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India at 75: From Ambanis to Bajaj - 20 doyens who shaped India's business

Each one of them has played a key role in the building of India, taking ideas and giving them wings. Here's a look at 20 leaders of India Inc who are inseparable from the idea of India

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Indian business | Mukesh Ambani | Reliance Industries

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Rahul Bajaj 1938–2022. Illustration: Ajay Mohanty
Rahul Bajaj. Illustration: Ajay Mohanty

1. Gautam Adani: Up, up and further up

It all started from a small commodity trading house in the late 1980s. And then came liberalisation, which set the stage for Gautam Adani’s phenomenal rise. Not only did his business grow into a multi-commodity star-rated export house but it also led to his foray into what would become India’s largest private port at Mundra in Gujarat’s Kutch district.

Gautam Adani

Gautam Adani (Photo: Bloomberg)

By the 2000s, when the industry-friendly and infrastructure development-focused regime of then Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi presented fresh opportunities across sectors, the Jain industrialist grabbed them with both hands. Adani, 60, has since consolidated his businesses across mining, ports and power, and has now also ventured into newer areas such as telecom, challenging market leaders like Reliance and Airtel. The latest Bloomberg Billionaires Index lists him as the world’s fourth-richest person with a net worth of $112.5 billion, ahead of Microsoft Co-founder Bill Gates.

Also read: India at 75: Personalities, brands, markets - A look back into the future

2. Anil Agarwal: Best of times, worst of times

“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” These opening lines from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities could well describe the life of Anil Agarwal, chairman, Resources, whose entrepreneurial journey has been shaped by bitter-sweet memories. A school dropout from Patna (Bihar), Agarwal, now 68, rose from being a scrap metal dealer to one of India’s wealthiest tycoons in two decades. is now a globally diversified natural resources conglomerate, with interests in zinc, lead, silver, copper, iron ore, aluminium, power generation, and oil and gas.

Anil Agarwal

Anil Agarwal


Agarwal has documented his struggles with everything: challenges in school while learning English in Patna to finding his feet in business in Mumbai to fighting depression. The billionaire is also a philanthropist, having set up Foundation, and has pledged to donate 75 per cent of his wealth to charity.

3. The Ambanis: Bigger & bigger

When Dhirubhai Ambani returned from Aden in Yemen in the late 1950s to set up a textile mill in India, not many had expected him to re-write the rules of the game. The Indian businesses, then dominated by the Parsi and Marwari families, did not see Ambani as a threat. It was only when Ambani listed his company in 1977 — Reliance Industries, now India’s largest company in revenues — that the local businesses took notice of the man. Thereon, Ambani and his sons — Mukesh and Anil —were unstoppable, buying companies and killing competition.

Dhirubhai Ambani, Mukhesh Ambani, Anil Ambani

Dhirubhai Ambani, Mukhesh Ambani, Anil Ambani

After Ambani died without a will in 2002, his sons fought a bitter legal battle over the control of the flagship company. In 2005, the siblings signed a peace agreement with wireless telephony, electricity generation, financial services and infrastructure businesses going to the younger brother, Anil.

Also read: India at 75: Munjals to Mahindras - 20 visionary industrialists of India

Since then while Mukesh Ambani-led has flourished, the businesses held by Anil Ambani went to bankruptcy court for debt resolution. The next big chapter in is currently being written with Mukesh, 65, launching his succession plan at the centre of which is Gen Next of the Ambanis: Akash, Isha and Anant.

4. Rahul Bajaj: Bold rider

If Jamnalal Bajaj, Bajaj Group founder and Mahatma Gandhi’s foster son, donned multiple hats — of industrialist, freedom fighter, social reformer, philanthropist — his grandson will be remembered as an industrialist who carried forward this Gandhian legacy. From putting up a relentless fight against Licence Raj and giving millions of Indians an opportunity to own a two-wheeler to standing up to power, led from the front. “Hamara Bajaj” came to be associated as much with the scooter as with the man steering it.

Hamara Bajaj

Rahul Bajaj

A champion of economic reform and all for modernisation, under him the company also launched the Bajaj Sunny, with a 60 cc engine, which became a popular ride for many of India’s young women. Also came motorcycles, keeping pace with the changing preference of a younger consumer.

