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Larsen: The doyen of Indian engg industry

July 29, 2003 10:20 IST

The first signatory of the L&T Foundation Trust, which will buy out the Birla stake in Larsen & Toubro was Henning Holck Larsen who passed away on Sunday afternoon. Fittingly.

The biggest legacy of the Danish engineer who came to India in the 1930s and stayed on is not fact that he built a world class engineering giant but creating India's first truly professionally managed company.

The creation of the trust is a clear signal that the professional culture will continue in the engineering business although the cement business will pass over to the A V Birla group.

Strangely enough, it was the business of cement that brought the young Henin Holck Larsen into India.

He arrived on Indian shores in 1935 as a representative of Danish engineering firm F L Smidth & Co in connection with the merger of cement companies that formed the Associated Cement Companies.

Thus began his love affair with India. During 1937 and 1938 he visited Madagascar, La Reunion and Mauritius and returned to India in April 1938. He married Karen Speyer from Denmark.

In India, Holck Larsen renewed his acquaintance with another Danish engineer, Soren Kristian Toubro. The two formed a partnership firm, Larsen & Toubro, to import machinery to India from Scandinavia. They employed a clerk and messenger and adopted the motto -- In service, lies success.

After World War II, L&T became a private limited company in 1946. Success brought the need for further expansion and capital, thus L&T went public in 1948 and was listed on the Bombay Stock Exchange.

Most of the capital came from employees and well wishers. Indians also dominated the board. With independence on the horizon, the company aimed to produce machinery necessary for a developing nation.

In the succeeding years, L&T built on this commitment and based its policies around India's five-year plans.

Larsen and Toubro alternated as chairman till the latter retired in 1963 at 57 to return to Denmark to fulfill his family commitments. Larsen, however, continued for a much longer time.

The partnership firm has today metamorphosed into one of India's biggest success stories. The company has metamorphosed into a large conglomerate spanning engineering and cement.

Illness prevented him from participating in the recent board meetings and the attendant drama that saw the board approve the demerger of the cement business and its passage into the hands of the A V Birla group.

"Larsen was convinced about the necessity to demerge the cement business as he felt it was a financial drain on the company. However, his illness prevented him from attending any of the key board meetings," an L&T board member said.

Following his retirement from L&T, Larsen was made the chairman emeritus. He divided his time between Denmark and India, and maintained a keen interest in the working of L&T.

A grateful nation and the international community showered several honours on him. These included the - the Ramon Magsaysay Award for International Understanding (1976), a knighthood from Queen Margarethe II of Denmark (1977) and the Sir Jehangir Ghandy Medal for Industrial Peace (1980).

His most cherished award was the Padma Bhushan he received from the then president K R Narayanan in 2002 for his contribution to the Indian industry.

"India, my adopted homeland, has a special place in my heart. With the Padma Bhushan, I am happy to realise that I have a place in her heart too," he said in his acceptance speech.

His love for India and L&T's commitment to the country is best epitomised in the tagline, 'We make the things that make India proud'. Even at the time of his departure, he showed his love for his adopted country -- his mortal remains were consigned to flames in Mumbai on Monday.

Preferred cremation

Henning Holck-Larsen chose to be cremated and not buried. This was the final tribute paid by the man to India and her people.

"He should be treated as a role model by Indian entrepreneurs," said Union Defence Minister George Fernandes, paying his tributes at the funeral of Henning Holck-Larsen, co-founder of Larsen & Tubro.

Although the legend wished for a low profile funeral, it was attended by Rakesh Mohan, deputy governor RBI; P P Vora, Chairman IDBI; S B Mathur chairman - LIC; Rajashree Birla, a director L&T, ex directors and employees and almost all the L & T employees based at Mumbai.

Larsen had also instructed that no flowers be laid on his body and instead the money should be donated to the cancer organisation.
BS Corporate Bureau in Mumbai