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

Some are 'Midnight's Children' whose pre-Independence businesses bloomed after 1947, some 'Licence Raj Warriors' who refused to let red-tapeism slow them down. A look at 25 towering business leaders

India's business leaders | Ratan Tata | Falguni Nayar

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Anil Manibhai Naik
Anil Manibhai Naik

1. Shiv Nadar: Man who brought PCs to India

The government earlier this year launched a special scheme to develop electronic components in the country. Some 40 years ago, a young engineer, Shiv Nadar, was trying to build his own company to produce microprocessors and calculators in Delhi. In the next few decades, the company, HCL Technologies, grew into a multibillion-dollar empire and the young man became one of India’s richest persons.

Shiv Nadar

Shiv Nadar

Nadar, who had worked at DCM Textiles, left to establish an enterprise — Microcomp —under the brand name “Televista”. Later in 1976, he founded HCL Tech, considering the rising demand for computers in India, with an initial investment of Rs 18,700.

Read more: India at 75: Munjals to Mahindras - 20 visionary industrialists of India

HCL introduced the first PC in India in 1978 — before IBM and Apple Inc. HCL soon started its global expansion, setting up an IT service business in Singapore in 1979. Nadar received the Padma Bhushan in 2008. He has served as chairman of the board of governors at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kharagpur until 2014, and founded University.

2. A M Naik: Engineering a giant

To sum up his innings of 60-odd years with Larsen & Toubro (L&T), Group Chairman Anil Manibhai Naik (or AM Naik) often belts out this popular Raj Kapoor number from the movie Mera Naam Joker: Jeena yahan, marna yahan. A mechanical engineer by qualification, it is to Naik’s credit that L&T is what it is today — the nation’s builder, literally —with presence across the engineering and construction spectrum. Under Naik’s watch, the company has ventured into areas such as IT and digital services.

A M Naik

A M Naik

He says had it not been for EA Baker, a sharp reporting manager who saw potential in him during his interview in the 1960s, he wouldn’t even have got the job. Corporate lessons learnt early on have helped shape the man: Naik has nurtured human capital, emphasised skill training and used IT as an enabler across L&T’s businesses. A Padma Vibushan, he has also pledged 75 per cent of his wealth to social causes in health care, education and skill development.

3. H P Nanda: Farmlands to world stage

Business lore has it, when Har Prasad Nanda came to Delhi from Lahore in 1947, he barely had Rs 5,000 and two cars on him. As the 30-year-old began re-locating his tractor agency, set up in 1944, Nanda realised it wasn’t a mere relocation but a start from scratch. By 1948, he had set up Escorts Agri Machinery Ltd and would make frequent trips to the farmlands of Punjab to sell tractors. After a number of European collaborations, the company began manufacturing the Escort tractor in 1961 and also ventured into motorcycles.

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

H P Nanda

H P Nanda

Within a decade, Nanda set up a JV with the Ford Motor company to manufacture Ford tractors. The company expanded into manufacturing other heavy moving equipment like backhoes and cranes, staying focused on engineering and collaborations at home and abroad.

Within 30 years, Nanda’s tractor agency had turned into India’s first tractor exporting company. He died in April 1999 but not before Escorts was a listed company.

4. Falguni Nayar: A thing of beauty…

An investment banker, quit her job in 2012 after close to 20 years to be the nayika (lead lady) of her story. Today, she is India’s richest self-made woman (and second richest woman overall) with a networth of Rs 57,520 crore, according to the Kotak Private Banking-Hurun list released last month.

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

Falguni Nayar

Falguni Nayar

In just 10 years, Nayar, 59, has built a beauty empire called Nykaa on the guarantee of delivering only authentic products in an industry full of counterfeits. Nykaa launched its IPO in October 2021, and in the last year, Nayar saw a 963 per cent increase in her wealth. Starting with Korean brands and Huda Beauty, Nykaa has brought some of the world’s finest beauty brands to India: Charlotte Tilbury, Lime Crime, e.l.f. Cosmetics… It’s also launched its own beauty private labels, plus a destination for men (Nykaa Man). Beauty sells, and how.

