Prof. Nathu Puri
Honorary Doctorate of Sciences
Professor Nathu Puri is a successful industrialist and entrepreneur, renowned philanthropist and devoted supporter of education. He is one of the most powerful Asian businessmen in Britain and an alumnus of the national College of Heating, Ventilating, Refrigeration and Fan Engineering, which makes him an alumnus of London South Bank University and thus a great role model for our students.
Born in Chandigarh in the Punjab, Nat's family had fallen on hard times. Most observer agree that the seeds of Nat's later ambition and success were probably planted young, watching the collapse of his father's banking business after partition in India in 1947. As a Hindu in a predominantly Muslim area, his father lost most of his money as many of his clients either fled to Pakistan or were the victims of communal violence.
"There were no debtors left, only creditors", Nat Puri recalled.
Eventually, after years of struggle, he himself left India at the age of 27 with a degree in pure maths and little money in his pocket. And it was to the National College that he came and studied and, he now says, profited from the excellent teaching there. After leaving the College, he joined the long-established Nottingham firm F G Skerritt where he worked as an engineer. As the story goes, in 1975 his life took a major turn. He had made a proposal for some new business in the Middle East and when the company declined he walked out with a month's salary. Turning round a property deal, he set up a consultancy which flourished. Eight years later he had bought out his former employer.
And from then on, the story is well known as Melton Meedes, his holding company, now part of the bigger Purico Group of Companies, set out on the acquisition trail. With a small staff in Nottingham, which has become his adopted home, the company gradually became an empire.
With extraordinary single-mindedness, he showed no qualms about the size of any potential new business. He is said to have bid for the likes of Rover and the former British Shipbuilders' yard in Sunderland, despite having no experience of either the car or shipping industry. He didn't get these particular companies, but his capacity to surprise is famous. His interest are extraordinarily diverse and global – from car badges like Mercedes, to waste products, from textiles to cigarette papers and from engineering and construction, including steel fabrication and air-conditioning units, to printing – a subsidiary company printed Variety and Billboard in the United States. Questioned about the logic of such a wide range of activities, his answer is simple – business is business.
But he has also sought to use his wealth and influence in pursuit of those things he values, chiefly education. In 1988 he set up the Puri Foundation, a charitable trust, with an initial donation of 1 million [pounds], The foundation invests in projects close to his heart, particularly involving technology and education. He strongly supports schools and the education of young people. Most recently, together with Toyota, the Puri Foundation has created an Engineering Centre at Top Valley School in Nottingham, providing training and education to young apprentices in the county. He has also made generous donations to Nottingham University, where he has been awarded the title of Special Professor in the Business School. He has also set up a Scholarship fund at this university, in commemoration of the role the National College played in his own development.
He has also been generous to political parties; although he is a well-known benefactor of the Labour Party, he has also supported Ken Clarke for the Conservative leadership, and it has even been suggested that he is watching the Liberal context with interest. This, of course, says much for his even-handedness and his adroitness. And indeed his significance for all political parties.
His dedication to India remains enormous. In 1999 he and Gulam Noon presented the President of India with a collection they had bought at auction in Sotheby's of hitherto unpublished letters from Gandhi to Maulana Abdul Bari, an Islamic scholar, leader of the Khilafat Movement (1920-22) and founder of the Jamiat-e-Ulema. This was at a time when the President Narayanan was endeavouring to encourage inter-religious understanding and in the letters Ghandi makes a passionate plea for communal friendship, something with which Nat Puri clearly identifies from his own personal experience.
Recently is has been said that his support for Indian charity is unsurpassed. He gave a million pounds to the Gujarat Earthquake appeal in 200. And he is genuinely concerned about tribal illiteracy in India, particularly the 150 million adivasi tribal people living in remote regions in India without health care and literacy. He has embarked on a project to bring education and medical care to these people and he is currently developing a higher education institution in northern India.
But cricket, especially Indian cricket, is also a great passion. Indeed he is said to have two boxes in Trent Bridge and the Indian Express, faced with a sudden dearth of tickets for the Test Matches, suggested that it was time to be even nicer to Nat than usual.
In his book the magic of Indian cricket, Mihir Bose recalls a dinner hosted in 2004 by Nat Puri in honour of the Indian team. Nat had promised £50,000 for the first Indian to get a triple century in a Test match and as the keen followers of the game here will recall, Veeru Sehwag, the unconventional batsman, became the first – with 309 against Pakistan in Multan and of course helping India to its highest ever 675 for five against Pakistan.
Veeru Sehwag was presented his award by Geoffrey Boycott, a rather different kind of batsman, who asked him about his feat – and especially getting the 300 with a flourishing six. Sehwag's answer was nonchalant – "you bat your way, I bat mine."
That, it might be said, is an appropriate way to describe Nat Puri, the businessman, as well as Nat Puri, the philanthropists. He does it all in his own manner, often defying conventional logic but proving the success of real entrepreneurship.
Last year Nat Puri was given the inaugural Hindu Forum of Britain's Award for Excellence in Community Service. Today, Pro Chancellor, we also acknowledge his service. He is a great role model for our own students, proof that through education and endeavour one can achieve anything but also through philanthropy, return the rewards of that achievement to society.