Industry doyen B.K. Birla passes away at 98

The grand old man of Indian industry Basant Kumar Birla passed away in Mumbai on Wednesday, at the age of 98.

Although away from active business for some years now, his larger than life but low-key, austere presence was felt not only through the Birla Building here, the corporate headquarters of some group companies, but also throughout Indian industry. His passing away truly marks the end of an era.

He is survived by daughters Manjushree Khaitan and Jayshree Mohta and grandson Kumar Mangalam. His wife Sarala and son Aditya Vikram Birla predeceased him. The youngest son of legendary Ghanshyam Das Birla (GD), Mr. Birla got involved in the family business from his teens.

The group flagship, Kesoram Industries Ltd., turned 100 this year, and he was its non-executive chairman till the time of his demise.

GD’s industrial empire comprised jute mills, cotton textile units, sugar companies and trading ventures. These were distributed among his sons and nephews. Mr. B.K. Birla expanded the businesses to include tea, fertilizers, cement and tyres, among others, during the time of the licence system.

He remained the chairman of most of the companies. The companies included Kesoram Industries, Century Textiles, Jayshree Tea and Century Enka.

He was also the chairman of the Krishnarpan Charity Trust.

The executive control of these firms now rest with his daughters and his grandson Mr. Kumar Mangalam, with whom he spent his last few years. There are now some 50 firms in the group, some listed and some unlisted.

The stakes of many of these companies are held by Pilani Investment and Industries Corporation (PIIC). A year after one of the most acrimonious ownership battles faced by the Birlas, Mr. B.K. Birla took the initiative to untangle some cross-holdings at PIIC through a family pact, which saw increased holdings by him and his grandson.

Bhau-ji, as the patriarch was referred to by his employees, was known for his promotion of education through some of the best known educational institutes like BITS Pilani, as well for his love of arts which he shared with his wife Sarala Devi.

His marriage was solemnised by no less a person than Gandhiji, according to a book by Reshmi Sehgal, which was released by the late Devanand in the presence of Basant Kumar and his wife over a decade ago.

He was a man full of life in the Birla sense. “Generally the Birlas eat well, sleep well, live long and prosper,” writes Gita Piramal in her book Business Maharajas. “Smoking and dancing are bad. These are taboo in our family culture,” she quotes Mr. B.K. Birla.

He used to walk around his sprawling residence at Birla Park, ate frugal vegetarian meals, listened to music, and was into photography till 60. His wife was by his side most of the time and during rare chats with journalists he would seek permission for her presence. “She is my friend, philosopher, and guide,” he would say.

Till his mid-80s he attended office, maintaining an eight-hour schedule. Even as the businesses were divided among his daughters and grandson, his love for Mr. Kumar Mangalam was evident.

“He has done so much at such a young age,” he once told this correspondent.“I tell him to come here and take charge as chairman but he says you are the chairman,” the doting grandfather said.

His poise remained through one of the most bitter and public fights that the Birla clan faced in the famous Birla-Lodha case, when once trusted auditor the late R.S. Lodha claimed ownership of the M.P. Birla Group of Companies. The matter rests in the courts.

But his spirit broke when he lost his wife of 73 years in 2015. Thereafter, he would become morose often, said company insiders.

His death was mourned by industry captains. Industrialist Sanjiv Goenka said he led transformational thoughts in Indian industry and it was a huge family loss. Patton Industries chairman Sanjay Budhia said that the grit and determination of Mr. B.K. Birla was manifest in the industrial empire that he built during the licence raj. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee also condoled his death. The funeral would be held here on Thursday.

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Printable version | May 21, 2022 12:26:21 pm |