Known more for his lifestyle than business moves, Yash Birla talks to Bhupesh Bhandari about life and spirituality
The arching driveway of Birla House is lined with jackfruit, gulmohar and mango trees. There’s a full garage at the bend, but it is dark in there and you can’t make out the badges on the grilles and bonnets. Visitors must take off their shoes at the portico. At the entrance are big and small Tanjore paintings, a white artwork depicting Goddess Durga, and the sculpture of a Yaksha in black. In the bookshelf in the office next door, the Ramayan and Mahabharat, some in saffron covers, sit next to manuals on excise, income tax and industrial chemicals. The adjacent sitting room is rectangular and has old-fashioned wooden furniture with cane seats and backrests and tiger-print cushions. There are porcelain vases and figurines on the floor, and old European canvases on the walls. Some need restoration. The room where Yash Birla finally settles, one hour after appointed time, is bigger and overlooks a lawn. The roof is blue with gold borders. The blue leather sofa, with straight lines and steel legs, has been designed by Birla.
Birla, 44, is dressed in black Dolce & Gabbana lowers and a white T-shirt that is open till his midriff. A tattoo on his humungous right arm has Krishna’s eyes, peacock’s feather and Siva’s trident; the one on the left arm says Om. A third tattoo, on his back, just under his neck, shows a Devi. He is a man of religion, by all evidence. He is also a bodybuilder, rake, party animal, art collector, budding author (his book on physical fitness should be out soon), hero of a soon-to-be-released video on heath, the subject of an upcoming book by Shobhaa De and a businessman.
His 20 companies (Birla Cotsyn, Birla Power Solutions, Zenith Birla et al) in the automotive and engineering, textile and chemicals, wellness and lifestyle, education and information technology, and power and electrical sectors do a business of some Rs 3,000 crore in a year and make a profit (before tax) of Rs 1,000 crore. He owns invaluable real estate. Birla House, built by his great-grandfather, Rameshwar Das, in the 1930s (Mahatma Gandhi would often stay here; Birla owns a collection of his letters and pictures), is spread over two acres in Malabar Hills, the most expensive stretch in the whole of Mumbai. Up the road live the Ruias and Prithviraj Chavan, the chief minister of Maharashtra. Birla also owns houses in Delhi and Rishikesh. And he is fighting the Lodha family in the courts for the Rs 5,000-crore estate of her deceased grandaunt, Priyamvada (Madhav Prasad Birla’s wife).
When Priyamvada died, leaving her wealth to her accountant, R S Lodha, Birla contested the will on the grounds that they were an undivided Hindu family and he was a natural heir of the childless widow. The other camp first produced an angry letter written by Ashok, Birla’s father, in 1984 to Madhav Prasad complaining about his “intense bitterness towards me and our family” and then said that Gajanan (Birla’s grandfather and Madhav Prasad’s brother) had relinquished all his rights in joint stock companies of the family in favour of Madhav Prasad in 1934 in the presence of none other than Mahatma Gandhi. The undivided Birla family, the Lodhas have said, is a myth and Birla thus has no claim on his grandaunt’s estate. Birla says the fight is not yet over but refuses to elaborate because the matter is in the courts.
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Still, when compared to Kumar Mangalam (who was worth $8 billion, according to Forbes in March 2012, does annual business of almost Rs 1,50,000 crore and is roughly the same age as his beefy kinsman), Birla looks small. Of his ten companies listed on the stock market, only two (Birla Precision Technologies and Birla Transasia Carpets) currently trade above face value; all others (Birla Cotsyn, Birla Power Solutions, Zenith Birla, Birla Pacific MedSpa, Birla Shloka Edutech, Melstar Information Technologies, Birla Capital & Financial Services and Birla Machining & Toolings) are quoted at a discount. A consultant who has worked with Birla in the past says that investment analysts ignore him because of his excessive coverage in the lifestyle media. A former employee says that Birla may be good at planning but is weak in execution.
Birla says his growth has been slower because he was very young (just 23) when he took over the group, after his parents, Ashok and Sunanda, died in a plane crash in 1990, and the business was run by advisors sent across by Grandaunt Priyamvada and other well-meaning members of the extended Birla family. These were outsiders, Birla feels, with no real interest in his business. “By the time I got my own team, eight or nine years were gone,” says he. To counter the investor apathy, Birla has appointed Saatchi & Saatchi to give his group an image makeover, and position him like Richard Branson or Vijay Mallya —the exercise is aimed to transfer his persona to the group. “The valuation of our companies is not (true) recognition of their core strengths and capabilities,” Birla says. “Now is the right time to communicate because the strategy is well laid out.”
