Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

From the Bookshelves: Family business historian Sonu Bhasin on entrepreneurs who built India

She talks about her latest book on Lala Shri Ram, one of India's earliest and most successful industrialists, why patriarchs of family businesses must trust the younger generation, and what young startup founders can learn from legacy businesspersons

Divya J Shekhar
Published: Jun 8, 2023 10:22:33 AM IST
Updated: Jun 22, 2023 02:02:57 PM IST

From the Bookshelves: Family business historian Sonu Bhasin on entrepreneurs who built IndiaSonu Bhasin, Family Business Historian, Business Author, Independent Director on Boards, Editor-in-chief Families & Business Mag
Do young startup entrepreneurs of today have leadership lessons to learn from yesteryear businesspersons and industrialists? How did Indians do business pre-Independence and in Independent India, when the establishment was often suspicious of entrepreneurs? What does it take to build a legacy and ensure generations of people benefit from your work? These are some of the questions that Sonu Bhasin attempts to answer through a series of books called Entrepreneurs Who Built India.  

The first book on Gujarmal Modi, founding patriarch of the Modi Group, was released last year. The second book in the series that released recently is on Lala Shri Ram, the man who joined Delhi Cloth and General Mills (DCM) at the age of 25 in 1909, and went on to create not only a textile giant, but a conglomerate that ventured into sewing machines (remember the Usha sewing machines?), sugar, hydrogenated oil, chemicals etc, and became a market leader in a short span of time. The industrialist, who founded the Lady Shri Ram College in Delhi, was known to build a business while prioritising labour welfare, education and business innovation, Bhasin says in her book.  
Bhasin, who is a family business historian, talks about what it takes to write business biographies without making them hagiographies. Drawing upon her extensive experience of holding senior leadership positions in a number of companies like Tata Administrative Services, Axis Bank, Yes Bank and Tata Capital Limited, she also reflects on how women can have stable, successful careers and remain part of the workforce. Edited excerpts.  
Q. In the book, you’ve written about how it was not easy for people to do business in pre-Independent India and also in the early years following Independence. How did people like Lala Shri Ram and Gujarmal Modi build their empires during that time? And what can young entrepreneurs of today learn from them?
Two things stand out for me for Lala Shri Ram. One is that unlike a lot of industrialists at that time, he did not spend any of his money in building temples. If you look at industrialists at that time, you have a lot of temples that were built by those industrialists. Shri Ram said that he will put his money in building temples of education. The Shri Ram College of Commerce (SRCC) was started by him—it bears his name. The Lady Shri Ram College, which is named after his wife who passed away, was formed because he wanted a superior educational institute for women. So, the thought process was that education is important for anyone to go ahead in life. He wanted to study. Further, I mean. He had joined college, but had to leave because of family circumstances, and it always rankled him, even though he did make it a point to tell people that, ‘I’m doing well for a matric pass’. But there was this longing in him, and he regretted not studying more. And, therefore, he ensured that his children went to the best schools and colleges. He also wanted other children to have the benefit of education, and, therefore, set up the two educational institutions.  
The other thing that stands out is that he realised, very early on, that workers were an integral part of the business, when, sadly, many industrialists did not treat their workers as well as they should have. But Shri Ram was clear that workers and their welfare were fundamental to the success of his business, and he made sure that workers got their due. For example, when the DCM factory was being built, simultaneously, there was a workers’ colony being built, which had everything—a school, an akhada (equivalent to a gymnasium), a dispensary where free medicine was available, a fair price shop, basically everything that was needed to make the life of a worker comfortable so that they could then concentrate on work. Giving sewing machines to women was all part of that welfare, ensuring that people lived their lives well, had an opportunity to earn money, and contribute more. But Lala Shri Ram was also a disciplinarian and wasn’t all that warm, fuzzy. So yes, there’s a lot we can learn from these people as we go about our work today.  

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Q. When you write a biography of industrialists, when you look deep into their lives, their history, their thoughts and decisions, how difficult is it to not make the narrative a hagiography?
I start with the premise that nobody is either completely good or completely bad. My objective is not to either present somebody as an idol of virtue or focus only on the negatives of a person and demonise the person. My objective as a narrator, as a storyteller, is to actually present to the reader a balanced profile of the person about whom I'm writing.

And I do, through incidents, or anecdotes, bring out the not-so-good parts of the character. But through the narrative, I impose a discipline on myself not to give my opinion, because my opinion comes out in the introduction, which is where I talk about the person. Maybe what I like, what I don't like. But when it comes to the actual story, I'm just the narrator. And through the narration, through the anecdotes and incidents that I pick up to include in the story, there are various aspects of their personality that come out.

Q. In an economy where women drop off the career ladder at various stages, the sheer longevity that you’ve had is quite inspirational. What are some of the lessons you have learnt that will help women to hang in there and continue on with their careers?

Yes, a lot of women either are forced to or choose to opt out [of the workforce] primarily around the time that they have children. When you look at the corporate world, you see very few women at the top. It’s increasing, but it’s still very few [the numbers]. When you look at the government, you have women secretaries at the state and central government, which is like the CEO of an organisation. When you look at the government in general, you see that women do a lot better there. And when you delve a little more, you find that in the government, a seniority of a woman going on maternity leave is protected. In the corporate world, you take one year off, you go back two years in terms of seniority… and if you have two children, you have actually lost out four years of seniority. 

Now, any professional, capable woman would not want to lose out on four years of seniority just because she had kids. I was very fortunate to be part of the Tata Administrative Services (TAS), where my seniority was not only protected, I actually went on maternity leave as a manager in one Tata company, and when I rejoined work, I was a deputy general manager in a mid-sized Tata company, and the only reason I did not get the designation of a general manager was because I was replacing a 55-year-old man and I was only 32. If it hadn’t been for that, maybe I would have also stepped out, because we’re all peers. When you do your MBA, you know everyone in your batch. And then when you find out that some of your batchmates have gone ahead four years in terms of seniority, it rankles. So, if the corporate world can do one thing, it is to protect the seniority of women when they go on maternity leave. You will be surprised at the number of women who choose to come back and then stay on.

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Q. That’s a very interesting perspective, and it takes me to your other career focus, which is family businesses. It is widely said that the first generation builds, the second consolidates and the third destroys the business. Are you seeing anything different happen in India with the younger generation of family business entrepreneurs?
A few years ago, we brought out a white paper on millennial inheritors of family businesses in India, for which we spoke to almost 150 young millennial inheritors. I must confess that I had also felt that the younger generation is not serious, has different values and is not capable of taking forward the family business, but my hypothesis was completely negated. The younger generation is well-educated, enthusiastic, cares for family values and has immense pride in their family business. There are two reasons why they do not succeed. First is that the patriarchs refuse to let go. It is something all parents do. We think our children are not good enough. If the patriarchs really want the next gen to take their business forward, they need to let their kids take charge of the business, make mistakes and learn from their mistakes. Second, the patriarchs also have to give the right messaging from early childhood. We found that if there is an emotional connect with the business that started with early childhood, where the children were encouraged to go to the factory, the office and spend time with the workers, they have a huge connect with the business. By and large, the younger generation does want to take the business forward… it’s for the elders to let them be.