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Sunday, November 3, 2002

Life Ties

When creation matters more than acquisition
Taru Bahl

GAUTAM belonged to one of Delhiís old business families. He had grown up seeing balance sheets, hearing of takeovers, mergers and joint ventures. He was sent to the best business school and was married into a leading business family. Everything seemed in place for the new heir of the sugar empire of Northern India. Yet, his was a conventional family that practiced old-fashioned business norms and ethics. Doing good business had to translate into straight forward expansion, diversification and a clear-cut growth path. With energetic, down-to-earth, raring-to-go Gautam at the helm of affairs, his father was convinced that his companies were in safe hands.

However, he was in for a huge surprise. His son turned out to be the proverbial dark horse. Seeing him work, the senior gentleman often wondered if he knew his son at all. Yet, he chose to give him a free hand and try out the dynamic though radical principles of management which he so strongly believed in. For, giving him charge without really empowering him and believing in him, would be like giving him wings to fly but clipping them before he could even learn to take flight. The senior gentleman edged out of mainstream business running but kept a careful and concerned vigil. At the end of a decade, he knew that he had a winner on his hands. His son had actually succeeded in going a step beyond him and his forefathers. He had emerged as a leader who had along the way created many leaders. He had created wealth undoubtedly but had also allowed people around him to turn wealthy. He was a true visionary who embodied the best of the capitalist and socialist schools of thought. And no business school had taught him this, he had delved into his own deep recesses to masterfully carve out his persona, his destiny and in turn the destinies of those around him.

 


The family business of sugar was cyclical. In that it was dictated by international trends, domestic governmental policies, trade union pressures and other demand-supply related parameters. Things were already in place and there was precious little that he could do to streamline operations or eliminate bottlenecks. He could step up efficiency, improve HRD practices, prevent frequent strikes and lock outs and network with the government with the hope of having a favourable policy framework but beyond that things were happening on their own, irrespective of him.

He was free to experiment with new ideas. Travel, interaction with a cross-section of people, self-study, comparative analyses, informal feasibility studies on new themes helped Gautam to acquire a cutting edge. He learnt to predict market movements, consumer patterns and possible growth avenues long before they turned populist.

When he took over an ailing paper unit on the brink of a permanent closure, his family thought he had gone prematurely batty. What business opportunity he saw there was lost on them. He not only managed to get rid of the old hands by giving them VRS (not so common in the early 90s) before planting a new set of people, but he actually turned around its fortunes within two years. He set up a parallel publishing division which was lucrative since all the paper was coming from an in-house facility. A lean and mean set-up he readied his profitable company for a new employer. Yes, he was going to exit from the venture and look for a buyer. Within no time he had an open bid and he had sold the paper unit.

Next in line was a project development firm with a special interest in infrastructure. Here, he partnered old batch mates from his business school. Together, they created a niche service which turned out to be of immense interest and use to both the government and private sector. Expansion happened on its own. From a four- member team they grew into a 50 associate strong company of core players with presence in eight Indian cities and four overseas offices. It was Gautamís idea to have partner-associates who would be part entrepreneurs-employers. He gave them stock options and a huge percentage of profits (Narayan Murthyís Infosys story came much later) There was transparency in the accounting system and a consensus on all decisions. This way he empowered people and was assured of competence, sincerity and passion in an otherwise lacklustre and fickle market environment. When the project was running smoothly Gautam again exited, this time to ride the dotcom wave.

He was one of the first players in the market, whose two portals got picked up by American venture capitalists within the first six months of the dotcom boom in India. Again, it was his vision which ensured that he remained far ahead of his peers. He was almost like King Midas, touching everything and turning it to gold.

It was Gautamís father who knew that there was a pattern in Gautamís discarding old familiar paths as he tread new ones. At one level, he was a solo player and on another plane, he was a true empire builder. The difference between him and the traditional businessmen was in his non-acquisitiveness. He did not measure his success by the capital he held or the fixed assets he owned or the wealth he stashed away in Swiss bank accounts. For him, success lay in taking up challenges, breathing life into losing propositions, energising work places and spawning many new-age entrepreneurs who could shape the industrial, business and social climate of his country. By sharing wealth and bringing more people into a shared circle of affluence, he redefined the dynamics of exclusivity and snobbery which generations of traditional business families handed over to their scions on a platter. By not holding on to wealth, he showed his courage of convictions. With a childlike curiosity, he could learn the ABC of new concepts, invest in them a maniacal energy, fire people around him with an uncompromising set of standards and when the business would be running smoothly, hand it over to those he felt were its rightful owners. From a millionaire, he would turn into a pauper again, only to begin the process of creating wealth all over again, scripting a brand new success story. His father could see that his son was actually a sanyasi who hardly had any personal needs, though he was all the time guided by a high set of personal goals which kept him grounded and credible.

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