Interview of Kumar Mangalam Birla

Source : Published in a newspaper .

In 1995, when Aditya Birla died at the age of fifty-two, many people were not sure how the empire would fare without his masterly touch. At the time, Kumar was only twenty-eight and, by common consent, too young to fill the shoes of India’s greatest businessman. Moreover, Aditya was a charismatic figure and many of his senior managers were emotionally committed to his memory. ‘I remember that for the first few months there would be times when somebody would mention my father during a meeting and we would have senior executives bursting into tears and leaving the room,’ says Kumar.Many of these executives had known Kumar as a child and he felt awkward telling them what to do, or holding them accountable for their performance.

My father, my hero

Did it require guts to chart out his own course? To reverse policies set in motion by G.D. Birla and carried through by B.K. Birla and Aditya Birla?

‘ It’s an interesting thing about my family,’ says Kumar, ‘that while my elders were very conscious of certain values, they always encouraged us to make our own business decisions.’

What kind of values?

‘ Simple things. The Birlas are very conscious about punctuality. We are not ostentatious. We have a great sense of family. I remember that during my vacations I would always go off to Calcutta to be with my grandparents. We are taught to respect older people. Good manners and regard for other people are considered very important.’

Did he have much to do with G.D. Birla?

‘I was fifteen when he passed away so I have quite clear memories of him. He would take a great interest in the little things that mattered to me. If I had an exam, then no matter where he was, he would phone and ask me how I had done. If I told him I was not going to have dinner because I was going out, he would want to know where I was going. If I said I was going to Sardar’s, he would want to know what that was, what pav bhaji was, that sort of thing.’

What about his own father?

‘I hero-worshipped him. Even though he was a very busy man and travelled a great deal, he was always there when I needed him. He came to my every school function. He always made time for me.He knew who my friends were, he knew what I was doing. And because he was so good with people, he always knew how to get the best out of me. He could be tough as knuckles but he was tactful about it.He could be threatening, cajoling, soft, depending on what he thought I would respond to.’

Was there a lot of pressure to live up to the legacy?

‘ In some ways, I was brought up in a pressure-cooker environment. Though I was very close to my father and there was a strong bonding, I was also scared of him. But I trusted him implicitly. If he said something was right for me, I always did it. I remember when I had finished my ICSE, he phoned me and said that he had thought I should do my chartered accountancy simultaneously while I was doing my B.Com. The exam was only two weeks away and all my friends thought I was crazy. And yes, it was work, work, and work. But I trusted my father’s judgement and it never even occurred to me to say no.’

Did he realize quite how obsessed his father was with him?

‘No, why do you say that?’

I tell him about the time I interviewed Aditya Birla in 1980 (or perhaps it was 1981) and he talked with great emotion about the time his son Kumar had fallen ill. The boy was ten and the prognosis was not good. He had meningitis and the doctors were not sure if he would survive.

Aditya gave up his business, stopped going to office and sat every day by his son’s bedside for nearly two months. ‘I said to myself that money, business, nothing else matters, I just want my son to get well,’ Aditya had recalled in his interview to me. He even took up painting as a means of relaxing and taking his mind off his son’s health during this period.

Kumar has very vague memories of his illness.He says that he knows how his father reacted only because he had told him about it when he was older. But at the time, he had no understanding of how serious the illness was and how worried the family was.

‘ You know what it is like with kids,’ he smiles. ‘ All I remember is that I missed school for two months.’ A pause. ‘ But I still topped my class that year.’ Charting a new path, Kumar says that he got involved in some small way in the family business when he was fifteen. ‘I remember being tutored by my father, sitting in on meetings and asking him questions afterwards. Later, I looked after the cement business of Grasim and got involved in Indo-Gulf.

‘I was always taught to be independent. My father, my grandfather and my great-grandfather always made it clear to me that when it came to business, I had to take my own decisions and then take responsibility for them. Nobody tried to force me to do anything or made my decisions for me. At the time, this was tough but later, it stood me in good stead.’

Kumar went off to London to study for an MBA when he was just twenty-two, even though most of the other people in his class were twenty-nine.When he came back, he was uniquely qualified because he had studied chartered accountancy, had a commerce degree and an MBA. Plus, he had been tutored by the master: Aditya Birla.

Did anybody have any inkling, I wonder, that he would be pushed into the driving seat so soon?

‘No, we found out that my father was ill about two years before he passed away. And though nobody said anything in so many words, I felt that once he knew, he made a conscious attempt to fast-track me in a very matter-of-fact sort of way,’ he says. ‘ But I’ll tell you something: even though we knew how unwell he was, it never ever occurred to me that there would be a time when he wouldn’t be here with us.’

Never? Even though he knew his father had cancer?

‘No, never. I met my father on the morning of the day he passed away. And I had no idea that by the end of the day he would not be there. It just never entered my mind.’

Later, when he was making all those changes in the way the group was run, did he wonder how his father would have reacted?

‘I think many of the changes were a response to the changed environment. But I was always brought up to make my own decisions. I was never required to think “what would my father do?” As much as I hero-worshipped him, we have different styles.’

Such as?

‘I think he was more hands-on.My style is much more to give people freedom to do their own thing. As long as they deliver, I don’t like to get involved. They should have the freedom to do what they think necessary. I am available if they need me and I will hold them accountable but I will not interfere needlessly.’

Wasn’t this a huge change for the group?

‘ Yes, it was. People used to say that when Aditya babu phoned somebody, that person would stand up while answering the phone. He was great at bilateral motivation and contact.My style is more group-oriented. I like motivating groups of people. I find that in business, it is more important to empower a whole group than to depend on a single individual. So in that sense, my approach is less bound by the baggage of tradition.’

Sensing that he is about to go all-modest on me again, I ask him about his destiny. Supposing his surname had not been Birla; suppose he had not inherited this Rs 8,000 crore empire; what would Kumar Birla have done then?

‘ The same thing. Though perhaps without all these advantages. I would still have been an entrepreneur.’

So that’s how he sees himself? Not as a captain of industry? Not as a great manager? But as a simple entrepreneur?

‘Oh yes. That’s what I am. I am an entrepreneur.’

And he enjoys that?

‘ Yes. That is my passion. That is my whole life.’


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