Over the four decades that he helmed Bajaj Auto, he transformed it into a global manufacturing giant, before passing on the baton to son Rajiv Bajaj in 2005. Today, the business empire —comprising Bajaj Auto, Bajaj Finance, Bajaj Finserv, and Bajaj Holdings and Investment — boasts a combined market capitalisation of over Rs 8.4 trillion.

Corporate India owes much to the man who never shied from calling a spade a spade. With his death in February this year, at age 83, India Inc lost a doyen and the curtain fell on an era.

5. and Binny Bansal: New chapter

Sachin Bansal, the co-founder of and now an entrepreneur in the fintech space (Navi Technologies), had spoken candidly, in a free-wheeling discussion with BS journalists some years ago, about the rough road that a startup has to take. Sachin’s startup journey had literally begun on a rough road, that too on a rainy day, when he and the other founder (not related) went around the book shops of Bengaluru in search of ‘Leaving Microsoft to Change the World’. They were on a mobike trying to service Flipkart’s first order in 2007. Their rented two-bedroom house in Koramangala was the epicentre of the online book store that made e-commerce cool in India.

Also read: India at 75: Tatas to Naik, Murthy - 25 towering business leaders of India

Sachin Bansal (left) and Binny Bansal

(left) and Binny Bansal

Both low-key IITians — now in their early 40s —­ have since gone their separate ways, as has been the case with so many co-founders of garage fame. Whatever their other ventures, the Bansal duo would be remembered for creating the poster boy of Indian e-commerce, more than anything else.

6. R C Bhargava: Steering change

Whether it is the story of industrialisation in pre- and post-liberalised India or the changing aspirations of the country’s middle-class from the early 2000s to now, R C Bhargava, the 88-year-old chairman of Suzuki India, has been part of it all. A founding member of (then Udyog Ltd) in 1981, he led the company as its managing director from 1990 to 1997. And when the Indian government sold it to Suzuki Motor Corp in 2003, he was there to oversee the transition. “Without RC Bhargava, Suzuki Motor Corporation would not have succeeded in India as [it has] today,” Osamu Suzuki, chairman, Suzuki Motor Corp, told Forbes India in an interview in 2015.

R C Bhargava

R C Bhargava

A policy-maker turned industry leader, Bhargava is credited with not only Maruti’s success but also with the transformation he consequently brought about to the Indian automotive sector, which grew to become the world’s factory for small cars. With him at the wheel, India’s biggest carmaker is now reinventing itself with new launches and entry-level SUVs, besides keeping an eye on the EV market.

Also read: India at 75: Gupta to Mallya - 6 leaders who began well but lost their way

7. and K M Birla: Strength to strength

The youngest son of Ghanshyam Das Birla, Basant Kumar Birla was a name to reckon with and his group companies — Kesoram Industries, Century Textiles, Century Enka and Jayshree Tea and Industries — were the stars of the stock market. But it was his son, Aditya Vikram Birla, who took the family business beyond India’s borders and set up the first overseas textile unit in Malaysia in 1969 followed by a cooking oil unit in Indonesia.

Aditya Vikram Birla and Kumar Mangalam Birla

Aditya Vikram Birla and Kumar Mangalam Birla

After died of cancer in 1995, his son, Kumar Mangalam Birla (now 55), took charge. Today, of Group’s revenues of $60 billion, half come from overseas. Under Kumar Mangalam Birla, the empire has expanded through mergers and acquisitions. The group owns India’s biggest cement company, UltraTech; its holding company Grasim Industries will enter the paint business by 2024; recently, it announced one of India Inc’s biggest overseas investments in a greenfield aluminium making plant in Alabama, US. And, it has presence in fashion retail and financial services, besides owning a telco in JV with UK’s Vodafone.

8. Kishore Biyani: Retail tales

In his 2007 book, It Happened in India, Kishore Biyani, founder of the Future group, famously said that he was both creator and destroyer. The 61-year-old Marwari businessman’s retail journey, spanning over three decades, has been marked by peaks and troughs. Biyani has experimented with all ends of the retail trade: from manufacturing denim brands in the early 1990s; to rolling out small- and large-format fashion stores under the Pantaloons umbrella; to introducing modern retail in India with the Big Bazaar hypermarket chain in 2001, which he subsequently expanded with more formats. Along the way, debt spiralled, forcing him to sell businesses such as Pantaloons and exit formats such as electronics and home furnishings, even as he got into the manufacture and distribution of fast-moving consumer goods.

