Points To A Marwari
Bachi Karkaria’s Behind The Times serves up a delightful story on the Times Of India’s Samir Jain that highlights a key trait of the Marwari—thrift. The scene: the hotel lobby at an international advertising conference. Karkaria writes: “Once Indira Deish (of Times Response), while taking her room key, instructed the receptionist to give her a wake-up call, and send a pot of bed tea with it. She felt a tap on her shoulder, turned around and saw VC (Samir Jain): ‘He put his hand into his suit pocket, pulled out something, and put it in my palm. It was a couple of tea bags. After that, I always carried a box of these, and ordered only hot water. I learnt the value of thrift’.”
That’s the Marwari for you, India’s archetypal business class of brokers, traders, financiers and businessmen. They have been called traditional, conservative, clannish and parsimonious. Yet, where it matters, in business, they are phenomenally successful and have been so for generations, writing and re-writing Indian business history. Their roots lie in Shekhawati, an arid part of Rajasthan. Outside the state, they got into money-lending, satta and supplying provisions for the army. Later, they transformed into traders, and in the 1920s and 1930s came into manufacturing at Calcutta—the capital of British India and one of the fastest growing cities anywhere in the 19th century, when many Marwaris settled there.
Psychologically, it is difficult for most Marwaris to work for others. They have a ferocious work ethic, spawning many workaholics—you get up in the morning and start working and you work till you sleep. The only pastime is charity and community service. “What makes them special, allows them to excel is high internal trust, an understanding of capital and interest, a culture of pragmatism. There’s also a social conservatism that preserves these qualities and passes them along,” says business author Aakar Patel.
Despite their successes, Marwaris continue to be conservative in their approach. They still follow the old system of close financial control over their firms and take daily stock of money matters. Marwaris have confined themselves to traditional brick-and-mortar or old-economy businesses like manufacturing and shied away from new age and internet businesses. Business historians say this is because their unique set of talents are a perfect fit for old-style commerce, while software businesses do not necessarily need the typical skills they have been honing through generations.
Typically, Marwaris lived in joint families and grew up in a business environment. “They live in an atmosphere where there is business all around. All family discussions were related to business. This brought about a commercial thought process and influenced youngsters,” says Harsh Pati Singhania, MD, JK Paper. Marwari progeny were exposed to this influence from early on. Education, as a Marwari said, is often “considered a hobby”. While scions of modern Marwari families are increasingly going overseas for studies, the community remains conservative.
Former IIM Ahmedabad professor and business historian Dwijendra Tripathi says, “Till recently, the tradition of high education did not exist in Marwari families. The thinking was education can wait, business can’t. So they preferred to push youngsters into family business.” Singhania remembers his college days when he’d go to a morning college that got over around 10:30 am and then would have to go to the family business “office”.
Sachin Taparia, in contrast, is a modern Marwari. Despite having typical Marwari roots, he not only studied engineering but also went to the US for further education and worked as a management consultant and in an aviation components business there before returning. Like a true Marwari, he is launching his own business, but in an area few Marwaris would dare to tread. Sachin’s e-commerce intermediary business will be launched in the next few months.
In modern times, few new businesses are emerging from Marwari families, while traditional Marwari businesses continue to thrive. That, business experts and historians say, is because of the change in the nature of modern business. “The answer lies in the nature of capital formation in a world dominated by the multinational corporation. One needs vast sums to compete and these are available only to a few,” says Patel. At the same time, older Marwari businesses have not faded out, as young blood ensures continuity of business tradition and conservatism—with a success that’s enshrined in Forbes’s ‘world’s richest people’ lists, which come with a fair sprinkling of Marwari names.
But what has ever stopped the formidable Marwaris venturing into uncharted territories if it means good business? We have seen the successes of Marwari-led Patni computers in IT and Polaris in software. The new Harvard/Stanford-educated generation is mixing professional training with family business wisdom and is willing to get into new areas. It’s not for nothing that Marwaris still take pride and believe in their own old adage: “Jahan na jaye gaari, wahan jaaye Marwari”.
The article on Marwaris (The Watertight Men) was a tad too kind. Granted, they are hard-working and successful. But most are employed as pawnbrokers, moneylenders, or in satta and hawala trade: all of which have contributed more toward suffering in India than help the economy. Making money out of such trades needed little business acumen, more heartless extortion.
The one quality not noted in the article, and which probably explains the Marwaris’ success in business across over a century and over large regions, is man management. It’s this skill that’s enabled them to overcome all barriers of language and culture and succeed.
Sandeep Pitty, Calcutta
Arindam has been very kind with his words. Surely the community is hard working and the real hard working guys have made it to the top. But just give a thought - majority of the community is involved in businesses of pawn brokerage, money lending, satta, hawala which have contributed more to human suffering rather than the Indian economy. Every street in India would have a pawn broker shop and majority of their customers are illiterate poor population of India and also the farmers who pledge and borrow money at 4 times the interest charged by the banks. Surely this does not require any business acumen but just insensitivity to human suffering.. Arindam also needs to work to find out what is the percentage of Marwaris who sincerly pay the complete tax as required by law.. As a child I have seen them having No. 1 and No. 2 accounting books. Many a times I have also been suggested not take bills for the goods bought since it would invite tax.
Proud Indian >> Every street in India would have a pawn broker shop and majority of their customers are illiterate poor population of India and also the farmers who pledge and borrow money at 4 times the interest charged by the banks.
Instead of blaming the Marwaris, you must blame our own Banks, that is the so called state owned banks, that were nationalised by Nehruvian Socialist policies, that refuse to give loans to the poor and marginalized sections of society.
The big problem in India are not the Marwaris - the big problem in India is that the so called Government has failed to deliver on all fronts. In financial fronts, it is 43 years since we had bank nationalization, but more than half of country's population does not use our banking system. Why? Ponder on that !!
Try to understand that our Big Socialist Government (and not banias) are the reason why people are flocking to the pawn shops to pledge assets and borrow at high interest rates.
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