'Takeover king' of Spencers

R.P Goenka. Photo: Shanker Chakravarty.  

With the passing away of Ram Prasad Goenka, there has passed into Indian business history, one of the first post-Independence ‘takeover kings’ of the country. It was a reputation he brought with him when he took over Spencer’s of Madras in January 1989. Interestingly, he took over a large, countrywide organisation whose growth had been made possible by one of the first ‘takeover kings’ in the Indian business world. John Oakshott Robinson was always less known than the Spencer name he made an all-India one.

Eugene Phillip Oakshott, a manager of a small Madras agency house, became a Spencer man in 1871 as a partner of J.W. Spencer, who evolved the firm from Durrant & Co. (1863), Durrant & Spencer (1864), and J.W. Spencer & Co (1867) to Spencer & Co. (1877). In 1882, Oakshott became its sole proprietor. In 1886, John Oakshott Robinson, son of Oakshott’s elder sister Jane Esther Oakshott Robinson, came out to Madras as a Junior Assistant. With Eugene Oakshott’s two sons, Roy and Percy, not particularly interested in business – but in the income it brought them – ‘J O,’ as he was known, gradually not only took over the management of Spencer’s but, through a series of takeovers, made it an all-India retailing, hoteliering and catering empire, the biggest in Asia in the early 20th Century.

‘J O’, working his way up, step by step, became Director in 1905 and de facto in- charge of the Company when Eugene Oakshott died in 1911 – his successor Alfred Oakes happy to live a quiet life. In 1913, ‘J.O’ became Chairman, a seat he was to adorn till his death in 1932. Between 1923 and 1928, ‘J.O’ spearheaded the takeover of Oakes & Co., Madras (Spencer’s nearest rivals), H.S. Smith & Co in Bombay, Jamasjee & Sons in Rawalpindi, G.F. Kellner’s in Calcutta, and W.E. Smith’s in Madras besides several other smaller companies.

RPG, on the other hand, arrived on the Spencer scene midst a series of takeovers in the South that he had successfully concluded. These included the plantation giant, Harrisons Malayalam, and several other firms in Karnataka and Andhra. In a hush-hush sale at the end of 1988, Homi Bhabha (whose father, C.H. Bhabha, had begun to acquire a major holding in Spencer’s from the 1950s) sold the 73 per cent of the holding of the Bhabhas-and-friends for Rs.5.2 crores, three times the prevailing scrip value but considered by many 3-4 times less than a company with Rs. 30 crores worth of real estate and an unbroken record of profitability warranted. But Homi Bhabha was fed up with the problems at Spencer’s and wanted out and RPG, who considered it “a sleeping giant” that he could stir into life, wanted “an institution – and Spencer’s is an institution with a tremendous fund of goodwill.” Why companies wanting to pull out sought RPG was because he, unlike bigger corporates, would make up his mind in 24 hours. And in the case of ‘Spencer’s he did so with the help of his “good friend” in Madras, his senior in FICCI, Haja Sharif.

With Spencer’s came its three heritage hotels, the Connemara in Madras, the West End in Bangalore and the Savoy in Ooty, which had been leased to Tata’s Indian Hotels Ltd. by Homi Bhabha. RPG clearly stated that he didn’t want to learn a new business when experts were running it and paying him for the privilege. And, so, the three hotels, owned by Spencer’s continue to be run successfully by the Tata Group. And everyone is happy with the arrangement.


The Ceylonese in the ICS

As I had expected, reader K.V. Ramanathan was first off the mark with a couple of names of Ceylonese, who had served in the I.C.S. (Miscellany, April 15) and I was disappointed that my memory had let me down in the case of one, Alfred McGowan Coomaraswamy Tampoe, whose mother was, if I recollect correctly, English. Tampoe was kin of another Tampoe I had known in my Colombo days, Bala Tampoe.

