When he became the richest man of the country in 2015 and was asked how he felt, he replied, “uncomfortable, very uncomfortable.”

...That day in March 2015 his net worth crossed that of Mukesh Ambani and he was pronounced India’s richest man.  

Kirti [Ganorkar] took over from Mira Desai in 1996, who had until then multi-tasked as Shanghvi’s executive assistant in all departments. The next 6-7 years got intensely busy for Kirti where the high point was a special rendezvous with Shanghvi. About twice a month, they nearly locked themselves up for the whole day, at times stretching to two days, in a room at the old, small Ville Parle office, away from the main office so as not to be disturbed and distracted, engaging in an exercise that would build him and Sun.

Those special days, early in the morning, Kirti would pile up medical journals, books and pharmacopoeias (official publications containing a list of medicinal drugs with their effects and directions for use. These also mention the proportions which, for a drug, means chemical compositions.) one atop another in the trunk of his blue Maruti 800 and drive to the old Vile Parle office.

There, the two of them, Shanghvi and Kirti sitting across the table like pre-exam students, pored over every page, discussed the merits and demerits of every product they came across in the therapy verticals Sun was present in or was planning to enter, topping the experience with Kanchipuram idlis ordered from Ram Krishna Restaurant for lunch.

“Dilip-bhai called it the cafeteria approach. His philosophy was that if I go to a cardiologist, whatever he prescribed must be part of my offering. We wanted our menu card to be complete for each category of therapy specialists we were working with – psychiatrists, neurologists, cardiologists and later diabetologists and gastroenterologists,” Kirti said.

That meant not leaving out even minor drugs with inconsequential market sizes – Rs 5 lakh to 10 lakh for the company – like Tetrabenazine, indicated for Parkinson’s disease in India in the late 1990s. Its sales, Kirti recalled, wasn’t worth more than a few lakh of rupees, but Shanghvi, on several occasions, worked on the premise that if he offered the specialist the smaller molecules others are reluctant to launch for commercial reasons, his customer would register that and remember the company. And that goodwill was bound to show up in other prescriptions of his.

“When a doctor treats a thousand patients what problems are at the top of his mind are the few patients whom he couldn’t treat because of unavailability of medicines. It was a decision we took despite fully knowing that those drugs were more likely to be unprofitable. We decided that we will not look at profitability while identifying individual products. When the doctor realises what you are doing in the interest of patients that others are reluctant to do, they make up,” Shanghvi said.

He often did this – exhorted his people to do the right-seeming thing and then spell out why it made for a great strategy. Vivek Hattangadi had pointed out a similar instance while launching the drug Mesacof, where Shanghvi insisted that MRs must be up front in bringing up the side effect of the drug, which he thought, apart from being the right thing to do, would also form an impression of the company being honest in the doctor’s mind. This worked – boardrooms of peer pharma companies were confounded by one striking fact: Sun managing to figure twenty times in the same prescription of the individual specialists.

Building up that all-inclusive exhaustive therapy lists meant Kirti’s job profile included trips to doctors’ clinics and endless discussions with them on what drugs they were prescribing. Then correlate it with data from C-Marc, the prescription audit and market research agency that collected prescriptions and gleaned useful data for the industry.

“For us the names of the drugs doctors were prescribing were more important than how much they sold. Scanning thousands of prescriptions yielded a list running into tens of drugs in a therapy. Of that, I would segregate what we had in the market – say, five of them, what we had under development, say, five more and what was missing, say, ten.” This he discussed with Shanghvi who continued to engage with top medical specialists over breakfast and lunches.

The other technique of the Vile Parle brainstorming session was for them to study the obscenely obese Merck Manual running over 3000 pages (world’s oldest bestselling English medical textbook for a physician’s desk reference). Shanghvi and Kirti would pick one practice for a day, for instance gastro, and then go through the obscure-sounding diseases, for instance, Wilson’s disease, which basically meant excessive copper deposition in the liver and the brain. Neither had spotted the disease name in the reams of prescriptions they were perusing. Some of those diseases didn’t even strike the gastroenterologists when Kirti discussed molecules with them.

It would then figure as an interesting subject of research for Shanghvi, and the two made a list of the symptoms associated with this disease. This list came handy to Kirti as he went about asking the doctors whether they had seen patients betraying this group of symptoms.

The doctors in many cases were surprised that there was a drug available for such a disease. Sometimes, they thought hard and nodded – oh yes, patients with matching symptoms visited once in 5-6 months or that they had been asking such a patient to import a drug with the help of Royal Chemists. Yet at other times Kirti went quizzing about one disease but returned with requests from doctors to launch another drug for a different untreated disease.

“The idea was not simply to take our products to the physicians but work backwards to see the unmet need of patients and identify drugs to fill these gaps,” he said.

When the Vile Parle brainstorming wasn’t sufficient, Shanghvi continued his sessions on train with Kirti, particularly on Baroda Express and later, after 2004, on the 5.30 a.m. flight to Baroda, the sessions spilling over to breakfast – nice, subtly sweet vegetarian Gujarati breakfast – at Shanghvi’s home before catching the R&D meeting, which usually began at 9 a.m. The exercise went on for a decade undocumented on mail or paper.

The Reluctant Billionaire

Excerpted with permission from The Reluctant Billionaire: How Dilip Shanghvi Became the Richest Self-Made Indian, Soma Das, Portfolio Penguin.