Kishore Biyani

. Photo: Bloomberg

The Covid-19 pandemic, though, pushed his over-leveraged retail business to the brink with lockdowns shutting the stores overnight. A high-profile deal with Reliance Retail, signed in August 2020, fell through in April this year after Amazon contested the transaction in court, pushing Future Retail into bankruptcy. For now, the future doesn’t really seem bright for Biyani.

Also read: India at 75: Nooyi to Pichai - 4 Indians who made it big on global stage

9. Subhash Chandra: And TV transformed

Subhash Chandra, chairman, Essel Group, is best known as the man who ushered in India’s cable and satellite TV revolution with the launch of Zee TV in 1992. But few know that before launching the Hindi entertainment channel, Chandra, 71, ran a successful business making plastic packaging for FMCG companies and pharma majors. Essel Propack, managed by Chandra’s brother Ashok Goel, was sold to Blackstone for Rs 3,200 crore in 2019. It remains among the few successful exits for Chandra and his family in recent years.

Subhash Chandra

Subhash Chandra

For some time now, Chandra, who once had a tie-up with rival Rupert Murdoch to launch Star TV in India, has had to deal with lenders wanting a solution to Essel Group’s debt woes. He has had to tackle difficult partners such as Invesco in Zee; as well as contend with a shareholder such as YES Bank in Dish TV, the direct-to-home company, which is part of Essel Group. Chandra admitted a few months ago that he was down, but not out. And that he was open to a fresh start in media, provided lenders allowed him to move on. Is anybody listening?

10. M A Chidambaram: Southern giant

He brought in a scooter revolution; turned around the fortunes of India’s petrochemicals sector; was a revolutionary cricket administrator; and served as mayor of Madras (now Chennai). M A Chidambaram was a man of many facets. After Independence, as a newborn India started working on its big dreams, Chidambaram heralded a revolution in urban transport. He was instrumental in putting the Italian Lambretta, which came to be called “the common man’s vehicle”, on Indian roads.

M A Chidambaram

M A Chidambaram

He was also the brain behind the Southern Petrochemical Industries Corporation (SPIC), which was incorporated in 1969 and which continues to provide need-based solutions for the farming community. As president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), Chidambaram was key to several reforms such as introducing air travel for Indian Test cricketers and funds for retired players. He was a man who made his mark in several fields: agribusiness, chemicals, petrochemicals, detergents, electronics, shipping, engineering services, infrastructure, logistics and port management… The list is long.

11. Y C Deveshwar: No full stops

In the last 112 years, ITC has gone from Imperial Tobacco Company of India Limited to India Tobacco Company Limited and then to I.T.C. The full stops were removed in 2001 when its chairman, Y C Deveshwar, started shaping the ITC of today: a company defined not just by its cigarette brands, India Kings, Classic and Gold Flake, but also identified by Aashirvaad (staples, ready meals, salt, fresh dairy and more), Sunfeast (cookies, biscuits and cakes), Bingo! (snacks), and Yippee! (noodles). It was in sync with Deveshwar’s philosophy of creating “Indian” brands and building ITC as India’s Trademarks Corporation — as he often referred to it — even though its single largest shareholder was and continues to be British American Tobacco.

Y C Deveshwar

Y C Deveshwar

His credo spilled into other spheres: the trailblazing e-Choupal in 2000 not only became a showcase project and an important part of ITC’s agri-sourcing infrastructure, but it also translated into higher incomes for farmers. And long before it became imperative to pursue sustainability goals for companies, Deveshwar championed the need to innovate corporate strategies and look beyond creating just shareholder value. He died in 2019, but ITC continues to build on the foundation. Incidentally, Deveshwar also served as the chairman and managing director of Air India between 1991 and 1994, appointed by then civil aviation minister, Madhavrao Scindia — a tenure marked by significant increase in profits.

