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Up close and personal

Rrishi Raote  |  New Delhi 

They always make business news, but chatty Australian Peter Church got these entrepreneurs to talk about their lives rather than their money.

He got about an hour each, he says, with most of the 30 big-name Indian entrepreneurs (only two women!) he has profiled in this book. One hour is no time at all — but it was all, in most cases, that these busy overachievers could spare to talk with this wandering biographer. It was enough time for Peter Church to draw his subjects out and collect the surfeit of anecdotes, personal and professional, upon which each of the “life stories” here is founded.

Church is clearly a wily interviewer. In person he is as chatty as one imagines an Australian should be, and also inoffensively, even flatteringly inquisitive. He trained as a lawyer but travels around South-east Asia and India advising big companies on international business in the region — whence his first book on the same topic, Added Value: The Life Stories of Leading South East Asian Business People (Asean Focus Group, 1999). Church says Indians are better raconteurs, and there is plenty of storytelling here: little tales of business glory, upbeat and miserable stories of joint family life, the pluses and minuses of licence raj, and so on.

Although Church has put together an impressive set of people — while deliberately, he says, staying away from some of the most familiar names (Tata, Birla, Mahindra, Ambani) — his book is modest in style as well as purpose. Church narrates what his subjects tell him, more or less, so the result is as advertised, more soft “life story” than hard business biography.

Nor are there any major lessons to be drawn, other than that it is important to recognise your own skills, do what you love, and always be practical-minded. Students may be reassured, and general readers will enjoy listening in. On the downside, the quality of the book’s subjects isn’t matched by the quality of its production: it is poorly proofed and many of the portrait photographs are murky.

Captain C P Krishnan Nair
Chairman, The Leela Palaces, Hotels & Resorts

Captain Nair then told me a story which changed his life and of many people [sic] in India who now work and stay at Leela hotels. ‘In 1958, William Jacobson, a leading US textile importer, visited Bombay to see Mr Swaminathan, the Commissioner of textiles, as he was in pursuit of exotic fabric from India. The Commissioner directed him to me and I showed him my collection which included a fabric he liked and wanted. It was a Madras plaid (checked pattern) fabric with a musty, pungent smell of vegetable dyes and gingelly oils and was available in brilliant colours. I agreed to supply this fabric to him but warned him that the colour would run and that the fabric must thus be washed with extreme care with cold water. I was selling it to him at USD 1 per yard and he was making it into jackets selling at USD 50 at Brooks Brothers. The jackets were a big hit but he failed to pass on the washing instructions. Customers were furious when the colours ran and ruined their other garments. William Jacobson was livid and summoned me to the US to meet with him and his lawyers. I managed to dissuade the lawyers from suing me. Instead, we designed a mutually agreeable solution. Do you know what this solution was? Well, the lawyer arranged an interview for me with the editor of Seventeen magazine in which I pitched a story about this miracle fabric made exclusively for the US and only available at Brooks Brothers store [sic] in New York. The editor ran a seven-page spread on the fabric under the sobriquet “Bleeding Madras — the miracle handwoven fabric from India”. The article carried beautiful pictures of the fabric with the caption “guaranteed to bleed”. It was a huge hit. Within a week of the magazine hitting the stands Brooks Brothers had received thousands of inquiries for the item. I became an overnight celebrity in the US textile sector. William and I both made our fortune from the sale. “Bleeding Madras” opened a door for future fabric import and created thumping exports for India.


Captain G R Gopinath
Founder, Air Deccan, and CMD, Deccan 360

One day in the late ’90s an old army colleague, Colonel Samuel, who had been a helicopter pilot came to see him [Captain Gopinath]. For about a year the two of them regularly played squash and tennis together. Each time they met, his colleague told him he was looking for a job. He told Gopinath he had a job as an administrative clerk in a courier company. He was clearly depressed about this but needed the money for his family. Gopinath was shocked. ‘He was an outstanding pilot, an army colonel and a leader of men. And now he had become an administrative officer. Suddenly it hit me like a ton of bricks that in the whole country there was not a single private helicopter company. The Ambanis and some other corporate magnates owned their own helicopters for their own use or for political patronage, but there was [sic] no helicopters available for charter. There was not one private helicopter in the whole of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala or Andhra Pradesh. There were a few helicopters in each of Delhi and Maharashtra, but the rest of the country had none. No wonder there were no jobs for helicopter pilots in the private sector. Reform was just coming to India and so I said to Colonel Samuel and a few friends, “Let’s set up a helicopter company”. I knew there were many uses to which helicopters could be put such as oil support, tourism, medical evacuation, aerial photography, aerial mapping, geophysical surveys for mining and that, given the state of India’s roads at that time, there would be great demand. I knew that each of these sectors would get privatized, if not today, then tomorrow. I felt in my bones that either we were already late or that we were a good year ahead of time. I said to myself that if I can get a helicopter by scrounging every rupee, live in a tent like I used to do, and hang on for dear life, this venture could not fail. And so Deccan Aviation was born...

The life stories of indian business leaders
Author: Peter Church
Publisher: Roli
Pages: x + 294
Price: Rs 595

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First Published: Sat, April 17 2010. 00:10 IST