Basant Kumar, popularly known as BK, was a school-going 13 year old when he was told by his uncle Brij Mohan (BM) Birla that it was time for him to earn pocket money by buying and selling shares. He did not do badly managing to earn some Rs 4,000 in the first year itself which made him pay taxes. As was the culture in Marwari community then, the youngest of three sons of Ghanshyam Das (GD) Birla was exposed to managing risks at a tender age without studies being disturbed. A student of merit, BK enrolled himself in the science stream of Calcutta’s illustrious Presidency College to graduate in science. But GD Birla had other plans for his favourite son. That placed the young man who was to become one of the country’s leading industrialists with a number of path-breaking initiatives to his credit in a moral dilemma.
But not one to go against the wishes of his father or uncle, BK abandoned the dream of becoming a graduate. Instead as an intern with the family group, he learnt the ropes of business, specially the ‘partha’ system designed to monitor daily financial performances of group operations. What in his own words prepared him well for life in business was a five-week journey through some Asian countries in the company of elder brother Laxmi Niwas (LN) Birla. To a chronicler of his life, BK said the journey for him was like a “frog jumping out of a well.”
During his interactions with his father and uncle and also while doing internship, BK understood that privilege of being a Birla enjoined on him the responsibility to uphold family values built over decades. “Respect for wealth comes from building it the hard way and honestly,” he would say. Ever media shy and not given to seeking attention to his achievements, BK all through was driven by the principle that “people buying shares in my companies was an expression of their faith in me. My role is of a trustee. I must see shareholders are adequately rewarded by dividends and capital appreciation.” As long as he was in control of companies he inherited or built, this was very largely the case. In one or two instances where BK magic didn’t work, the pain he suffered was not for the money he himself lost but distress suffered by common investors.
If detailed planning, tight budget control and assigning right people right job ensured group greenfield projects of which there were many were completed in time without cost and time escalation, what set BK apart from most of his peers was his capacity to foresee industries of future for the country. Two examples prove this. First, as soon as the government started easing controls on cement, BK set about the task of creating large capacity of bonding material under the umbrella of already prospering textile groups Century and Kesoram and standalone Mangalam Cements. The same entrepreneurial vision was in display when he ventured into making tyre cord and automobile tyres.
Not many will be aware that GD shot down his son’s plan to venture into plantation business saying, “No, it’s not a good idea. A tea garden is not an industry. It’s more like land ownership.” But for Rameshwar Das (RD) Birla persuading his younger brother GD to relent, the jewel that Jay Shree Tea is would not have been there in BK portfolio. Thanks to his personal intervention, some lines of tea produced at Jay Shree gardens in Darjeeling are adored by royalties and super rich in Europe and Japan.
How many will remember that decades before it became common for Indian corporates to own manufacturing units abroad, business wanderlust led BK to build and run a textile factory in Ethiopia. Emperor Haile Sellassi decorating BK with the country’s highest honour ‘Medal of Mainelik II” was a measure of his standing there. BK was on intimate terms with many leading politicians. But rarely seen in Delhi’s North Block, BK would not use his contacts for business gains. A highly common practice in post-Independent India, he considered courting favours a demeaning practice. Frugal in his habits, he once told his wife Saraladevi, who predeceased her that “I don’t need a suit costing Rs50,000. I will instead use that money for charity.”
A firm believer that India’s progress would depend upon a well educated citizenry, BK had all the time to build educational institutions from schools, colleges to engineering and management institutes all over the country. He gave Kolkata where he was born on February 4, 1921 its best art centre Birla Academy with an enviable collection of paintings and sculptures. The auditorium Kalamandir, which hosts the city’s best cultural shows, is another prized gift from BK.
In all these pursuits, he always had Saraladevi by his side. When the family thought of getting BK married, the young man mastered courage to tell his conservative father that he would “only marry an educated girl.” Mahatma Gandhi appreciated BK’s stand. As GD gave a lot of freedom to BK in running companies, he in turn would watch from a distance his son Aditya and then grandson Kumar Mangalam go from strength to strength. But BK was always there for them whenever they needed his advice. How was BK as a human being? Scholar extraordinary P Lal liked BK for his ever “disarming smile, easy accessibility and artless piety.”
(This story has been updated to correct Birla's age.)