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Former Hindustan Unilever (HUL) and Business Standard chairman T Thomas died today at the Breach Candy Hospital in Mumbai. He was 90 and had been ailing for a while. Thomas is survived by his wife and two children, Sunil and Anna.
In a statement, Sanjiv Mehta, CEO and MD, HUL said, “Mr Thomas was a remarkable leader and an institution builder. I personally looked up to him. He was a great example of a purpose-driven and values-led leader. His legacy will always live on.”
Thomas's death brings to an end a chapter in India Inc's history when chairmen, especially of multinational companies, were entrepreneurs in their own right.
Thomas, who was HUL chairman from 1973 to 1980, will be best remembered for contributing to the withdrawal of the price control on soaps in the 1970s.
Thomas, an industrial engineer by training, did this by introducing a mass-market soap brand --Saral. At that time, India, among the world's largest importers of crude oil, was reeling under global oil shocks. To tackle the resultant inflation, the Indira Gandhi government had imposed price controls on manufactured products, including soaps and vanaspati, in 1973. Thomas's response with a mass-market brand ensured HUL cut its losses incurred in 1974 (the first such in the company's history), bringing it back on the growth path.
In subsequent years, Thomas steered the company through a tough phase under the Janata Party government (1977-1979), when multinational companies were leaving the country due to a cap on foreign equity participation. Firms such as Coca-Cola, IBM, Mobil and Kodak opted to leave during this period. But HUL stayed back, taking its shareholding to 34 per cent in 1978.
Thomas also spearheaded the launch of the Jammu detergents factory and Haldia STP (sodium tri-polyphosphate) plant during his tenure.
He was instrumental in recasting the company’s management trainee programme whereby trainees were given an exposure of working in rural areas for their all-round development, HUL said.
By the time Thomas retired from HUL in 1989, he had served as a director on the board of the global company in London for 10 years. After that he was a visiting scholar at Sloan School, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA from 1989 to 1990, going on to set up Indus Venture Fund, India’s first venture capital fund in 1992.
Thomas was also a non-executive chairman of a number of companies including Glaxo and Lafarge and also wrote extensively, including a column in Business Standard.
Thomas was also involved in philanthropic work, setting up Ashadaan at Byculla in Mumbai, which is run by Mother Theresa’s Missionaries of Charity, while he was HUL chairman. It is an organisation that serves differently abled, sick and destitute people. He also led the Anglo Scottish Education Society, which runs the Cathedral School in Mumbai, for almost four decades.