February 29, 2020
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Tribute To Tycoons

The lives and times of eight of India's greatest businessmen

Tribute To Tycoons
Business Maharajas
By Gita Piramal
Viking Penguin Rs:500: Pages: 474
EIGHT businessmen who 'hacked a personal path to their throne'. And what about men like Kishan L. Chugh of ITC or Sushim M. Datta of Unilever? Surely their lives and achievements are as extraordinary as those of Ratan Tata or Aditya Birla? Don't these outstanding chieftains rule huge corporate empires?" Gita Piramal must be heaving a sigh of relief that "the third guiding principle of this volume is a focus not on the ranks of professional managers but on picking the best talent from family businesses". Imagine trying to release a book with a chapter on Chugh at this point of time!

In sheer selection of Indian tycoons, Business Maharajas cannot be faulted. Dhirubhai Ambani, Rahul Bajaj, Aditya Birla, R.P. Goenka, Brij Mohan Khaitan, Bharat and Vijay Shah and Ratan Tata—all eight of them—are stuff legends are made of. Bestowing on them the status of Asia's most powerful industrial tycoons whose combined turnover exceeds Rs 55,000 crore, Piramal has chronicled the lives and business strategies of these giants of enterprise in no uncertain terms.

For those who have followed the career growth of these men and their companies, the chapters are a pleasant deja vu. For others with just cursory knowledge of the subjects, the book is a delightful read. However, the blurb on the jacket about the 'inside track on some of India's most powerful tycoons and the business strategies they follow to keep their companies at the top' is slightly misleading. For what that 'inside track' is tends to get diffused in a plethora of interesting incidents and details culled from past newspaper reports.

Borrowing heavily from her own journalistic background and from other publications, Piramal has woven winding chapters akin to the long feature stories carried by business magazines. Her industry connection—she is married to Dilip Piramal, chairman of VIP Industries—has not only given her greater access to her subjects, she has also been able to add spice to her storytelling by revealing personality quirks not readily available to the public.

However, her proximity to the cocktail circuit has made it difficult for her to be completely objective, a fact she readily admits in her introduction: "I don't see how any biography can be objective. Objectivity can, in fact, be counter-productive. For one, it's impossible to be totally detached, impartial and completely well-informed.... Business Maharajas tries to capture snapshots of critical or illustrative episodes in the action-packed careers of eight extremely busy people. It doesn't claim to be definitive or a PhD thesis."

Perhaps that's why the controversial aspects of a personality are smoothed over. Not that they have not been detailed, but mostly from already-published newspaper and magazine reports. Like we still do not know what Ambani's quid pro quo was for getting all the licences over others. Or how the front investment companies flouted practically every backroom treasury operation rule in the book.

However, there are other extremely interesting details that all but make up for some of the unanswered questions. Like how Nusli Wadia came to the wedding reception of one of the Ambani daughters. Or how Dhirubhai Ambani and Ramnath Goenka met several times to try and call a truce and how each tried to outdo the other. Or how Bharat Shah's son-in-law's twin along with a few other diamond merchants was kidnapped by a conman and released only after a rumoured ransom of US$ 1 million was paid offshore.

Or some of the quotable quotes of Rahul Bajaj: "I do not want in my own country to share power, authority-making and ownership with a foreigner. I have nothing against foreigners. That is not the point. But General Motors does not have foreign equity. Nor does Sony or IBM. The weak do." Posit this against Ratan Tata's theory: "We're too concerned about our individual sovereignty whereas we should be looking at alliances and aggregation of companies as it so often is abroad. Where partnerships are based on human chemistry and there is a business case, then the two partners really begin to work as one."

Like Piramal says: "As the profiles reveal, no two routes (the paths followed by the tycoons) resemble each other. Yet, tangled in the disparities are a few skeins which are common to each." And one is that of the right break at the right time. "As far as these men are concerned, each at some point had a mentor who helped kick him upstairs. And at the first turning point in each of their careers, a piece of luck has come their way."

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