Kolkata: In 1999, Krishna Kumar Birla, head of one of India’s biggest business groups and chairman of HT Media Ltd, which publishes Mint, the Hindustan Times and Hindi daily Hindustan, had a heart operation in London — more than a month after cardiologists in Kolkata had advised him to get the surgery done immediately.
Industry pioneer: A file photo of K.K. Birla. Photograph: S. Burmaula / Hindustan Times
But Birla, 80 at the time, needed to make some important business decisions, and wouldn’t leave India until he was done with them. His condition deteriorated, and he could feel it, yet he refused to budge. When the surgery took place, a main artery was found blocked 99%, and every other between 50% and 95%. Doctors said it was a close call.
And it was typical Birla, family and friends said in the wake of his death on Saturday at his residence in Kolkata. He would have turned 90 in November.
“...a true son of India, whose tireless efforts have benefitted many sections of society,” described ITC Ltd chairman Y. C. Deveshwar.
Indeed, in his own autobiography Brushes With History, Birla wrote, “The only time I missed office was due to an illness in 1942. It is not that I never fall ill. Sometimes I do get low fever, which lasts two or three days. My work, however, does not suffer and I continue with my daily routine.”
In his column on Sunday in the Hindustan Times, Vir Sanghvi, an advisory editorial director with HT Media, hailed Birla as the “last of a generation of Indian industrialists who knew Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, who had vivid memories of the freedom struggle and who still believed that it was the duty of industry to contribute to the old-fashioned task of nation-building.”
After seven decades as an industrialist, Birla leaves behind a business empire straddling media, sugar, textile, fertilizer, shipping and engineering.
Birla cut his teeth in business at the age of 20, when in 1938, his father, the legendary Ghanshyam Das Birla, decided to set up a company to manufacture machines for the textile industry, and handed young Birla the reins of this firm.
Started as Textile Machinery Corporation Ltd (now called Texmaco), it grew into a showcase of sorts, where the West Bengal government would take guests as Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev, secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and Nikolai Aleksandrovich Bulganin, chairman of the Soviet council of ministers, on guided tours. Founded to manufacture looms, Texmaco evolved over the years into an engineering firm that now manufactures railway wagons, industrial boilers and hydromechanical equipment. Saroj Kumar Poddar, one of Birla’s sons-in-law, now runs the company. He is executive vice-chairman of the company.
In the early 1940s, Birla took control of his family’s fledgling sugar business from uncle B.M. Birla. The factories were small at that time — even the biggest, Upper Ganges Sugar and Industries Ltd, had a crushing capacity of 1,300 tonnes of cane per day.
Under the leadership of Birla, the sugar companies grew fast and have now emerged as one of the largest producers of sugar in the country. Now run by his daughter Nandini Nopany and grandson C.S. Nopany, Upper Ganges alone has a crushing capacity of 14,250 tonnes of cane a day. And over the years, Oudh Sugar Mills Ltd, also managed by Nopany, has emerged as the biggest sugar company of the K.K. Birla group with a total crushing capacity of 21,700 tonnes per day.
Birla also entered several new businesses.
In 1967, he started construction of a fertilizer factory in Goa. Though there were some hiccups initially, the company — Zuari Industries Ltd — started production in 1973, and its success helped Birla secure the licence (those were days when government licences were required for almost any industrial activity) for setting up another fertilizer unit, Chambal Fertilizers and Chemicals Ltd. Established in 1985, Chambal’s factory in Gadepan, Rajasthan, is today one of the largest private sector fertilizer units in the country.
Like his father, Birla, too, was very close to the Congress party, particularly former prime minister Indira Gandhi. He says in his autobiography that he was considered part of the extended Gandhi family, and despite differences of opinion, he was close friends with Sanjay Gandhi and later, Rajiv Gandhi.
Birla became a member of the Rajya Sabha in March 1984 as an independent candidate supported by the Congress, and continued to be a member of the upper house till 2002. In these 18 years, he would rarely miss Rajya Sabha sessions. But in 2002, he decided not to seek re-nomination citing his wife Manorama Devi’s poor health after two cardiac arrests. She died last month.
Besides business and politics, Birla also helped create one of India’s best engineering colleges. The family hailed from Pilani in Rajasthan, where Birla’s grandfather Shivnarayan set up a pathshala, or a primary school, with one teacher in 1901 for the education of his sons. This eventually grew into a leading technology school, Birla Institute of Technology and Science (BITS), which now has campuses in Pilani, Goa and Dubai. Birla joined the governing board of BITS when it was founded in 1964.
Birla, who is survived by three daughters and sons-in-law, has over the years promoted his successors to key positions in all his companies. His daughter Jyotsna Poddar, who heads Gobind Sugar Mills Ltd as chairperson and managing director, runs the company with help from C.S. Nopany. His son-in-law Shyam Bhartia is on the board of the two fertilizer companies, but the management is led by S.K. Poddar, Jyotsna’s husband. Daughter Shobhana Bhartia heads the management of HT Media.
Mint could not ascertain whether this succession structure remains in effect after Birla’s death; a will is expected to be unveiled after the mourning period has concluded.