5. H T Parekh and Deepak Parekh: On the home front

At the age of 66, H T Parekh embarked on the biggest mission of his life — to give Indians their home — which led to the formation of Housing Development Finance Corporation (HDFC) in 1977. His nephew is credited with developing two of the largest financial powerhouses in the country and is perhaps the most respected and authoritative voice in India’s financial circles.

H T Parekh and Deepak Parekh

H T Parekh and Deepak Parekh

has been instrumental in developing the home loan market in the country with . As India’s economy was liberalising, Parekh envisioned building a private-sector bank and roped in Aditya Puri to lead it. Bank went on to become what is today the largest private-sector bank in the country. Finally, the management decided to merge HDFC into HDFC Bank, thus building a financial sector behemoth.

6. Karsanbhai Patel: Backyard billionaire

Karsanbhai Patel, a chemistry graduate and lab technician in Gujarat government’s mining and geology department, managed to make phosphate-free detergent powder in his backyard in 1969 through trial and trial. He named it after his daughter: . Its logo, a girl in a short frilly white frock, would later twirl into the hearts of millions of Indians as sab ki pasand.

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

Karsanbhai Patel

Karsanbhai Patel

In the initial days, Patel cycled through the neighbourhoods, going door to door to sell the detergent packets, an after-office business. Positioned as a value-for-money detergent — Rs 3 per kg compared to the Rs 13-odd Surf — quickly became popular in the rural market. Today, is one of the largest producers of soda ash in the world by volume. The detergent’s market share, though, has fallen in recent years. As of July 22, 2022, Patel is worth $2.7 billion (according to Forbes).

7. Ajay Piramal: Significant steps

There are things Ajay Piramal, 66, is doing and those are significant. His flagship Piramal Enterprises, with Rs 13,993 crore in revenues, is morphing into a conglomerate operating in 30 countries in the areas of pharmaceuticals, financial services, and real estate. There are things has done before and those, too, are significant. In March 2010, he sold his branded generics business to Abbott Laboratories, a multinational based in the United States, for $3.2 billion.

Ajay Piramal

Ajay Piramal

In the ensuing years, Piramal bought into Vodafone Idea, the mobile phone service provider, and exited it successfully. He also invested in the Chennai-based Shriram group companies. In 2021, he acquired the bankrupt housing finance company, DHFL.Then there are things is on his way to doing. He has announced a demerger of his pharmaceuticals and financial services businesses, both of which are housed in his holding company, Piramal Enterprises. And he is making a bid to acquire Reliance Capital assets. And these are not going to be any less significant.

8. Cyrus Poonawalla and Adar Poonawalla: Down to the jab

A face of India’s fight against Covid-19. The man behind Covishield, the vaccine for which the country lined up as the coronavirus ran rampage. Adar Poonawalla, CEO of the (SII), is known as someone who wants to make a difference in a world of vaccines dominated by multinationals. The pandemic has shown this isn’t just an empty dream.

Cyrus Poonawalla and Adar Poonawalla

Cyrus Poonawalla and Adar Poonawalla

It started, though, with his father Cyrus Poonawalla who chose to head in a direction different from the family business of horse breeding in Pune. Instead, he worked to develop a therapeutic serum from horse blood and in 1966, at age 25, founded SII as a small unit at his stud firm. SII was soon producing anti-tetanus vaccines and is today the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer by volume. These vaccines are also affordably priced.

9. Azim Premji: Industrialist & philanthropist

Azim Premji, a graduate in electrical engineering from Stanford University, has been at the helm of Wipro since the late 1960s. He turned what was then a $2-million hydrogenated cooking fat company into an IT, BPO, and R&D services organisation generating close to $8.5 billion in revenue, with a presence in 58 countries. Other Wipro companies led by Premji have revenues close to $2 billion and span sectors like consumer goods, precision engineering, and health care systems.

