are not a society that admires success, especially business
success. Hinduism frowns on the fruit of our labour,
Islam on the giving and receiving of interest. But a
passion for work made G.D. Birla a rich and powerful
man. Consequently he evoked admiration in a somewhat
reluctant, slightly resentful way. As one of his biographers
said, "Capitalists on so grand and unrepentant a scale
tend to be regarded with suspicion in an ostensibly
socialist society." Cold cash can attract envy.
there is awe for Reliance's Dhirubhai H. Ambani and
Infosys' N.R. Narayana Murthy. So exactly what should
we remember GD for?
industriousness perhaps. Starting his business career
as a jute broker at the age of 16, GD migrated from
the deserts of Rajasthan to a rented room in Calcutta
with his brother. Sleeping, cooking, washing -- everything
was done in that one room. This was in 1910. By 1939
Birla Brothers were India's 13th largest managing-agency
firm. The Tatas, headed by J.R.D. Tata, were No. 1.
The firms in between were mostly British. Both men attained
their creative peak between 1939 and 1969. The two groups'
growth during this period thus offers an excellent point
of comparison. Between 1939-69, Tata assets jumped from
Rs 62.42 crore to Rs 505.36 crore while Birla's from
Rs 4.85 crore to Rs 456.4 crore. In percentage terms,
Tata grew at 709 per cent, Birla at 9,310 per cent.
(In the '80s, Bajaj Auto grew at 1,852 per cent, Reliance
at 1,100 per cent).
In GD's case, it's not just the money he made but how
he made it, which is so remarkable. To build a jute
mill, he had to break the stranglehold British businessmen
had on this industry. To build Hindalco, he had to hack
his way through jungles, real and bureaucratic. His
empire-building spree preceded licensing. So during
the most aggressive period of GD's growth, he had no
power to block others, no licence to print money. He
also had to contend with the active hostility of the
letter to the Prime Minister's Office, dated April 20,
1953, reveals the frustrations he faced. "We have received
proposals from Britain for manufacturing explosive substances
and from Germany for starting a steel factory in collaboration.
I am now 60 and am least interested in starting some
new business merely for more money. My only interest
is greater production in the country. I just want to
know whether I can proceed in the matter. I want no
commitment from the government but only want to know
the policy of the government in such matters," GD wailed.
There was no reply.
was as much associated with industry as with the freedom
movement and philanthropy. Mahatma Gandhi considered
GD both a friend and a counsellor. GD preferred to describe
himself as an "unofficial emissary and honest interpreter"
between Gandhi and the British. GD was a philanthropist
on a vast scale -- a school dropout, one year he opened
400 primary schools. And he taught himself to read,
think and write on religion, medicine, history and current
affairs, English and Indian literature as well as most
aspects of India's economic problems.
what kind of man was GD? In my opinion, three characteristics
made him an outstanding business leader. He was a rebel,
he had a modern mind and he could happily accept opposites
at the same time.
was a man of strange contrasts. One of his favourite
sayings was, "Money is easy to make but difficult to
spend properly." The motto, not very tactfully, decorates
many Birla factories and offices. The founder of Birla
Institute of Technology and Science, Pilani didn't believe
in formal degrees. None of his sons were graduates and
he favoured pedigree over merit certificates. In business,
GD disliked speculation though the family fortune had
been built on it. The Birlas were devoid of a political
tradition, but GD plunged into the national movement
with complete abandon. The unresolved conflict between
GD's pragmatism and morality was but one the many contradictions
in his character. GD didn't think twice before saying,
"My grandsons disagree with me but I think caste is
what holds this country together. Abolish caste and
India is in trouble." Could this be the same man who
so staunchly supported Gandhi's Harijan campaign and
was even the Harijan Sevak Sangh president?
Birla's business approach was equally eclectic. For
JRD, the consumer was more important than the shareholder.
For GD, it was profit over quality. JRD liked to call
himself a "consensus" chairman, one who headed a team
of dynamic managers equipped with the support system
they needed to perform. GD, on the other hand, had a
"monkey brigade" (this was the name he gave his sons,
grandsons, nephews and cousins in the firm) which not
only followed up on what he started but showed considerable
initiative of its own. Above them was GD's small but
lean and mean core team of battle-scarred executives
whom he backed to the hilt. In 1930, GD silently bore
a Rs 75 lakh loss caused by a manager in a hessian deal.
"This brought Birla Brothers to the brink of disaster
but GD's support to him remained unaffected," recalled
his youth, a rebellious GD overthrew many caste conventions.
He refused to do praishchit, or the traditional act
of repentance on returning from an overseas trip. He
split the Marwari clan over marriage traditions. But
his attitude towards women remained conservative to
the end. He provoked men's emancipation in Marwari society
but not the woman's. Something of a dandy, GD loved
good clothes and fine furniture but his personal needs
were austere and spartan and became more so with age.
Some say he didn't know how to enjoy the pleasure of
life. He himself felt that Hinduism provided him with
all he needed.
the twilight of his life, when asked about his achievements,
GD gave a profoundly simple answer. "A good guy, that's
all I've tried to be all these years. Forget G.D. Birla,"
he said in his last interview. But he was an unforgettable
is author of Business Maharajas and Business Legends.