One of the legends of Indian business, T. Thomas, or TT as he was fondly called, passed away on 2 March at the age of 90. A strict disciplinarian, a strategist and a visionary, he led Hindustan Unilever Ltd, then known as Hindustan Lever Ltd, as chairman between 1973-1980, a difficult time for businesses in the country, following the OPEC-driven oil crisis. He began his career with the company in 1950.

Among his other achievements was his involvement as chairman of one of the country’s best known schools, Cathedral and John Connon School in Mumbai, besides setting up of institutions including Asha Daan.

Thomas went on to join the board of Unilever as a director and was also a non-executive chairman of companies including Glaxo and Lafarge.

He had come to the helm at Hindustan Lever during the turbulent times of price controls and the implementation of the Foreign Exchange Regulation Act (FERA) when multinationals were asked to dilute 60% or more of their holding to an Indian partner or leave the country.

TT was instrumental in helping Unilever retain the majority shareholding as he set up a chemicals plant, one of the largest investments at that time in West Bengal, moving the company into what the country defined as core businesses then. The business was subsequently divested and is now a part of Tata Chemicals Ltd.

Those were the years of price control and Hindustan Lever was losing money on every tonne of soap and Vanaspati being manufactured. He convinced the government about how it was losing revenues to the large black market and getting Vanaspati, and eventually soap prices, decontrolled.

“He was a strict disciplinarian in his initial years at HLL but over the years as chairman of Cathedral School he had mellowed down," said M.K. Sharma, chairman, United Spirits Ltd and ICICI Bank Ltd, who was a manager at Hindustan Lever during Thomas’s tenure.

Thomas also spearheaded the launch of the Jammu detergents factory and Haldia STP (sodium tri-polyphosphate) plant.

He was instrumental in recasting the company’s then management trainee programme which led to trainees working in rural areas as well for their all-round development.

During his tenure as chairman of HLL, Thomas set up Asha Daan, which is run by Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. It serves the differently-abled, sick and destitute. He also led the Anglo Scottish Education Society, which runs the Cathedral School.

“Thomas was a remarkable leader and an institution builder. I personally looked up to him. He was a great example of a purpose-driven and values-led leader. His legacy will always live on," said Sanjiv Mehta, chief executive and managing director, HUL.