SANJEEV GUPTA: A man of steel
Entrepreneur Sanjeev Gupta, of Liberty Group, says Newport should follow his lead and ‘choose its own path’…
The Business: Tell us a bit about yourself…
Sanjeev Gupta: I was born in Punjab into a business family. My earliest memories are of my father’s steel mills and bicycle plants, so you could say I started in business back then. I went to boarding school in the UK and eventually to university. It was there, while living in the halls of Trinity College, Cambridge, that I started Liberty as a trading business. After a couple of terms I was obliged by the college to move the business outside the university. I took up an apartment nearby and this allowed the business to accelerate as I was able to hire staff and have them work with me at the apartment. This was the launch of Liberty.
TB: Newport seems to have played quite a big role in your business, why?
SG: Newport gave me my first real opportunity to get involved in owning and running an industrial business directly myself – my previous experience had been with the family. Prior to that Liberty had been involved in trading worldwide – dealing in everything from metals and minerals to agricultural produce and chemicals, but latterly the focus was on metals. When the Mir steelworks in Newport ran into trouble and was facing closure, I saw that as a great opportunity because I’d learned a lot about steel and felt I could save the plant. Subsequently I got the chance to buy the power station next door and eventually reopened both installations. I knew that energy and metal production go closely together and from that realisation the new Greensteel business model was born.
TB: How has Liberty Steel been received in the South East Wales business community?
SG: Liberty has been very well received in Wales. We’ve experienced a lot of support and goodwill. People appreciate the jobs that have been saved and the commitment of my family. They want to see us go on to create more jobs and develop long-term assets to benefit the community and local economy.
TB: When did you decide to become an entrepreneur?
SG: To be honest there was never a time that I didn’t want to be an entrepreneur. My father and grandfather were entrepreneurial industrialists, so I think it must be in the blood. It was just assumed that one day I’d create my own business and build it up.
TB: What has been the biggest obstacle in setting up in Newport?
SG: The obstacle wasn’t Newport itself but the steel market at the time we bought the plant and the various disputes and problems faced by the plant, principal among this was a previous ownership dispute for the mill. Prices were also poor and there was massive over-supply of steel on the market. But I was convinced we could resolve the disputes and come up with a robust model that worked despite poor markets. It took longer than I expected but we prevailed in the end. I did not want to lose the staff while the plant remained shut. I valued their experience and skills, and, moreover, I did not want to be responsible for putting so many people out of a job in a tough market and a tough region of the country, I could not have lived with that. So we agreed a deal. They would go home on gardening leave on half pay. They were free to take other jobs during that time on the understanding that they’d come back when we were ready to reopen. All of them did come back and the plant was revamped in record time once the decision was made to reopen. I believe this was testimony to their loyalty and pride. I am grateful to them.
TB: Did you set out to be known as the saviour of steel – and what do you think about it?
SG: No, I find it difficult to wear that title. I am a humble man, I never set out to be saviour of anything. I was simply pursuing a business vision and a new model that I believed would work. The fact that many jobs have been saved along the way is of course very satisfying, but my focus is more on making our enterprise succeed rather than on thinking about titles.
TB: What advice would you give someone who wanted to get into your line of business?
SG: This is a capital-intensive business with big risks involved, so it’s important that you learn everything you possible can about the industry before taking those risks. During my 25 years trading in metals I was able to learn about the steel industry in-depth while at the same time building up the capital I needed to invest in an industrial business and begin to grow. Having said this I do believe that in addition to a sound business model, passion and perseverance are important traits for success. So if you believe passionately in your vision, never give up.
TB: How can entrepreneurs like yourself help Newport create its own mark in an area where it is flanked by the likes of Cardiff and Bristol?
SG: I’d like to think that by doing business in Newport according to the Greensteel model that I encourage people locally to be different and find alternative ways of doing things. Newport is overshadowed by much bigger competitor cities just like Liberty was overshadowed by other much larger steel companies, but we are succeeding by being different. That’s what Newport needs to do; be different. There’s no point in just trying to copy your bigger competitors. Choose your own path.
TB: What sort of changes do you think will happen when the tolls on the Severn crossings are scrapped?
SG: Obviously, this is going to save on transport costs and make the city more open and attractive as a location for business. Our raw material which is steel slab arrives by ship at our wharf on the Usk, but our finished product, which is hot rolled coil, leaves by lorry to different parts of the UK, so the removal of the tolls will make a difference to us and to our customers. When we rebuild our electric arc furnaces to make slab from recycled scrap, then the impact of the toll being removed will be even more dramatic as scrap will flow into Newport from different parts of the country
TB: How many people do you employ and in what sorts of roles?
SG: Our business has grown hugely over the past two years; from a few hundred in 2015 to more than 12,000 today, with the main centres being UK and Australia. We have a huge range of skills on our team; everything from skilled workers and engineers operating steel plants, to research scientists working on hi-tech products for industries such as aerospace and automotive. We’ve also got people working in an array of support roles such as HR, marketing, legal, financial, facilities management and many more. It’s an exciting company in an industry being re invigorated full of career opportunities.
TB: What is next for Liberty Steel?
SG: We’re always looking for new investment opportunities both in the UK and other parts of the world. Newport remains important for us and we hope in due course to restart steel melting operations here and create hundreds more jobs. As well as that, we want Newport to become a centre of excellence for green energy generation in the years ahead, so we will be investing in that also.
TB: Anything else you think we should know?
SG: The UK government has just produced its new industrial strategy in which it says that “clean growth” is a priority for the environment. We agree with that completely. Our strategy has been focused on “clean growth” for some time now so we’re delighted that public policy is going in the same direction.