Azim Premji

Azim Premji

Premji believes that companies have a responsibility to employ ethical, fair, and ecologically sensitive business practices, and to engage with societal issues. In 2001, he established the Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation focused on enhancing quality and equity in India’s public school system.

Last year in October, it was reported that Premji donated Rs 9,713 crore to retain his top ranking among Indian philanthropists in FY21.

10. Bharat Ram and Charat Ram: At the heart of Delhi

DCM (earlier Delhi Cloth & General Mills) can safely be called the national capital’s first modern large-scale industrial enterprise — even north India’s. The name-change was Bharat Ram’s strategy that saved the company when London-based Swraj Paul attempted its hostile takeover, India’s first. Brothers Bharat Ram and Charat Ram were sons of Lala Shri Ram who had built DCM. Bharat Ram, the older of the two, was the public face of DCM and a witness to every phase of modern Indian business — from pre-Independence nationalism to Nehru’s socialism and then to the liberal present. Charat Ram, meanwhile, was a hard-nosed businessman and hands-on administrator.

The family split amicably in 1990 — after 90 years of being together — when differences cropped up between the brothers. Charat Ram’s sons adopted the surname Shriram (after their grandfather) and Bharat Ram’s children took the surname Bharatram. The DCM family’s footprint is still visible on Delhi’s cultural and educational landscape through Shri Ram College of Commerce, Lady Shri Ram College for Women, Shri Ram Centre for Art and Culture, and so on.

11. Kallam Anji Reddy: Eye on the molecule

Of first-generation Indian pharma leaders, Kallam Anji Reddy was perhaps the most passionate about discovering a new molecule. He once likened drug discovery to a “spiritual pursuit beyond bottomlines and investor relations”. In the late 1990s, Reddy put his resources into a class of diabetes drugs called glitazones. Passionate about the project, he named one of the molecules Balaglitazone (after Lord Balaji). The project failed, and probably inspired the title of his biography, An Unfinished Agenda: My Life in the Pharmaceuticals Industry.

Kallam Anji Reddy

Kallam Anji Reddy

Son of a turmeric farmer from Andhra Pradesh, Reddy is credited with building a billion-dollar company — Dr Reddy’s Laboratories — within a span of 25 years. The company is now run by his son, Satish Reddy, and son-in-law, GV Prasad. Instrumental in developing affordable drugs, Reddy changed the landscape of Indian pharma.

12. Prathap Reddy: Architect of modern Indian health care

Born in small-town Aragonda, near Chennai, Prathap Reddy is often hailed as the architect of modern Indian healthcare. The first 150-bed Apollo Hospitals was operationalised on Greams Road, Chennai, in 1983 with an investment of Rs 30 crore. Of this, about Rs 5 crore was spent on importing a CT scan machine.

Prathap Reddy

Prathap Reddy

Some four decades later, Apollo Hospitals’ growth story has become a case study at US universities. Reddy has often said it was the death of a 38-year-old patient who could not go abroad for treatment that changed his life. So, he decided to set up a world-class healthcare institution in India. From securing bank loans to getting professionals to join Apollo, the journey to building India’s largest corporate hospital chain wasn’t easy. A passionate doctor, a visionary and also an astute businessman, he got into the pharmacy business early, and has now handed over the baton to his four daughters.

13. Shashi Ruia and Ravi Ruia: Till debt did them in

Less than a decade ago, the Essar Group, led by the Ruia brothers, Shashi and Ravi, was among India’s top five. They had made a fortune by selling their stake in Hutch Essar to Vodafone, paving the way for the mobile phone service provider’s current avatar, Vodafone Idea. And they had thriving businesses: oil refining, power, steel, ports, etc.

