The Millennium Special

The Past

The Future

Gita Piramal

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The author of Business Maharajas on India's top ten businessmen

I feel that Indian business began in the 1850s when the Industrial Revolution reached India, brought by the British. Before that there were merely cottage industries. Therefore, my selection of the top ten Indian businessmen covers a period between 1850 and1999.

Criteria for selection:

* Not rags to riches, not because of their personal triumphs but for the impact their work and effort have on thousands of ordinary lives.

* For producing products and services which are globally competitive.

* Modern mind.

* Traders thinks of today's profit, an industrialist looks at tomorrow's balance sheet but a legend thinks of the next generation.

* Who go out of their way to encourage other entrepreneurs to start new businesses.

* Pioneering spirit: don't take the easy road to prosperity but hack roads through jungles, build factories in villages, transform barren tracts of land into profitable assets, change mind-sets, pioneer industry or services.

* Commitment to education.

* Patriotic entrepreneurship/economic nationalism. During the Raj they fought for the rights of Indian entrepreneurs to exist and vociferously criticised economic racism. Today they register Indian patents in USA etc.

The top ten are:

1. Dhirubhai Ambani: Dhirubhai Ambani


Founded Reliance, the company and the institution


Introduced the equity cult to thousands of ordinary Indians. Fanning out to tap rural stock exchanges, he taught people who would never have thought of investing in shares how to buy them, to track the price movements of scrips, to deal with stock brokers, and to develop the habit of reading financial dailies and stock market newsletters.

In the 1980s, an overwhelming majority of Reliance shareholders held less than 100 shares, and one in four Indian investors owned shares in Reliance. Dhirubhai single-handedly energised the Indian capital market. It can be justifiably argued that Ambani paved the way for the financial revolution currently sweeping through India.

Dhirubhai's modern way of thinking brought into play his second achievement: the idea that Indian manufacturing could and should be world class. He was the first industrialist in India to build facilities which could be compared to the best internationally -- both in terms of volume of production and quality of output. "My commitment is to produce at the cheapest price and the best quality," he insisted time and time again. "Think big, think fast, think ahead," he would exhort colleagues.

He convinced the government to shed the hang-ups of the 1960s -- converted to thinking that big is beautiful, concept of minimum economic size. Before Dhirubhai, the size of most Indian plants were pigmy. The size of Reliance's facility represented a major departure from the 'normal' Indian business practice of the time. Instead of creating a 'safe' capacity based on reasonable projection of demand, Ambani applied for 'world scale' capacity that could meet the cost and quality standards on a global basis.

Because he morphed himself from garage attendant to industrialist, he became a role model for every teenager wanting to become big in business.

2. G D Birla: G D Birla


Smashed Scottish jute monopoly by building Birla Jute.

Built the Birla group into India's second largest business dynasty after the Tatas. When he started his business career, the Birlas were worth Rs 20 lakhs in 1914. By the time GD died in 1983, the aggregate assets of the group's 200 odd companies had crossed Rs 2,500 crores, sales were over Rs 3,000 crores. Amazing growth -- faster than Reliance.

Between 1939-69 Tatas assets moved up from Rs 62.42 crores to Rs 505.36 crores. Birla assets climbed from Rs 4.85 crores to Rs 456.4 crores during the same period. In percentage terms, this translates into a 709.61 per cent rate of growth for Tata. Birla grew at 9310.31 per cent during this period. (Interestingly, in the 1980s, Bajaj Auto grew at 1,852 per cent, Reliance at 11 per cent).

The first Indian businessman famous enough to be lampooned. Cartoons published in leading newspapers of the 1930s.


Pioneered several key industries such as aluminium, viscose fibre in India.

Ambassador for Indian business -- fought for the rights of Indian business against the Commercial Raj through his membership of the Central Legislative Assembly and his close relationship with M K Gandhi. Shipping, match industry, fiscal and forex rules, steel industry.

Brought Indian businessmen together in forums such as FICCI.

Built hundreds of schools and temples all over India. Bringing education to ordinary people. Lured the world-famous MIT to India to help him establish BITS Pilani in the deserts of Rajasthan. He also funded hundreds of primary schools all over the country -- in one year Birla opened 400 schools alone.

In my opinion, three characteristics made him one of India's most outstanding business leaders of all time. He was a rebel, had a modern mind and could happily accept opposites at the same time. To be a rebel requires an enormous commitment to untested values. To have a modern mind requires tremendous moral courage. And the ability to marry opposites requires humanity and tolerance for the weaknesses of others.

Encouraged others to enter jute and other businesses. 'Any fool can establish business when there is a boom. But it is during a period of depression that one's ability to establish and run a business is really tested... I therefore appeal to businessmen not to be disheartened but to learn to take risks.'

As an editorial in the Financial Express said: 'Unlike other industrialists, Mr Birla was for ever looking for unchartered areas to conquer and it is undoubtedly this sense of adventure which was responsible for the expansion of the Birla empire.' The editor then went on to describe how GD was the first major industrialist to invest in communist Kerala in the mid-70s 'He was not afraid of competition from the most advanced countries and was forever exhorting his fellow industrialists to stop whining and show their mettle by going ahead in spite of obstacles.'

3. Subhash Chandra: Subhash Chandra


Zee TV.

UK's The Sunday Times list of richest men in UK.

Purchases The East India Company.

Trying to acquire Iridium, build a niche in internet services, has his own satellite.


Pioneered new businesses: amusement park (Esselworld), laminated tubes (Essel Tubes,) satellite television (Zee TV).

