were encouraged by the success of F1 in Singapore and Malaysia.” Judging by the turnout on race day, Sameer hit bull’s-eye.
The success of Formula One, Sameer tells us, is the third turning point in his life. The first was in the early 1990s when he went to do an MBA at the University of Wales in Cardiff after graduating with honours in economics from Bhagat Singh College in Delhi. “That experience taught me how to do things on my own.” Among other things, Sameer learnt how to cook in Cardiff. Till date, he cooks daal, chawal and subzi for his vegetarian family whenever he wants to de-stress. The second milestone came in 1997 when he was sent to work on a hydel project in Jammu and Kashmir. “That’s when I learnt to deal with people,” he says
Sameer has big plans for the track. He has invested $400 million (Rs 1,800 crore) in building it and expects to break even in five years. Formula One yields limited revenue. “We only have rights over ticket sales. The rest goes to FIA (Fédération Internationale de l'automobile, the sport’s governing body),” he says. JPSI netted Rs 100 crore from ticket sales. The real money-spinner, according to Sameer, will be events like Motogp and V8 Supercars, where he will have more revenue rights. Many companies are already in touch with him. “We will sit with them after November 15 and plan our calendar for 2012.” Now that Greater Noida has acquired a high profile, his real estate plans in the area get a boost. “Many for- eigners were impressed. Greater Noida has better infrastructure than Delhi and Gurgaon.” Sameer himself has shifted out of Vasant Vihar to Greater Noida.
Asked about the common perception that the Jaypee Group is close to Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati, he simply says, “The Jaypee Group is very close to governments wherever we work. We work in 11 states in the country and we need to have positive relationships with all governments.”
What’s next? Pointing out of his window to a space next to the track, Sameer says, “Two months from now we start building a cricket stadium for one lakh. I want to host a World Cup final.” Given his record, that day isn’t too far.