Dalmia wanted to unburden himself and he confided in his mother. She ordered him to square off immediately, retrieve his wife’s ornament and never again earn from stolen capital. She told him to get a job, earning Rs 50 per month, on which they could live comfortably. He complied with his mother’s wishes, cabled his agents to book his profits. But as luck would have it, his cable got garbled in transmission; the market rose again dramatically, and now, his profits were fifteen times his capital and he had become a very wealthy man, which laid the foundation of a vast industrial empire. When I was young, the names Tata-Birla-Dalmia were mentioned in a single breath.
Dalmia seems to have employed intuition, not unlike George Soros, when he bet against the British pound, but most Marwaris will tell you that they have a method and an art in managing risk. Despite their rationalism, the truth is that luck plays a big part.
Trust is at the heart of it
One of the lessons from Dalmia’s story is the central place of trust in business life. When Dalmia defaulted on his debt, he broke a promise, and the market punished him swiftly. By losing the trust of his peers in the market, he turned from a somebody to a nobody, a terrible thing to happen to any human being. In the world of Marwaris and Banias, the word for trust is sakh and it is linked closely to honour. It is a crucial indicator of a merchant’s standing. Sakh is at the heart of creditworthiness and business integrity and means much more than wealth and financial strength. It is acquired through an unblemished record in honouring obligations and being generous to the needy.
The legendary cotton trader Ramvilas Poddar began as a humble broker in raw cotton but soon reached an eminent position in the bazaar by quickly building a reputation for honesty and acquiring sakh within the community. This helped Poddar set up an independent brokerage and encouraged older and established firms to entrust their money to a relative newcomer in the bazaar.
GD Birla confirms the importance of sakh. In describing his life as a jute trader, he tells us that most of his transactions in buying raw jute or selling the finished product were based on the trader’s word. The commodity fluctuated on a daily basis and there were often great swings in the price between morning and evening. Sellers and brokers presented their offers on a rough sheet of paper in the morning, but the mills made their decision in the evening. The offers were invariably honoured no matter how the market had moved during the day.
Raju Kanoria, who also started his life in the jute business and went on to become president of Ficci, the prestigious chamber of commerce, corroborates that at the East India Jute and Hessian Exchange, prices were confirmed through a handshake. He adds that a similar system based on trust operated in the case of finished stock. The jute mills held finished goods in stock for buyers, against Pucca Delivery Orders (PDOs) made months in advance and the mills never dared to default on them. When Kanoria was eighteen, he had the good fortune to meet GD Birla, whose advice to the young man was ‘to trust people if you want to succeed’.
The visible embodiment of sakh is a negotiable financial instrument called the hundi. A centuries-old Bania innovation, it was akin to a bill of exchange: It allowed a merchant in a remote village to remit or receive large sums of money on the basis of trust. A merchant from Gujarat, for example, who sold his raw cotton in distant Bombay could, instead of receiving payment in cash with all the risks during transit, take a hundi of the equivalent amount drawn by the buyer in his favour. He could present the hundi to an agent in his village and collect his money there. This made it possible to transfer funds without having to physically carry money. While the hundi began as a remittance facility, it evolved over time for credit purposes: The lender extended the loan amount at a discount on the value of the hundi and subsequently encashed it at par. In short, the hundi became a negotiable instrument.
We forget that at the heart of the market system is trust between self-interested strangers who come together to exchange in the marketplace. The reason that buyers and sellers are able to trust each other is, in part, due to the underlying belief that the average person acts honestly—that he or she wants to do the right thing—and this gives people a sense of safety when they transact. This is why a seller readily accepts a cheque from a buyer. Millions of transactions in the global economy are conducted daily, based on trust without resorting to contracts.
Community Support System
Indian capitalism has always been family-based, and the extended family and community has always provided strong support.
Not only Marwaris, but other commercial communities apprenticed their young early. They provided them with rigorous training in technical skills. When they came of age, they were encouraged to set out on their own. They gave them venture capital from the corpus of the family or the community. They expected it to be returned after the person made a success in order to become capital for the next generation. When the entrepreneur travelled, he could stay in guest houses (called basas in the case of the Marwaris), run by their community which attended to the traveller’s commercial and other needs in a strange town.
There was also a system of checks. The young person who travelled invariably left his family behind in the care of the community elders, which deterred a young man from absconding abroad with the community’s capital. The community was always extremely mindful of its reputation, for one rotten egg could spoil the reputation not only of the family, but also of the community. This ethic continues even today.
The legacy of India’s business communities is to have historically harnessed the country’s great productive capacity. On the back of economic surplus generated in the home market, they built a rich trading history along a 5,000-mile coastline. As a result, India commanded as much as a quarter of world trade during certain periods and had a positive balance of trade with the world throughout history until the Industrial Revolution.
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(This story appears in the 21 August, 2015 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)