Liberty House founder Sanjeev Gupta: How to be a 21st century industrialist

Francesca Washtell
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Sanjeev Gupta founded Liberty House when he was still studying at Cambridge University

Behind Sanjeev Gupta’s desk, a framed copy of Margaret Thatcher’s 1980 Conservative Party Conference “The lady’s not for turning” speech hangs on the wall.

The speech was a key moment of her tenure, in which Thatcher laid out a refusal to u-turn on liberalising the economy. It is also an interesting choice of picture for one of the UK’s most active, 21st century industrialists.

“It’s a point in time where history changed,” Gupta says. “It’s ironic because I think it was a point that solved a fundamental problem and turned the country towards a positive vision, but it also started the country’s industrial decline.”

Reversing this decline has become a driving impetus for Gupta, who sees the opportunity now for Britain to have a fresh industrial “renaissance” – and wants to make sure he is part of it.

Read more: Liberty House still interested in Tata's UK business despite Brexit

“It’s always at the darkest moment that the greatest opportunities arise,” Gupta says. “I think we are at a turning point and I genuinely believe Britain’s industrial future will be better going forward.”

Gupta is the executive chairman of metals and engineering group Liberty House, which he founded as a trading company when he was still at Cambridge in 1992. Its projected turnover next year is more than £4.5bn. He is also the executive chair of the strategic board of the GFG Alliance, an umbrella entity for Liberty House and his father’s commodity and power company Simec.

He may not (yet) be a household name, but Gupta’s profile was raised considerably this year when Liberty became one of the frontrunning bidders for Tata Steel’s remaining UK assets, including the Port Talbot steelworks.

The months-long sales process came to a swift halt in July when the Indian conglomerate cancelled the sale to explore a “collaboration” with German steel major ThyssenKrupp. This ending was “very frustrating” for Liberty House, as well as the other bidders, Gupta told City A.M.

“If you don’t end up winning it’s fine because it’s part of the game, but if it’s called off you feel frustrated because you spent all the time and energy and cost [on it].”

Despite the hitch, Liberty House has snapped up other former Tata Steel operations and last month entered into exclusive negotiations to buy its specialty steel arm. Liberty also reopened a Thames Steel plant in Kent in October and GFG Alliance is buying Rio Tinto’s hydro-electric power plants and an aluminium smelter (the last in the UK).

Read more: Liberty House rolls steel production back into Kent

The only way to make steelmaking profitable in the UK now, according to Gupta, is to move to electric arc furnace making using recycled scrap steel, rather than from scratch in order to protect against volatile commodity prices. This is perhaps in contrast to Tata, which last week hashed out an agreement with unions to keep its two blast furnaces operational for another five years.

Metals, and steel in particular, might be what Gupta has become best known for, but he is investing in all parts of a much larger “ecosystem” that will need bolstering if the UK’s industrial potential is to be met.

Liberty House operates a rolling steel mill in Newport, Wales (Source: Getty)

The government has yet to lay out exactly what its official industrial strategy will be, around five months after it was announced that the department for Business, Innovation and Skills would be come the department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Gupta’s approach to industrial strategy in the UK has a four-pronged approach of expanding the metals and engineering businesses, power, through Simec, and, finally, a personal investment in banking and financial services.

Last month Gupta bought Tungsten’s banking arm to create Wyelands Bank, which will be a private lender aimed at small to medium-sized industry-focused businesses.

“It is an ecosystem, so if you say you're not going to make steel but you’re going to make cars that’s not realistic. In the end you have to have the whole ecosystem and you need to have proximity of the supply chain [by keeping open operations in Britain].”

Read more: European steel bosses call for EU to boost ailing industry's trade defences

Government support, both from Westminster and the Welsh and Scottish governments, has been a key tailwind for Gupta’s investments so far.

Withdrawal of that support, he says, would be a major headwind, and one that would make him think twice about major investment schemes in the UK. With Prime Minister Theresa May’s emphasis on industrial strategy, this looks unlikely to be an issue he will face anytime soon.

Brexit will also provide a boost to industry, according to Gupta. “I think it will make Britain want to have a more self-sufficient industry because if you thought you were headed towards a United States of Europe, for example, you could say I don’t need to produce steel because it will be produced in Germany or wherever. But once you decide to be self-sufficient then you have to have the whole gambit.”

A leave voter who didn't actually expect the country to vote to leave, it was the “opportunity for British industry to thrive” that swung his vote to exit the European Union.

At the moment, outside investors can’t get a slice of GFG Alliance’s pie, but that is likely to change in the next couple of years.

Read more: Is Liberty about to save 1,700 Tata Steel jobs?

The group is analysing an IPO, which would most likely float parts of Simec’s renewable power business, or spin out some of the new banking and financial services project. Although this only consists of Wyelands Bank at present, Gupta is eyeing up expansions that could see it grow substantially in the next couple of years.

There is a “general ambition”, Gupta says, to get something in the public markets, though this could be in the form of a bond or something else, rather than an IPO.

However, a flotation is not on the cards for Liberty at the moment “in the current environment”. The markets wouldn’t be ready for Liberty yet, Gupta says.

If the group keeps expanding though, the markets might be ready soon enough.

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