Shashi Ruia and Ravi Ruia

Shashi Ruia and Ravi Ruia

The group had a lot of revenues. It also had a lot of debt. Finally, the debt had its say. In June 2017, the Reserve Bank of India released a list of 12 companies whose debt situation was alarming. One of those on the list — the wise guys called it the Dirty Dozen — was Essar Steel, with a non-performing debt of $5 billion. It went into bankruptcy proceedings and ended up with ArcelorMittal. Not even selling the refinery to Rosneft of Russia for $12.9 billion — a deal completed in 2017 — could save the day for the Ruias.

Several power projects of the group were sent in for debt resolution after they failed to repay loans. The group now owns a refinery in the United Kingdom and is planning to invest in green energy. But that tinge of red will take some undoing.

14. Dilip Shanghvi: One-drug company to pharma giant

From the narrow bylanes of Kolkata’s Dawa Bazaar, where his father had a small medicine shop, Dilip Shanghvi has turned Sun Pharmaceutical Industries into the world’s fourth-largest generic drug-maker.

Dilip Shanghvi

Dilip Shanghvi

He set up his first manufacturing unit in 1982-83 in Vapi, Gujarat, with a capital of just Rs 10,000. It made only one psychiatric drug. He grew Sun Pharma through a series of acquisitions, the biggest being the purchase of Ranbaxy Laboratories for $4 billion in 2014. Now his son and daughter, Alok and Vidhi, are part of the pharma major.

Shanghvi’s journey from a one-drug company to India’s largest drug-maker by market share had its ups and downs. But this turnaround specialist has a knack for building brands — organically and inorganically.

15. K P Singh: Turning the destiny

KP Singh, the man who made DLF big, had thought of selling the real estate company for as little as Rs 26 lakh back in 1975. His autobiography, Whatever the Odds talks at length about it. The rest, as they say, is history. Founded by his father-in-law, Chaudhary Raghvendra Singh, who had a short political tenure, the New Delhi-based real estate company developed several residential colonies in the city before gate-crashing into Gurugram (then Gurgaon).

DLF, K P SIngh, Kushal Pal Singh

K P Singh

He famously said in his book that he had no idea that Gurgaon would turn the destiny of DLF. His son, Rajiv Singh, has been managing the business for some years but KP Singh, 90, has never ceased to be the face of DLF. The company has had its share of controversies but DLF has kept going when so many other realtors have fallen by the wayside. KP Singh’s recipe of a ‘’lean, hungry and efficient organisation’’ may have helped.

16. Parvinder Singh: An empire built and lost

Parvinder Singh inherited an empire called Ranbaxy from his father, Bhai Mohan Singh, a wealthy contractor originally from Rawalpindi, in the 1980s. What had started out as a small pharma business in Amritsar had by then grown into a powerhouse that sold popular brands like Calmpose and Cifran. Parvinder believed in running the company through professionals and not having a bunch of relatives at crucial top positions, which led to a spat with his father. Parvinder prevailed and also took the timely call to expand Ranbaxy to international shores at an opportune time when most Indian drug-makers were looking inwards.

By the time he died of cancer in 1999, he had built Ranbaxy into a global pharma major, and had taken it beyond drugs — to pathology, healthcare and health insurance.

After his death, bitter boardroom battles broke out within Ranbaxy, leading to Bhai Mohan Singh’s ouster. The subsequent mess Parvinder’s sons, Malvinder and Shivinder Singh, made, squandering away the vast empire, is stuff of corporate folklore.

17. Vijaypat Singhania: Suit to perfection

If there’s one clothing brand that has embodied the aspirations of Indian men over generations, it is Raymond. The tagline — The Complete Man — has stood the test of time, despite ownership battles at the Raymond Group. Vijaypat Singhania, former chairman of the Raymond Group, is no longer at the helm of affairs at the textile and lifestyle major, but his legacy lives on.

Vijaypat Singhania

Vijaypat Singhania

A keen aviator and former sheriff of Mumbai, Singhania was responsible for taking Raymond to a wider audience in the 1980s and 1990s, ensuring there was a suit for all in the Raymond wardrobe. A combination of clever print and television advertising as well as on-ground expansion of stores helped Raymond grow into a formidable suiting brand for men.

