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The amazing story of Lala Charat Ram

By Siddharth Shriram in New Delhi
June 09, 2007 13:44 IST
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Throughout his life, Lala Charat Ram aimed at getting people to perform above their potential, so when he passed on, his personal and corporate score card was a happy one.

Retired workers, past and present executives, senior business leaders and partners, heads of industry associations, among others braved the gruelling heat to attend the funeral. Executives attributed their success to the  training, mentoring and virtual fathership that Lala Charat Ram provided through placing excruciating work loads and pressure on them in his quest for perfection, detailing, quality and ethics.

Blessed with high intellect, he expected everyone to be his equal. He grew angry when they came up short but such outbursts were short-lived, aimed at stupidity and were born out of entrepreneurial impatience. This terrorised some people who often trembled in his presence. Those that survived performed well above their perceived potential and many of them are stars in the Indian industrial sky. Curiously, in Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, he was found to be cool and even-tempered.

As President of Ficci, Lala Charat Ram conflicted aggressively with the status quoists. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was persuaded to again commence addressing the Annual Day of Ficci, the then premier business chamber. He wanted to recreate the spirit of the 1940s' Bombay Plan and, even though J R D Tata politely declined to join the Ficci committee, he succeeded in changing the focus of the institution.

His prodigious work with Japan and Japanese companies (Mitsubishi, Mitsui, Honda, Hitachi, Riken, Janome, Daikin and so on), including his 30-year friendship with a charming lady companion, earned him the Star of Gold and Silver from the Japanese Emperor, a first for an Indian. This is the Japanese equivalent of a Knighthood in Britain but few in India are familiar with it. Like many other eminent Indians, he was decorated overseas but not in India.

Never having been to a B-school, he was exceptionally interested in business education and played a pivotal role in the evolution of the All India Management Association and the IIMs and led Arun Joshi, a young MIT graduate, to craft the legendary DCM-MIT scheme.

He derived strength from his father, fought with him, was difficult in every way a son can be but also looked to him as God/Guru.  His magnum opus, as guru dakshina to his father, was the record-breaking establishment of the fertiliser facilities at Kota in the then generally inaccessible heartland of Rajasthan. Thus he earned the sobriquet of 'Profit Maximiser Par Excellence'.  This extraordinary focus, clarity and energy was also brought to bear to professionalise the several industry associations he was to lead.

Inevitably, the brunt of this drive was faced by his direct family.  He could not leave his "business manner" in the office, could not understand why business approaches would not work within the family and sought to solve such problems with a clinical business approach. This is why we are the way we are! He solidly supported his daughter-in-law against an errant son, and ably aided the success of Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra.

Much is made of the Bharat Ram-Charat Ram bickering. People only tend to remember the bad times, but some remember that they often celebrated each other's  efforts. Later, by a concoction of time, growth, progeny, spouses, society and various other pulls and pressures, a fissure developed between them which foreshadowed the family split. Bharat Ramji graciously says that Charat was the worker and builder and that he was the public face of DCM.

His firmness in dealing with corruption and unethical behaviour was legendary. When a foreign sales agent brought him a case of vodka he chucked the agent out of his office (to the regret of us vodka aficionados!).

In the early eighties, possibly owing to the pressure of external relationships, chinks developed in his ethical shield. Family problems compounded this and he committed certain actions without sound consideration, the shadows of which still fall on some of the public-limited companies. 

He was sometimes at intellectual and practical odds with the rest of the clan; even so, the share purchase from the Paul family was executed, the family firm of MMLSR  divided as per plan and the Lala Charat Ram-predicted doom for the family did not come to pass.

Lala Charat Ram's actions were characterised by boldness. From his extraordinary courtship and subsequent marriage to Sumitra against many societal norms and rigidities, to innovative business strategies, to attacking eroding governance standards and excessive family demands, he was happiest when he was tilting at challenges. Even while playing bridge, he was known for bold bidding which delighted the opponents! Such vigour also characterised his unemotional analysis of political and economic events which were subsequently deemed prophetic. His open-handed generosity, his sense of humour and his hearty laugh were all characteristic of giving it all he had! There are apocryphal stories as to the trouble all this boldness got him into and he often regaled these at his own expense.

In the early nineties, after heart-bypass surgery and still hallucinating under the effect of drugs, he worried why his father (who had passed away in 1963) had not come to see him. Possibly he had intimations of his mortality because he asked whether, after he had gone, people would say that he was a good fellow. He was to repeat this two days before he finally passed on.

His passing away is witness to zero debt and healthy balances in his corporate and personal affairs and yes, also in the hearts and minds of so many people.  Yes, Charat Ram, there were indeed blemishes but also much brilliance; undoubtedly you were a good fellow and will surely be missed.

The writer is late Lala Charat Ram's son.

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Siddharth Shriram in New Delhi
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