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The list of top business groups in India has undergone a significant change since the early days of economic liberalization. If one looks at the list of the top 15 business groups in the country since 1970, only five groups have stayed in the list through the 25 years between 1990 and 2015, compared with eight groups that stayed in the list through the 20-year period between 1970 and 1990.

This outcome is not surprising. Although economic liberalization has given rise to many opportunities, it has also come with heightened volatility in the external environment (new policy regimes, greater competition from both Indian and multinational companies, demographic and consumption shifts and so on). Top business groups have differed in their ability to seize opportunities, cope with volatility, or both.

This, then, is the external story: the narrative that played out in the marketplace, in the form of earnings, returns to shareholders, market share shifts and profitable growth. This is the story that is easiest to track, and it is what most people follow.

A second, parallel story played out inside the groups. This second story was much less visible and told of building the business, expanding and retaining a quality workforce, strengthening the culture, upgrading the systems, learning from experience, adapting the business model, holding down costs and mobilizing the people to carry it all out perfectly again and again. This story is one of causes: How groups, both young and mature, overcame the predictable crises of growth and established internal conditions for external success.

At Bain & Company, we have been studying the key internal factors of sustainable growth for companies. We have observed that despite their many differences, most companies that achieve sustainable growth share a common set of motivating attitudes and behaviours that often can be traced back to a bold, ambitious founder. Such companies consider themselves insurgents, waging war on their industry on behalf of an underserved customer.

These companies possess a clear sense of mission and focus that everyone in the company can understand and relate to; the companies have the special ability to foster deep feelings of personal responsibility in employees (in contrast with the average company, where a recent Gallup survey shows that only 13% of employees say that they are emotionally engaged). The companies are obsessed with the details of the business and celebrate employees at the front line, who deal directly with customers.

Together, these attitudes and behaviours constitute a frame of mind that is one of the greatest and most undervalued secrets of business success. We call it the Founder’s Mentality®, and three traits—the insurgent mission, front-line obsession and the owner mindset—are at its centre.

Tata group, Reliance Industries, Aditya Birla Group, ITC and Larsen & Toubro (L&T) are the five that have remained in the list for the past 25 years. Among these, three groups (Tata, Aditya Birla and L&T) have been in the top 15 since 1970, while Mahindra & Mahindra returned to the list in 2015 after dropping out in 1990.

Although a detailed discussion of each example would cover a number of articles, we see evidence of Founder’s Mentality elements playing out across the businesses in these groups.

For example, the insurgent mission that Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) rejuvenated in 2003 (35 years after the company was founded) with its “Top 10 by 2010" programme galvanized the entire firm to deliver spectacular growth.

L&T inculcated an owner mindset, including concern for shareholder value, among its workforce by means of a bold employee stock-option programme that guided everyone to think big and focus on value creation.

Reliance Industries’ Jamnagar story is a part of business folklore: A front-line workforce of more than 75,000 toiled round the clock for months and, using many innovative techniques in project execution, established the refinery in record time—fewer than three years.

Aditya Birla Group’s success in transforming itself into a customer-focused enterprise is another example that embodies many key elements of the Founder’s Mentality.

As these groups—and new ones to come—look ahead, it is important that they imbibe the learnings of the Founder’s Mentality if they wish to thrive. This might mean rediscovering the core insurgent mission of the company. Or we might argue that the voices of customers and the front line must be heard amid a din of competing statements—most often opinions coming from the centres of authority within a group. Or these groups might consider bringing back the idea of “thinking and acting like an owner", which has been ground down by complexity. Perhaps the answer is all of the above!

Continued success is a function of this mentality: a collection of specific behaviours and attitudes, best exemplified by the traits of great founders, that if properly cultivated leads more reliably to sustainable growth. Whether a company is decades removed from the era of its founding doesn’t matter. Rather, just about every company, at any stage in its existence, can benefit from the attitudes and behaviours that make up the Founder’s Mentality.

Young companies need to build the Founder’s Mentality; older companies need to rediscover or even redefine it. This action will distinguish those who remain on the list 10 or 20 years from now from those who drop out.

Nikhil Prasad Ojha is a partner with Bain & Company and leads Bain’s strategy practice in India. He is the co-editor of the Mint-Bain series on “25 Years of Reforms". Dunigan O’Keeffe is a partner with the firm and leads the firm’s strategy practice in Asia-Pacific. Founder’s Mentality® is a registered trademark of Bain & Company.

Next week: ITeS—from infancy to adulthood.

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