Challenged government vision of what people want from electronic entertainment. "Television provides one of the cheapest and easiest sources of entertainment but programmes telecast on television have been mainly restricted to news, regional issues, public awareness programs, serials, documentaries. These have left the entertainment demands of the viewers largely unfulfilled." Cable television filled this need to some extent but the quality of their broadcasting and programme content "left viewers longing for well devised and diverse packaged telecast program". Forced Doordarshan to switch to more popular programming.

World size facilities and world class quality products at competitive prices.

Fully committed to current concepts such as shareholder value, and value-based management (including out-sourcing, employee stock options etc.)

4. Cawasji Nanabhoy Davar:


Built India's first cotton textile mill -- the Bombay Spinning Mill in 1854.

Capex of Rs 5 lakhs.

Second mill -- Bombay Throstle Mill.

Helped found Commercial Bank (renamed Mercantile Bank), Orient Bank, Broker's Loan Discount & Banking Company.


Not only pioneered the cotton textile industry in India but the first major industrial venture by any Indian.

Led the way for other entrepreneurs to enter industry.

Birth of the factory system, factory labour in western India.

First major limited liability company quoted on Bombay Stock Exchange.

5. Verghese Kurien: Verghese Kurien


Amul India and the Anand experiment.

Chairman of the National Dairy Development Board.

Operation Flood -- an ambitious nationwide dairy development project which helped an estimated 10 million families.

Helped India become the largest producer of milk from a point where children were under-nourished because of lack of milk.


The White Revolution. Milk was scarce in urban areas while in rural areas milk producers could not make a decent living. Distribution was a key problem, there were also various vested interests, lack of information and infrastructure. Anand's Kaira Milk Co-operative showed how problems could be tackled.

The White Revolution found a way to provide cheap milk for under-nourished children in the Mumbai area and Gujarat, and later all over India. The techniques and technologies used were then copied by others.

Professional management, teaching farmers to use quality equipment, innovative processes meant the professionalisation of farming.

Kurien's philosophy was simple -- put power in the hands of the people.

Empowering the masses and initiating constructive social change in rural areas -- from building 'milk roads' to participating in elections.

6. L N Mittal: L N Mittal


The first large Indian multinational -- that too in steel. Presence in nine countries.

In less than a decade, Lakshmi Mittal built Ispat International from a wire rod manufacturer in Indonesia to the fourth largest steel producer in the world, largely through a series of strategic acquisitions.


International steel doctor -- turnaround expert: Caribbean, Mexico, Indonesia, now Kazakhstan and USA.

Unique mix of cultures in the management team: takes best from each country. Germany, Mexico etc.

Makes ordinary people who were underperforming, out-perform. Rarely sacks workers of sick companies. Only through management changes, turns around companies. Does this through open discussions. Asks everyone to tell top management what problems are and what should be the solutions. Then instills discipline that what has been decided, must be done perfectly.

7. N R Narayana Murthy: N R Narayana Murthy


Founder of Infosys.

Awesome market cap.

The first Indian company to be listed on Nasdaq.


Today India is recognised internally as having IT potential because of companies like Infosys.

Infosys-trained Indian IT professionals can get jobs anywhere in the world -- Infosys 'passport'.

Mix of traditional South Indian middle-class Brahmin culture and American can-do, democratic attitude.

Proved that ethical business firms can exist and grow in India.

Wanted to create 100 rupee millionaires. Did so.

8. Satyen (Sam) Gangaram Pitroda: Satyen (Sam) Gangaram Pitroda


Promoted several companies in the USA which he subsequently sold very profitably (including Wescome Switching, Micro Technologies).

Helped found C-Dot (Centre for Development of Telematics). Appointed chairman of Telecom Commission by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Appointed chairman of governing council of C-DAC (Centre for Development of Advanced Computing) by Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao.

Holds over 50 world patents.

Chairman of WorldTel.


PCO -- access to telephone lines for ordinary people.

Highlighted the need for many small, low cost rural exchanges.

'It's not my problem. It's yours. Find a solution.'

9. Prakash Tandon:


The first Indian to head an MNC -- Hindustan Lever.

Built HLL's incredible distribution channel.

The first chairman of the State Trading Corporation.

Chairman of the Punjab National Bank and Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad.

Author of three books: Punjabi Century, Beyond Punjab, Return to Punjab.


Pioneer of professional management. Set the ground rules for professionalism both in the private and public sector.

Started Indianisation of HLL. Showed that Indian managers are as capable as British managers. This then forced other MNCs to start hiring Indians.

10. Jamsetji Nusservanji Tata: Jamsetji Nusservanji Tata


Laid the ground work for India's first steel company (Tata Steel), first major Indian power company (Tata Hydro-Electric Power), and India's first technical education institute (Tata Institute of Science at Bangalore).

Founder of India's biggest business house. The group has over 200 companies. Market cap of the 45 major companies as on 31.3.99 was Rs 22,345 crores.

Built the Empress Mills, the Svadeshi Mill, the Taj Mahal Hotel, Institute of Science.


Funded the Indian National Congress which would later become the political vehicle for India's freedom movement.

According to him three basic ingredients to economic progress were: steel, electric power and technical education combined with research.

Tata ethos-ideals and traditions 'We do not claim to be more unselfish, more generous or more philanthropic than other people. But we think we started on sound and straightforward business principles, considering the interests of the shareholders as our own, and the health and welfare of the employees the sure foundation of our prosperity' -- J N Tata, 1895, at the opening of Empress Mills. Radical statement for the time, and even today.

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