Bala Tampoe, at 92, heads the Ceylon Mercantile Union, and is possibly the oldest active trade union leader in the world today. He was like that well-known Madras trade union leader from Ceylon, S.C. Anthonypillai, a member of the Trotskyite Lanka Samajist Party and whom I, as a fellow-traveller for a while, had known. Anthonypillai had once told me that Bala Tampoe’s father was an Excise Inspector in the Madras Government service and that Bala was the only one of seven children not to have been born in India. His kin Alfred Tampoe, Anthonypillai recalled, was the first Ceylonese to join the Indian Civil Service. The heavily moustachioed Tampoe was an M.A. from Cambridge who joined the Madras Presidency cadre in 1904. He was, at one time, Inspector of Municipalities and, later, Collector, Tinnevely. He also served in the Andhra districts where he was a witness for the accused, a fellow Civilian but British, who was charged with showing disrespect to the Crown.

It was this independent attitude of Alfred Tampoe that led to him becoming one of the first members of the Justice Party! Years later, when asked about this action of his, he said, “I joined what was not strictly a political party but a social movement. For that reason I, a member of a premier government service of an all-India nature, was permitted to join it.” He went on to add, “I was the 13th member enrolled. I remember the number because of its sinister connotation.”

Another ICS member reader Ramanathan recalls is Paul Marcus Jeyarajan, who generally, I’m told by another correspondent, went as M.J.,Paul. Amongst the posts that he served in, District Magistrate, Malabar, was one I have been able to trace. Another District Magistrate I have been told of was a Ceylon Tamil called Ramalingam, who in the late 1930s sat on the Bench in Vellore, according to reader V.,Subramaniam.

Reader Subramaniam adds a few more details about the Cooray I had mentioned on April 15th. He thinks his initials were P.C., that he lived on Nungambakkam High Road, was married to an Englishwoman, eventually retiring to Britain, and served in the Madras Presidency in the 1940s. Cooray, he adds, was a tennis enthusiast who played regularly with two other Civilians, G.,Venkateswara Ayyar of the 1927 batch and father of my correspondent, and his own 1937 batch mate, C.V. Narasimhan.

There’s also been quite a bit of information about other Ceylonese who served in Madras Government service and I’ll get to them one of these days.


India’s best modern historian

“India’s best modern historian”, “the most respected Indian historian of his time” or words to that effect, were what Ramachandra Guha, no mean historian himself, used to describe Sarvepalli Gopal recently at a meeting of the Madras Book Club. One of the best meetings the Club has had in recent times, it featured two equally fascinating speakers talking on the work of this outstanding historian. The second speaker was Srinath Raghavan, a Fellow at King’s College, London, who was presenting his book Imperialists, Nationalists, Democrats: the Collected Essays of Sarvepalli Gopal. In a model presentation, Raghavan provided a penetrative insight into what the book contained for all those who had not read the book, instead of the usual format of ‘readings.’

The book, ranging from Gladstone and Ripon to Rajagopalachari and Vallabhabhai Patel to cricket, had Guha rapturous about it because it revealed some perspective rethinking by Gopal on some of things he had missed out on in his seven or eight full-length histories and biographies. The three-volume Nehru biography, Guha felt, was the best biography of Nehru ever written. But it had two flaws. One, it barely mentioned the relationship with Edwina Mountbatten and made no mention at all of the relationship with Padmaja Naidu. Secondly, it had not been quite fair by the other leaders of the nation who had worked with Nehru. Taking note of such criticism of an outstanding biography, Gopal went on, Guha said, to write an even better biography – of his father, Dr. S. Radhakrishnan. They may have shared a strong bond, having spent much of their life together, but Gopal pulled no punches in telling the story of his father and assessing him as a man and as a statesman.

It was in the context of the many things left unsaid in his full-length books that Raghavan selected the thirty essays for his book from the hundreds that Gopal had written and which were made available to him by Mrs. Gopal. They, thus, are invaluable footnotes to all that Gopal had written on at length in his earlier work.

One of those footnotes that I found particularly interesting was Gopal’s passion for cricket, which I had not heard of before. Guha narrated a delightful little story about the last of the half a dozen occasions they had met. There had been a companionable silence for a while and then, suddenly, Gopal had softly said, with a sadness in his expression and tone, “But then you have never seen Musthaq Ali bat!” Guha was taken aback by this reference to the 1936 and 1946 tours of England. Years later, Guha had a response. “Would that he had lived to see Virender Sehwag bat!” I’ll go along with Gopal, after seeing Mushtaq Ali in 1946. And if only to recollect that experience, I look forward to reading Sarvepalli Gopal’s essays on cricket.

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Printable version | May 17, 2021 5:54:37 AM |

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