“It takes years to earn respect, but only a moment to lose it, do your work carefully.” Prem Bahadur Shrestha, the founder of Panchakanya Group, keeps saying this to his children and grandchildren.
Shrestha’s grandson Ujjwal Kumar Shrestha is now working as the executive director of Panchkanya Group, one of the biggest family conglomerates of Nepal, following the same path shown by his grandfather, starting 50 years ago. This means as the company is celebrating its golden jubilee, the rein and the glorious history are now in the hands of the third-generation leader.
Ujjwal Kumar Shrestha joined Panchkanya Group as a marketing manager some 15 years ago. Today, he looks after the leadership of production, sales and strategy creation in the group. Although important strategic decisions are discussed among the board of directors, he is in charge of coordinating the production and sales of steel and plastic.
He is moving the company forward under the guidance of his grandfather, father (Dhruv Kumar Shrestha) and uncle (Pradeep Kumar Shrestha), setting an example of the new-age working style in Nepal’s business sector.
New-age working style
Ujjwal Kumar Shrestha started working at a young age but says he had to put in a lot of effort to be capable of handling the large industrial-commercial group.
It was a challenge for him to return to Nepal after completing his studies in the US after Darjeeling in India. He is now taking up the challenge regarding how to take the Panchkanya Group’s businesses up and give them stability. He says that due to the team’s trust within the group, including brothers Udeep and Ashiq, he can lead the company.
“When I entered the company, the situation was different. The old way of working in the old company was a new subject for me. The working culture was different from what he learned at the university,” he says.
“That was the biggest challenge; it took some time for me to get to know people, to understand the work culture and communicate easily,” Ujjwal Kumar Shrestha says, “After learning a little bit, I gradually got mixed up with the environment and understood the distribution network of the company.”
He made it his priority to continue to win the trust of the customers and the distribution network created by his grandfather, father and uncle. He also considered another important aspect of his work: the empowerment of human resources.
“Today’s generation in business must understand that the foundation of the company will be as strong as its employees,” he says. “One person cannot do everything; you have to trust the team and make it efficient and experienced and move forward. This is the way I chose to work.”
Ujjwal Kumar Shrestha does not believe in a ‘yes man’ culture. He is constantly insisting on removing the working style where employees focus on following the hierarchy. Instead, he is interested in making the employees responsible and accountable, for which he is investing the company’s time and money.
Ujjwal Kumar Shrestha’s determination to excel in industry and business management dates back to his childhood. He spent his childhood and vacation days more in Bhairahawa, where Panchakanya’s factories were located. It was inside the factory premises where he learned to ride a motorcycle and drive a car.
He, hence, was very mesmerised by the atmosphere of heavy machinery and various types of workers. He used to dream of becoming an engineer in the future and managing the industry.
He did not pursue engineering, but as long as he stayed outside the country, the thought of returning to Nepal never left his mind. He was eager to return to Nepal after learning new ways of management abroad. Though there was some scepticism, his confidence and determination won over and he returned to achieve his dreams.
But, reaching here was not the end of Ujjwal Kumar Shrestha’s confusion, he did not know where to start his career. So he started where it was the most convenient: as a marketing manager in Panchakanya Group.
When he entered the company, he found out that handling and managing the sales distribution network was the most difficult part of networking. The company had to do whatever the distributor said, else the product would not be sold. “There would be many clashes and debates with sellers and distributors,” he says. “But, after understanding the behaviour of the market and people, we were able to change the policy and address their concerns in a systematic manner.”
The revised management, under him, now includes 250 official distributors and more than 4,000 sub-dealers. And, it is considered an exemplary model, inspiring other companies to adopt it as well.
Ujjwal Kumar Shrestha believes when the new generation enters any family conglomerate, they must prove something new to the people. Even the family will not allow them to handle a big business without them proving their competence.
The strong base
Panchakanya Group started in a grocery store in Phikkal in Ilam that later turned into a sawmill, then a rice mill, and now has become a prestigious industrial house in Nepal.
Panchkanya produces steel and products of plastics, including HTP, PVC, PPR and CPVC plumbing options. Not just that, it is in the business of stainless steel water tanks, UPVC windows and doors, ready-mix concrete, and light technology building construction as well as in the supply and trade of bitumen, heavy equipment and bikes.
It is considered rare for family conglomerates handled by third or fourth-generation leadership and handled jointly by the family to thrive. However, Panchkanya is one of such exceptional success stories, not just in Nepal but worldwide.
Contrary to common beliefs, Ujjwal Kumar Shrestha says Panchkanya Group as a joint family business has more advantages as everyone has their unique prowess that is valuable and they coexist with others. “I have a unique opportunity to understand and learn from the many stories of the family members.”
He shares that he feels the pressure to stay relevant and be one step forward because his grandfather, who is over 90 now, still stays updated about the changes happening in not only the businesses he is in but also world politics, economic diplomacy as well as technology.
Regardless, he says he is grateful for the trust his family put in him to make independent decisions and the lesson from his uncle Pradeep who told him to “move forward, not be afraid and accept change”. He feels that he has irreplaceable support from his family while he is making mistakes and learning. This, he says, keeps them motivated to grow as he still has a lot to achieve.
Interest in diversification
Ujjwal Kumar Shrestha says Panchkanya has introduced itself as a company that provides quality, new, reliable yet relevant products. Keeping this aspect in mind, he says he is also looking to diversify the group, industrially and commercially.
The group invests a lot in research and production in Nepal itself to market products that are competitive. “If we can produce here, why import? We believe in this question and make plans for new and quality products.”
Panchkanya has entered the automotive sector too and is planning to gradually enter other sectors as well. Due to the digital/social media and platforms, it is easy to establish new ideas and enterprises, so the company is thinking of capitalising on the opportunity and staying ahead of the competition.
Ujjwal Kumar Shrestha shares the company plans to extend its services to digital technology, artificial intelligence as well as the agricultural and advanced service sector, in a transparent and systematic way.
Taking into account the trust shown by customers for 50 years, Panchkanya Group is also leading in social responsibility. The company is more interested in helping schools and students, building hospitals, rebuilding temples, assisting in tree plantation and sanitation and training the unskilled.
The industrial sector in Nepal has faced continuous political instability, including 10 years of armed conflict, electricity cutoff, earthquake and blockade and the pandemic. In Ujjwal Kumar Shrestha’s 15 years of experience, the changing government and policy have not been a new topic.
However, he is more worried about the lack of coordination between the goals and programmes introduced by the government in recent years. “When the government starts thinking about limited industries or products, it becomes difficult to industrialise,” he says.
He also shares that young entrepreneurs are facing difficulty to set up an industry given they do not know political parties or leaders. He says he gets sad when “connection” gets more importance than experience, skills, heritage, quality or ability. That, he says discourages the new generation and causes great fear and anxiety in them.
He is also not happy to see that instead of addressing the problems like lack of liquidity in Nepal’s economy along with the global economic recession, Nepal Rastra Bank is tightening the monetary policy more. “The policy also does not promote industrialisation, but elimination,” he asks, “How will the new generation thrive?”
Still, Ujjwal Kumar Shrestha is not one to give up. He is determined to fight and face whatever situation comes his way and he is hopeful that the truth will thrive one day if the young generation stays patient enough. “There are a lot of opportunities here; the private sector and the government should use it together.”
This story was translated from the original Nepali version and edited for clarity and length.