12. Arun Firodia: Innovation on two wheels

“We wanted to make a small contribution to the social transformations taking place in India in the ’70s. With cities growing, people found it difficult to commute on bicycles. We felt it was the right time to introduce a low-cost vehicle that would provide mobility. While the Luna gave mobility to the common man, the Kinetic Honda gave mobility to women,” said Arun Firodia, chairman, Kinetic Group, in an interview. The Luna, the first indigenous moped, was an instant success. Also credited with introducing one of the ultra-modern scooter models in India in a joint venture with the Honda Motor Company, Firodia put affordable mobility within the reach of the masses.

The Kinetic was among the first companies to come up with e-scooters. Firodia has been instrumental in setting up the auto cluster in Pune, which provides expertise to SMEs in the automotive and engineering sector.

13. Adi Godrej: Locks and so much more

He’s one of the most recognisable faces of the Indian industry. And though he made way for his brother, Nadir, as chairman of the family-owned Godrej Industries (GIL) last year, 80-year-old continues to be the chairman emeritus of the Godrej group that has a presence in diverse sectors: from safety locks (from where it all started) to soaps to defence and real estate.

Adi Godrej

Adi Godrej

The 125-year old family-held business is currently in the midst of a separation process, disentangling cross holdings. An MIT alumnus with degrees in engineering and management, it is to Adi Godrej’s credit that the consumer goods giant is also the largest real estate owner in Mumbai with 4,000 acres. The company’s journey started in 1897 when a small item in the Bombay Gazette about a gang of burglars breaking locks in the city led Ardeshir Godrej to start a business of making sturdy locks.

Co-founded by Ardeshir and his brother Pirojsha Burjorji as the Godrej Brothers Company, the group has under become a $4.1-billion giant.

14. Rama Prasad Goenka: Takeover tycoon

The start of a series of acquisitions for Rama Prasad Goenka (RPG) — often referred to as India’s original takeover tycoon — had its genesis in a family settlement drawn up by father, Keshav Prasad, among his three sons. With the inherited companies — Phillips Carbon Black, Asian Cables, Agarpara Jute and Murphy India — Goenka set up RPG Enterprises in 1979 with a turnover of Rs 105 crore.

Rama Prasad Goenka

Rama Prasad Goenka

A string of acquisitions followed through the 1980s; in 1981, CEAT was acquired and then one after another buyout followed: KEC, Searle India, HMV, Spencer’s, Harrisons Malayalam, CESC. There were some aborted attempts, too: like Premier Automobiles, believed to be put off on advice from some friends and a request from Indira Gandhi. Gandhi had an outsized influence on RPG — a proximity that landed him in jail after her fall from power. Notwithstanding some minor hiccups, RPG went on to build one of the fastest growing industrial houses, which he divided between his sons, Harsh and Sanjiv, a few years before he died in 2013.

15. Captain Gopinath: One-rupee flight dream

For Vinay Dube, promoter of the new low-cost airline Akasa, Capt Gopinath’s Air Deccan worked as an inspiration when he conceptualised the idea of starting his own airline. Indeed, Gopinath’s sales pitch, which he announced in the summer of 2005 to make Indians fly at one rupee, remains unparalleled even today.

Captain Gopinath

Captain Gopinath

It was one that brought the low-cost carrier, or LCC, model to India. By 2007, Air Deccan was operating 380 flights a day from 67 airports, many from Tier B and C cities. Every day, 25,000 passengers were flying, up from 2,000 when the airline began. Three million Indians flew at one-rupee a ticket.

Today, LCCs comprise over 80 per cent of India’s domestic market, but Gopinath’s Air Deccan is no longer in business. After struggling to cope as losses mounted, it was sold to Vijay Mallya’s Kingfisher Airlines and ultimately grounded in 2011.

16. Yusuf Hamied: Father of generic drugs

A Cambridge educated chemist, Yusuf Hamied joined his father’s firm Cipla in the 1960s. He was focused from the beginning to break the dominance of foreign multinationals over the Indian drug market, and he persuaded the Indian government to change the Indian patent law in 1972. This allowed medicines to be copied even if they were under international patent as long as the process was not the same.