So, Birla is investing Rs 2,000 crore in a plant to make solar cells and wafers near Pune. He also plans to execute solar power projects across the country. Also in the works is a 600 Mw coal-fired plant in the Dhule district of Maharashtra at a cost of almost Rs 3,000 crore. He also wants to invest in Africa which, he thinks, will be the next destination for the world in steel, cement & energy sectors. But Birla is most passionate talking about his wellness business. He already has Ayurveda therapy and medicine going, and wants to add sports nutrition to it. This is where the DVD and book on fitness come in. The brand for the sports nutrition products is under wraps, but Saatchi & Saatchi is seeing how the publicity campaign can be built around Birla’s fetish for bodybuilding. Birla says he won’t be on the product packs, but will be associated in some way, “not as an endorser but as a promoter”.
Branson may be his idol, but the Marwari influence remains strong. Early in his teens, Birla was sent to the Century Mills office where he learnt parta accounting (an old Marwari system to track daily profit and loss) from family munims. Some bits of the old training have stayed on in these days of ERP software. Birla gets daily production report from all his factories, tracks his annual business every ten days and reviews it with senior executives every month. He claims that he sets no numerical targets but demands five-year RoI (return on investments) of at least 18 or 19 per cent from his team. There are other Marwari traits visible in the household too. Birla is a vegetarian and teetotaler. There is an elaborate temple in the courtyard. There’s a religious objet d’art (metal, stone or even ivory) in every alcove and on every windowsill. A staff of 40 works in the house. Important Marwari festivals are observed with gusto in Birla House.
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Birla’s childhood was spent listening to religious stories told by his grandmother (Gajanan Birla’s wife). This laid the foundation for his interest in religion and spirituality. Birla says he reads old religious texts like the Upanishads (in English of course; he had the option to study Sanskrit in school but opted for Marathi), does Pranayama meditation, and goes on pilgrimages high in the Himalayas every now and then (he has done the three-day holy circumambulation of Lake Mansarovar in Tibet). Rishikesh is Birla’s favourite getaway from October to July, where, apart from his holy pursuits, Birla buys cotton trousers for as little as Rs 30. And he has met almost all religious leaders in the last few years. “I am very close to Sri Sri (Ravi Shankar). He recently stayed in my house,” says he. “I have met (Swami) Ramdev also. He is good to talk about yoga, but I didn’t discuss spirituality with him.” Still, says Birla, there is no one Guru he follows. “There is something to learn from all of them. The aura they have is enough to elevate you.” Magic, miracles and astrology, he adds, ignite some curiosity in him but do not draw him.
It was different earlier. After his parents’ death, Birla had contacted mediums that promised to put him in touch with the departed souls. After several encounters in India and abroad, Birla met an old lady of 90 in Girgaum. “She said facts that she couldn’t have known. I could feel some divine force there.” But after that, says Birla, he hasn’t felt the need for mediums because he feels the presence of his parents everywhere. “I was younger then, and there was more remorse in me,” says he.
The logo of his group is the conch. Still, Birla says he is not a religious hardliner, and his three children have the freedom to choose their religious beliefs. “Why, I even meditate in a church,” says he. He wants to open a school where spiritual education, not religious, is an integral part of the curriculum. “The values we had have got skewed. (To set them right) is important for the future.” But does Birla impose a code of conduct on his companies? No, says he. “Honestly, there’s no way of monitoring that there are no kickbacks (in purchases and contracts). You can never be 100 per cent sure. Any audit cannot be foolproof. You have to be vigilant, and whenever such an instance comes up don’t tolerate it. A lot of times I have asked people to just walk out of the company.”
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For the photo shoot, Birla is supposed to meet us at his gym on the terrace in a short while, after he has changed into exercise attire. Three flights of wooden stairs, lined with paintings that look like calendar art but could be priceless heirlooms and family photographs, lead to the gym. A grass-like carpet, made by Birla Transasia Carpets, covers the terrace and the sort steps that lead to the gym. Inside, there is heavy-duty equipment. At least ten air-conditioners have chilled the gym. There are half-a-dozen training shoes waiting for Birla. A television is on one wall, plugged into a Bose music system. A CD of the Ramayan lies next to it. There are a few dietary supplements as well. Arnold Schwarzenegger's The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding sits on a bench. Birla comes after an hour because it takes him that much time to get ready.
He pulls and pushes the weights effortlessly. Photo shoot over, Birla takes the elevator to the ground floor, the doors of which look like the gates of a Rajasthani haveli. Before we can take pictures, he calls his stylist to set his hair right. There’s a personal photographer at work as well. Even after we are done, Birla asks him to keep clicking. Clearly, Birla likes the way he looks.