How's my Luck now?

Reflections, views and descriptions during my stay at IIM Lucknow from July 2004 to March 2006

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Location: India

Monday, July 04, 2005

'Business Legends'

This is a book that I partially read in the last few days. I returned it because it was overdue and I was taking too much time to complete it, given the time pressures. Written engagingly by Gita Piramal (Viking, 1998), this book profiles four of India's greatest businessmen - G. D. Birla, Walchand Hirachand, Kasturbhai Lalbhai and J. R. D. Tata. I could only read Kasturbhai's profile and a part of Birla's profile.

Most of the action in the book revolves around the period 1900-1950, when these four businessmen really came into their own and made a lasting impact on a turbulent India. The themes of the freedom movement, Indo-British trade wars and unfair British policy towards Indian businessmen recur throughout the book.

Kasturbhai Lalbhai remained a regional entrepreneur, but he laid the base for a global business, as Arvind is today. His political influence and activism, however, was much wider than his business interests and he remained the leader of Ahmedabad industry in all political and trade deliberations with the British. He had great business acumen, but was cautious in his approach. Personally, he lived a life of great thrift and regularity. Particularly fascinating is the incident of the textile trade unions strike in 1917, when a young Kasturbhai's opponent (so to speak) was Gandhiji. Difficult times like these were weathered by Kasturbhai, and although he later warmed up to Gandhiji, he continued to have differences of opinion with him. His associations with the Sarabhai family and Vallabhbhai Patel are also very interesting. Above all, he built or helped build institutions like ATIRA, IIM Ahmedabad and ICICI, using his organizational abilities. His decision-making amid difficult times like his brother-in-law's death and other family difficulties also show him to be a very firm personality.

G. D. Birla, in contrast to Kasturbhai, had almost the whole of India in his business grasp. Along with the very capable members of the Birla clan, he saw undervalued businesses quickly and bought them at cheap prices to achieve rapid diversification. But he also set up greenfield ventures at a pace that made British interests envy and fear the man and resort to political machinations against him. A rebel all his life, he had a few quirks to his personality. His close association to Gandhiji and the political wheeling-dealing that accompanied his election to the Central Legislative Assembly in the 1920's is also fascinating to read.

Overall, the book scores on depth of research and presenting a holistic picture of each personality. The close association of politics with business is also a theme of the times. The photographs in the middle of the book are really great, and they give us a very clear cut idea of each personality. I particularly liked the photo of four Birla generations together in a photo (G. D., B. K., Aditya and Kumaramangalam). Also, the family trees of each of the personalities right at the beginning of each profile clarified things a lot. Overall, a wonderful book to read, if you like business history.

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