Yusuf Hameid

Yusuf Hameid

This one step transformed the Indian pharmaceutical industry. Today, India is the world’s largest manufacturer of generic drugs.Hamied became a global celebrity when he launched a drug that delayed the onset of AIDS in HIV-positive patients at less than one-tenth of international price. In 2005, however, India aligned its patent laws with international norms following a WTO commitment, prohibiting copying of a drug without a licence. Hamied has always maintained that every country's patent laws should be need-based to that country.

17. The Hindujas: Billionaire brothers

Founded by Parmanand Deepchand Hinduja in 1914 in the Sindh region of Pakistan, the one-time commodities trading firm was rapidly diversified by his four sons — Srichand, Gopichand, Prakash and Ashok — across India and overseas. Most of the Hinduja family now lives in the UK and it’s the professionals who run the operations of their six listed companies in India.

Hinduja Brothers

Hinduja Brothers

In London, the Hindujas are neighbours of Queen Elizabeth, sharing Carlton House Terrace — four interconnected Georgian houses down the street from Buckingham Palace — where they hold their annual star-studded Diwali bash. They top the list of Britain’s wealthiest people and now also own stakes in truck maker Ashok Leyland and IndusInd Bank.

All’s not been rosy, though. In the ’80s, the brothers were accused of taking commission from manufacturers of Bofors guns, a charge the High Court rejected. And in the early 2000s, they were entangled in UK’s “cash-for-passports” scandal. Now Srichand’s family is fighting a legal battle over control of the $18-billion business group. The other three brothers, though, want the group to stick to the motto: “Everything belongs to everyone and nothing belongs to anyone.”

18. T V Sundram Iyengar & Venu Srinivasan: Driven entrepreneurs

In 1911, T V Sundram Iyengar founded the now multinational conglomerate TVS Group. But the man who’s carrying the torch forward is the automobile pioneer’s grandson, TVS Motor Company Chairman Venu Srinivasan. Srinivasan is credited with transforming TVS from a 50cc moped maker in the 1980s to the third-largest two-wheeler manufacturer in India, competing with the likes of Hero, Bajaj and Honda.

T V Sundram Iyengar and Venu Srinivasan

T V Sundram Iyengar and Venu Srinivasan

While the company still has a monopoly in mopeds, its range of products extends from e-scooters and gearless scooters to race motorcycles and BMW bikes. A driven entrepreneur, Srinivasan set a new benchmark for Indian two-wheelers globally. This year, in June, the government appointed him part-time non-official director on RBI’s central board.

19. Rakesh Jhunjhunwala: Riding the bull

Just as Sachin Tendulkar has contributed to cricket’s popularity in the country, deserves credit for creating interest in the equity markets. Every investor — new and existing — aspires to convert their investments into crores, just like Jhunjhunwala. Several try to emulate him by buying and selling the same stock as he. However, Jhunjhunwala secret sauce has been a long-term bull in India — through thick and thin. He started his investment journey in 1985, when the Sensex was at 500, with just Rs 5,000.

Rakesh Jhunjhunwala

Rakesh Jhunjhunwala

The chartered accountant had the acumen and the courage to place large bets on companies that have benefited from the India story. He has created enormous wealth by remaining invested in stocks such as Titan, CRISIL and Lupin for 10 years or more. Currently, his holdings in listed stocks are valued at Rs 30,653 crore (as on August 10). Besides, he holds shares in several unlisted firms and also co-produces films. At 62, he’s far from done, with his aviation venture Akasa Air just taking off.

20. O P Jindal: Power of steel

Where others saw walls, Om Prakash Jindal saw doors. So when he stumbled upon steel pipes with the ‘Made in England’ tag, the idea of replacing it with ‘Made in India’ got hold of him. A farmer’s son, Jindal set out from Nalwa, a village in Haryana, to give wings to his dreams. He was 20. Two years later, in 1952, he set up a pipe bends and socket manufacturing factory in Liluah, West Bengal, sowing the seeds of a steel empire. From there, Hisar, where he commissioned a pipe unit, Jindal India Ltd.

O P Jindal

O P Jindal

Then, a factory under Jindal Strips. More units followed and a steel-to-power monolith took shape. An industrialist and a politician, he was thrice elected to the Haryana Assembly. Since his death in a helicopter crash in 2005, his steel empire is controlled by sons and it continues to expand.


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First Published: Thu, August 11 2022. 18:00 IST


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