At a ceremony to mark the reopening of one of Scotland’s last major steelworks, guests including the country’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon were kept waiting by the very man spearheading the mill’s revival.
But Sanjeev Gupta’s poor timekeeping — he even admits to being late for his own wedding — has been no impediment to his rise from little-known commodities trader to industrial tycoon running GFG Alliance, a motley collection of family investments ranging from metals and manufacturing to power and property.
The run of dealmaking that the 47-year-old embarked on to build GFG has seen him hailed as a saviour of heavy industry for rescuing failing or unwanted factories, smelters and mines the world over. But the breathless pace of acquisitions has also led to concerns about how his empire is funded.
The issue came to the fore again this week after a Financial Times investigation found extensive connections between a small UK bank, which is a member of GFG, and other companies closely linked to the $20bn group that employs 30,000 people. It also raised questions over how that lender, Wyelands Bank, was using retail savers’ deposits.
Speaking at a gallop, Mr Gupta bats away the scepticism. “If you look at how many [businesses] we’ve got right against how many we’ve taken on, it’s always a greater number. We’ve done business after business, plant after plant — the record speaks for itself,” he adds. “In the history of the family we have never given up on a business.”
The magnate was quick to show an entrepreneurial flair. Born in India, Mr Gupta moved to the UK in his early teens to attend boarding school in Canterbury and then spent two years in Turkey hawking bicycles made by his father’s factory.
He set up his first trading business while at Cambridge university, selling chemicals to Nigeria — an infraction that led to his expulsion from student halls.
If a workaholic nature has helped his career — he flies regularly between Europe and Australia, where GFG owns a large steelworks — Mr Gupta enjoys the trappings of wealth. He likes to entertain guests on his boat in Sydney Harbour and is fond of travelling by private jet, says one former employee.
“Sanjeev is absolutely lovely as a person — he loves being surrounded by friends, who he sees as his extended family. He is very generous,” they add. “There’s also a bit of insecurity there”.
Behind his ambitions to be regarded as an industrialist is a desire to follow in the footsteps of his father, Parduman Kumar, or PK, whose business interests are intertwined with his own in GFG.
In his adopted homeland of Britain, Mr Gupta’s purchase of an aluminium smelter and two hydroelectric power stations in 2016 included more than 100,000 acres in the Scottish Highlands — making him Britain’s fifth-largest landowner overnight. His thirst for the limelight is undeniable: GFG takeovers are often accompanied by fanfare and grand investment promises.
His offices in London’s Mayfair district are adorned with photos of himself and politicians. It is hobnobbing that appears to have paid off, as GFG has received government grants or support on a number of occasions.
GFG says that environmental sustainability is at the core of its strategy. It eventually envisages metal plants powered by renewable energy and processing recycled scrap. It is a business that seems largely driven by sheer force of his personality.
“Sanjeev is a very genuine and very loyal person,” says Haydn Swidenbank, the former manager of a steel rolling mill in south Wales, the first industrial asset Mr Gupta bought in 2013. “People tend to go with him because even though [his] ideas you think are a little wild, they do seem to work”.
In person, Mr Gupta brims with self-confidence and has just a touch of awkwardness, but the question over whether GFG has bitten off more than it can chew will not go away.
A lack of financial clarity has not helped. Unlike a traditional corporation, GFG Alliance is not a single entity itself, but a collection of independent businesses, which Mr Gupta compares with a private equity model, and so does not publish consolidated accounts.
Scrutiny of GFG’s finances sharpened after it was dragged into a crisis at the Swiss investment firm GAM last year alongside Lex Greensill, an Australian financier with whom Mr Gupta has a close relationship.
Bonds issued on behalf of companies in the GFG Alliance were at the heart of a crisis over the past year at Swiss fund manager GAM that saw a star fund manager fired. In a litmus test of Mr Gupta’s financial resources, GFG and GAM agreed a deadline in which GFG would buy back £600m worth of the bonds this month.
For once, he was on time.
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