Today, when brands are getting younger and sharper, Raymond, too, is embracing technology and fashion for the Gen Z consumer.

18. E Sreedharan: Tracks of change

When E Sreedharan retired from Delhi Metro Rail Corporation in December 2011, he was 79 and had spent nearly 57 years in public service. But within a year, he was handed the task of overseeing the Kochi Metro and the monorail in Kozhikode and Thiruvananthapuram. India wasn’t ready to let go of the man who had changed the face of public transport. After the resounding success of Delhi Metro and Konkan Railways, “Metro Man” had more projects lined up for him.

E Sreedharan

According to Rajendra B Aklekar’s biography of Sreedharan, the 760-km Konkan Railways stretch was ready in just seven years, and once finished in 1997-98, it shortened the distance between Mumbai and Mangaluru by 1,127 km. Delhi Metro project, too, was completed well within time. In the 1970s, as deputy chief engineer, Sreedharan was also in charge of the designing, planning and implementation of Kolkata Metro — India’s first.

19. M V Subbiah: Riding on aspirations

In 2008, when the Indian government set up the National Skill Development Corporation, M V Subbiah, patriarch of the Murugappa family, was chosen as its first chairman. Skill development and nurturing employees have been Subbiah’s strengths. His contributions to the Murugappa empire, which began as a money-lending and banking business in Burma (now Myanmar), have been vital in transforming the group into a conglomerate with interests in some 28 businesses.

M V Subbiah

M V Subbiah

When an aspiring India started its ride to prosperity on bicycles, the Murugappa Group added momentum to it through Tube Investments of India (formerly TI Cycles of India), which specialises in engineering bicycles. Known for its flagship bicycle brands — BSA, Hercules, Montra and Mach City — the group changed the country's cycle retail landscape. Subbiah is also known for turning around EID Parry, India’s oldest sugar company, after acquiring it in 1981.

20. Prakash Tandon: Art of management

Prakash Tandon, the first Indian at the helm of Hindustan Unilever (HUL), one of India’s largest consumer goods companies, once said that he felt like an “uncertain ship captain on his first voyage after the harbour pilot had left”. He explained how after he had taken over, succession planning for who would take over from him began. HUL, after all, isn’t called the CEO factory without reason. A pioneer of professional management in India, Tandon studied chartered accountancy in London at a time when there were hardly any Indian CAs.

Prakash Tandon

Prakash Tandon

After moving on from HUL in 1968, he was the first private sector leader to be chairman of two public sector entities: State Trading Corporation of India and Punjab National Bank. Instrumental in the founding of IIM Ahmedabad, he was also its first chairman. In 1974, he led the RBI’s study group to suggest ways for optimum utilisation of bank credit — the central bank’s first such elaborate attempt. The methodology recommended in the Tandon Committee report remains relevant to this day.

Tandon, who lived to be 93, once said: “An institution never becomes, it is always becoming, through a continuing process of uncertainty, but well led and managed, it moves successfully ahead of what is expected of it and what it expects of itself.”

21. J R D Tata and Ratan Tata: Salt to skies

Jehangir Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata (JRD) and Ratan Tata, the two names synonymous with the salt-to-software conglomerate, have collectively been at the helm of the group for 74 years. As chairman of Tata Sons for over five decades, from 1938 to 1991, JRD had an extraordinary influence on life and livelihood. The Tatas’ business interest was diverse, though JRD’s love for flying surpassed all else. A rare interview showed JRD telling host Rajiv Mehrotra that his biggest contribution as an industrialist was the creation of Air India. When India celebrates the 75th year of Independence, Tatas have Air India back with them and the group’s focus on aviation is more than strong.

