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Why not recognise professional managers?

August 22, 2003

Economic liberalisation for India happened in 1991, and the present government continues to believe in a market economy.

In the new global scene, economic power is now recognised as being at least as important as military power; indeed, military power is a result of economic and technological power. That is why, even in the unipolar world of today, the United States recognises and respects China.

Yet we in India still consider those who create wealth, and who help India become strong economically, as lesser beings than those in more 'brahmanical' activities.

To some degree this is a hang-over from our socialist past, and the distrust that our national leaders had of both private industry and markets.

But this has begun to change. The information technology industry has created enormous wealth for the country and its shareholders in India in a dramatic manner, in a very short period of time.

A hundred shares of Infosys a few years back were worth just Rs 9,500; today they are worth Rs 35 lakh (Rs 3.5 million). Reliance Industries truly took investment in the share market to the public, with over 12 lakh (1.2 million) shareholders.

However, only reluctant recognition has been given to the wealth creators. JRD Tata was belatedly given the Bharat Ratna, an honour denied to that other doyen, GD Birla, though both were institutions personified.

Recently, after Dhirubhai Ambani's death, the President and senior political leaders formally recognised his contribution to wealth creation in our country. And in recent years the government has begun to recognise entrepreneurs like RP Goenka, Hari Shankar Singhania and others.

This reluctance is difficult to understand. For the Indian public probably admires entrepreneurs like NR Narayana Murthy, Ratan Tata, Azim Premji and Anji Reddy.

Many others, like Parvinder Singh of Ranbaxy, went unrecognised by the government in their lifetime, though their contribution to wealth creation and industrial and technological progress are widely recognised.

But there is another issue as well. While the government has begun, however belatedly and reluctantly, to recognise the role that entrepreneur-businessmen play in nation-building, the process has not even begun when it comes to professional manager-businessmen, even when some of them have played a pivotal role in creating some of the leading institutions of our corporate and financial world.

Achievers in other fields, like politics, the civil service, sports and music get more ready recognition from the government. So it is high time our nation begins to recognise those who create and manage wealth, generate employment and build India's economic muscle.

The names that come readily to mind in this context are Ajit Haksar of ITC, P L Tandon, Vasant Rajadhayaksha and T Thomas of Hindustan Lever, V Krishnamurthy of Bhel and Russi Mody of Tata Steel.

In the current decade, we have N Vaghul of ICICI, Deepak Parekh of HDFC, Jagdish Khattar of Maruti, Subodh Bhargava of Eicher, Subir Raha of ONGC and many others who have contributed immensely in developing and building a great group of professional managers, who in turn have created wealth for the country.

Let me describe the case of one of the earliest professional managers in India, Prakash Tandon. After qualifying as a chartered accountant in the UK, he returned to India in 1939 but could not find a job.

Unilever did not consider him for a job in France, but gave him an opportunity in market research. Tandon rose to the board of directors at Hindustan Lever in 1956 and became the first Indian chairman of a large multinational corporation in 1961.

He persuaded Unilever to take on Indian equity in 1956, and coached and trained some of India's finest professional managers. When he left the company to head State Trading Corporation in 1968, he had trained a fine cadre of professional managers like Vasant Rajadhyaksha, who succeeded him as chairman of Hindustan Lever.

T Thomas, who succeeded Mr Rajadhyaksha, persuaded the government to remove price controls on a host of products during the beginning of liberalisation.

This allowed companies to generate surpluses for investment. He indeed accelerated investment and growth. He was among the first Indians to join the board of a large global corporation, Unilever.

These professional managers converted the company into a virtual management university, and 'graduates' of this university have led hundreds of companies in India and other countries.

Mr Tandon was actively involved in the setting up of the Indian Institute of Management at Ahmedabad, along with Vikram Sarabhai and had the distinction of being a visiting faculty at Harvard.

Now 93, he is still an inspiring leader who has fought for values and even resigned from STC when these values were challenged. He went on to head Punjab National Bank and the National Council for Applied Economic Research, apart from serving on several boards.

Mr Tandon is the founder guru of professional management, yet he has never received formal national recognition from the government.

Professional managers are not seeking national awards; they derive their satisfaction from creating an economically strong India. But when the country recognises these leaders and achievers in the field of professional management, it recognises a much larger cadre of people who coach and motivate others into achieving excellence. So it would be a fitting tribute if national recognition is given to these outstanding leaders.

India is poised to become a great economic power. It is the professional managers who will make India's future possible, by working for visionary entrepreneurs or by contributing in professionally-led companies.

This is therefore the time when the government and the country should show their pride in this group of committed, intelligent professionals.

The writer is former chairman of Pepsico India Holdings Pvt Ltd

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