Sometime in 1979, he began an ambitious plan to develop property in the small village of Gurgaon
abutting New Delhi. He wanted to transform the area into a Singapore-like satellite city of New Delhi and attract international companies
to establish operations there. He acquired 3,500 acres around Gurgaon, now renamed as Gurugram, to build DLF City, his showpiece township.
"The whole idea was, when you plan, plan not for one decade but for centuries. Big roads, big drainage, everything connected with the main highway," he said.
"That was the mission which was supposed to be. Unfortunately, we could not do that, Singh told PTI in a Zoom interview.
A 16-lane highway connected by broad internal roads, and world-class sewer and drainage systems were part of Singh's plans for the national capital's suburb, which today houses IT services providers to telecom companies, consumer conglomerates and international finance houses.
But the plan remains "half-baked" as supporting infrastructure facility is in a "mess", he said.
"My regret is only one frankly... My regret in life is I could not develop Gurgaon the way I wanted to. If you ask me really what we have done, Gurgaon development is in a way half-baked," Singh said.
He recalled his chance meeting with the late Rajiv Gandhi who was then Prime Minister in the 1980s. At the time Gurgaon was being planned as an integrated city, with world-class infrastructure. Gandhi asked Singh why India cannot be as good as the best in the world like Malaysia and South Korea. So Singh went to these two countries to learn from their methods. He came back and started the project in earnest.
But "halfway, Mr. Bansi Lal came as chief minister of Haryana, and Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated. The whole picture changed," he said, referring to the changing political climate that resulted in tepid government support for DLF's Gurgaon dream.
Also, government norms changed, Singh said, adding that hundreds of crores of rupees were being paid by builders as External Development Charge (EDC) for infrastructure development but these funds remained unutilised with the Haryana government.
"Buildings have come up without supporting infrastructure. That is my (regret). I wish we were allowed to do what we wanted to do. That could have been a perfect place," said Singh who took over as chairman of DLF on October 1, 1995. "Our plan was different."
The DLF patriarch said the company had acquired land for the development of Gurgaon, but the government had to provide land in certain pockets for infrastructure. "The road which today is only six lanes, it was supposed to be 16 lanes," he said and cited examples of Chandigarh city and Lutyens Delhi that still have wider roads.
In the 1990s General Electric became one of the first major international corporations to lease space in the sprawling DLF City. As India emerged as a top outsourcing destination, other well-known companies
became DLF tenants, including American Express, British Airways, IBM, and Nestle.
While planning for a new city, he suggested that the government should extend support to private players and give them free hand in planning.
A science graduate from Meerut College, Singh studied engineering in the United Kingdom and then served as an officer in an elite cavalry regiment in the Indian Army. He left the military to join his father-in-law, entrepreneur Chaudhary Raghvendra Singh's firm, DLF.
Under his leadership, DLF expanded beyond Gurgaon, building apartments, shopping malls, and hotels. In 2007 he oversaw DLF's much-anticipated initial public offering, which raised Rs 9,188 crore through the sale of 17.5 crore shares. Singh, with members of his immediate family, maintains a controlling interest in DLF.
Singh said he has followed two philosophies in his life: first, two wrongs don't make a right, and second, not committing mistakes knowingly. "We all make mistakes. I have not made any mistake knowingly. Inadvertently you can make a mistake but not knowingly."
He then added that the sometimes archaic and obtuse laws encourage people to make "mistakes".
"But I have stayed away from that thing. Knowingly as best as you could do you comply with all the laws of the land, however complicated they may be.
"That has been my way of working throughout. Anybody who does not follow this I don't work with them frankly. I am a little bit of a different character than anybody else in this business," Singh said.
He disapproved of the suggestion that the problems or all ills in the real estate sector were because of demonetisation, the GST and the new realty law Real Estate (Regulation and Development) Act, or RERA, which came into force in May 2017. The law protects home buyers as well as developers by imposing fair conditions on both sides and penalises unscrupulous practices.
"Actually much more abuse was being done before RERA came into being. Once RERA has come in, I don't believe there is any scope for anyone to make mistakes as earlier a lot of builders were doing," he added.
Singh said the RERA regulations are "pretty stiff" and now no one will make a mistake knowingly.
"But DLF has followed this way of working ever since the 1980s when we started building Gurgaon. We have self-imposed RERA on us. This is nothing surprising to us. We have followed exactly," he said, adding that the builders who suffered under the law were those who were breaking the law.
"It has become like culture, the DNA of the company. Think straight and comply. We are perhaps the most compliant company in the country," he added.
Singh said the company's debt had crossed Rs 20,000 crore a few years back, but it never defaulted on servicing bank loans.
At one time in 1975, Singh almost sold his share in DLF for Rs 26 lakh when builders faced severe problems due to government regulations. But he changed his mind at the last moment and steered the company to become India's largest realty firm. At present, the DLF group has one of the largest commercial real estate portfolios of over 30 million sq ft with an annual rental income of over Rs 3,000 crore.
In December 2017, Singh and his family sold 40 per cent stake in the DLF Cyber City
Developers Ltd (DCCDL) to raise around Rs 12,000 crore and later promoters infused bulk of this fund into the DLF to reduce the debt.