J R D Tata and Ratan Tata

J R D Tata and Ratan Tata

JRD’s successor, (not directly related to JRD), gave automobiles a new direction within the group: from Indica to Jaguar-Land Rover. Nano, the cheapest family car and the brainchild of Ratan Tata, put the group under the spotlight for land acquisition issues in Singur. But the biggest corporate battle in India Inc played out in Bombay House in 2016 when Cyrus Mistry, then chairman of Tata Sons, was ousted in a boardroom coup overseen by .

22. Naveen Tewari: They did start the fire

It confused Naveen Tewari when people congratulated him for InMobi becoming a unicorn. He was not sure what it meant. The year was 2011 and InMobi had become India’s first unicorn: a new term used to describe privately held companies funded by venture capital that were valued at a billion dollars, so called for they were thought to be as rare as the mythical one-horned creature.

Naveen Tewari

Naveen Tewari

This year, India crossed a hundred unicorns and that makes it a good time not only to remember the first but also recap what made InMobi a success: original thinking, breaking the mould, and unwavering belief. Starting out in 2007, Tewari and his co-founders bet on mobile internet, a fledgling concept in those days. And they wanted to build a global product company out of India at a time Indians were considered good only at services.

They were rejected by 41 investors before Kleiner Perkins said yes. And that started the fire.

23. L M Thapar: Life lived well

Lalit Mohan Thapar — LMT to friends — led the Thapar group of companies, including Crompton Greaves, Ballarpur Industries and JCT Mills, for over 40 years. Taking over in 1963 from his father, Karam Chand Thapar, he was instrumental in growing the group’s flagship paper, electricals and textile businesses.

Financial services such as Oriental Bank of Commerce and Oriental Insurance, which were part of the group when Thapar took charge, were subsequently nationalised in 1980. A lover of art, Thapar, a life-long bachelor, eventually handed over the reins of the business to his nephews in 2005, two years before his death.

24. Narayanan Vaghul & Kundapur Vaman Kamath: Multi-dimensional bankers

Narayanan Vaghul, a philanthropist and a banker for over five decades, was appointed chairman and CEO, Industrial Credit and Investment Corporation of India (now ICICI), in 1985 and served as non-executive chairman till 2009. He played a key role in pioneering the universal banking model that laid the foundations of modern banking in India.

Kundapur Vaman Kamath and Narayanan Vaghul (inset)

Kundapur Vaman Kamath and Narayanan Vaghul (inset)

After working at SBI for 19 years, Vaghul became the youngest chairman and MD of Bank of India at 44. A recipient of the Padma Bhushan, he was instru­men­tal in setting up CRISIL, the rating agency. He was its founder-chairman for nearly 10 years.

Kundapur Vaman Kamath is the man widely credited with enabling millions of Indians to fund aspirational purchases through EMIs. Kamath, ICICI Bank’s MD and CEO from 1996 to 2009, embraced new technology in what was still a conservative sector. He also headed the New Development Bank at BRICs and currently chairs the National Bank for Financing Infrastructure and Development.

25. Nusli Wadia: Corporate samurai

There are many ways to talk about Nusli Wadia — he symbolises Mumbai’s old-money elite and his group has businesses across biscuits, textiles, and aviation. However, Wadia would be forever talked about for his many corporate battles. Some of those are:

  • Wadia versus Dhirubhai Ambani
  • Wadia versus Ratan Tata
  • Wadia versus Russi Mody
  • Wadia versus Darbari Seth
  • Wadia versus Ajit Kerkar
  • Wadia versus Rajan Pillai
  • Wadia versus Nani Palkhivala

The list is long and illustrious, and started with the father of all battles, when a young Nusli fought his father, Neville, who wanted to sell Bombay Dyeing.

Nusli Wadia

Nusli Wadia

Wadia is 78 now, but the Corporate Samurai in him is very much alive and kicking. He recently sent a legal missive to Century Textiles, chaired by Kumar Mangalam Birla, for developing the Century Textile Mill land in Central Mumbai despite an ownership dispute pending in the courts.

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First Published: Thu, August 11 2022. 18:26 IST