K.K. Birla: a titan of Indian industry (Obituary)August 30th, 2008 - 3:16 pm ICT by IANS
New Delhi, Aug 30 (IANS) Legendary industrialist Krishna Kumar Birla was a man of many facets, with an equal passion for not just expanding his well-known, and much respected, business empire founded by his father, but also towards philanthropy and education.Birla was for long considered the force behind the Indian sugar industry, which he joined as a 22-year-old. Besides media and sugar, his empire spans some 40 firms in fertilizers, chemicals, heavy engineering, textiles and shipping.
The companies include Zuari Industries, Chambal Fertlizers, Paradeep Phosphates, Sutlej Industries, Birla Textile Mills, Oudh Sugar Mills, Texmaco, Simon India, India Steamship, ISG Novasoft, and Hindustan Times Media.
In his innings at the helm of Indian industry, he also headed several institutions like the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Ficci), the Indian Sugar Mills Association (ISMA) and the International Chambers of Commerce (ICC).
“He was an outstanding visionary, a great parliamentarian, a business leader par excellence and a builder of modern educational and scientific institutions,” said Ficci president and Rajya Sabha member Rajeev Chandrasekhar.
Born in Pilani in Rajasthan on Oct 12, 1918, he was the person responsible for building and expanding the reputed Birla Institute of Science and Technology - which has often been rated on par with the Indian Institute of Technology.
He was the eldest surviving son of industrialist Ghanshyam Das Birla.
Along with another legendary second-generation industrialist, late J.R.D. Tata, Birla had co-authored what is called the “Bombay Plan” that outlined the role of businesses and the government in building a nation.
The seeds of corporate social responsibility in India were sown in that document which also spoke about the role of industries, entrepreneurs and policy makers in modernising and developing what was then a backward India.
He also had an equal passion for charity. It is not, therefore, surprising that the landmark Lakshmi Narayan temple in the capital - visited by hundreds every day - is also referred to as Birla Mandir.
A former member of the Rajya Sabha for 18 consecutive years, KK Babu, as he was referred to by his associates and admirers, was also the chair of the Hindustan Times group, which is one of the largest circulated national dailies.
The stylish and well-groomed industrialist, whose suits and shirts came from London’s Jermyn Street and Saville Row, also wrote highly readable reminiscences on his many foreign travels with his wife for the Hindustan Times till about a month ago.
His close associates said he just could not bear the separation from his wife Manorama Devi who died in Kolkata July 29. He is survived by daughters Nandini Nupani, Saroj Potddar and Shobhana Bhartia, the vice chair of Hindustan Times.
Birla was so comfortable with change and transformation that even when the country started the ambitious economic liberalisation programme in the early 1990s and dispensed with the regime of licences and quotas, he was fully supportive - unlike many others who even formed an informal anti-liberalisation lobby group called the “Bombay Club”.
“There were many business leaders who were worried, who were apprehensive, who were nervous about the changes,” recollected Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who as India’s finance minister then was the architect of the reforms programme.
“But Birla understood the importance and the relevance of what we were doing and I valued his support then as I value it now,” Manmohan Singh recalled last December, while releasing Birla’s autobiography - “Brushes with History”.
The book, published by Penguin, has vignettes of his relations with some legendary Indians like Mahatma Gandhi, Rajendra Prasad, Madan Mohan Malaviya, Jayaprakash Narayan and Morarji Desai.
Penguin said Birla inherited a legacy in which the creation of wealth, philanthropy and political leadership were all regarded as part of nation-building.
“Spiritual strength and moral values were part of the personal credo.”