A Birla biography goes back in time to give a glimpse about what it feels like to be born a Birla - with an everlasting romance, great business acumen and differning management styles thrown in for good measure.
Kumar Mangalam Birla has fond memories of his childhood and being the favourite grandchild of Sarala and Basant Kumar Birla, and this nostalgia comes through in a new book called 'One Day At A Time'.
Chairman, AV Group, Kumar Mangalam Birla told CNBC-TV18, "When I think of home, the first image that flashes across my mind is that of the Birla Park. As soon as the holiday started, the next day I was in Kolkata. So, it was lot of fun because cousins and friends were over, it really was family time and a lot of fun. I remember my grandfather would take my height and he was very particular about the fact that you must be the right weight for your height."
"My grandmother used to always tell me that every minute that you waste at this time of your life when you are growing up, is a colossal waste of a time. She sent me to work in the office when I was ten years old, I went for a few days and then rebelled because I thought it was a little too early to start going to work. Being with them was always a very magical feeling because they just enveloped me with their love and affection, and at the same time there was a sense of right and wrong - one knew one’s limits."
But this book goes further back in time, when his grandfather Basant Kumar Birla was a young man. His father, GD Birla, one of the founding fathers of the Birla empire. While his wife - Sarala - is the daughter of freedom fighter Brij Lal Biyani. She was born in a progressive family that even seven decades ago believed that girls must be educated. Their marriage was a match made by their parents, facilitated by Jamnalal Bajaj and solemnized by none other than Mahatma Gandhi.
Sarala Devi Birla recalls, "I was studying in Pune, Ferguson College, and I got a message that I have to go to Bombay to Birla house, to see the boy. I went there, I was there for one night and there were so many boys there, I did not know who was who, I stayed there and I came back. After two-three months, I got a call from Gandhiji and my father-in-law telling me to come to Vardha. I went there from Pune and father asked me that you have seen Basant and you have not yet replied whether you are ready to marry him or not, I said, “you are right sir, but I did not know who the boy was.”
I said, “No, there were eight-ten boys, so I didn’t know who was Mr BK Birla” then I said that I won’t marry a boy unless I see him and I know who he is. So, Gandhiji said, “she is perfectly right” and then he said that we will arrange a meeting between you - you please come again.” So I said, “when I have my holidays, only then will I come.” Father was so nice, he said, “alright”. So, when I had my holidays, we met on November 8." Basant Kumar Birla agrees and says, "I told my colleagues, I am an interested in a girl who was educated and as she was educated - even without seeing her, I had approved her."
She came from a very emancipated family and she was very well educated and had lived in a college hostel alone. BK Birla was a little worried about whether her background would allow her to blend in very easily with the more conservative Birla family. BK Birla says, "I was hopeful that we will be able to adjust but as you have mentioned, that was the problem and after the marriage, she was actually taken out for training - for about 45 days! I was in Kolkata and she was with my aunty, can you understand that today? Today after the wedding, the couple goes out for a honeymoon. In our case, there was no honeymoon but 45 days or more, were taken out for training."
And so, two people from distinctly different backgrounds have stayed happily in love for 65 years of marriage. Sure there are differences, she loves shopping and he has to be coaxed into buying clothes. She is a disciplinarian and he is more indulgent, she has been devoted to the family, he was focused on business, yet no matter where he goes - whether they are factory visits or business trips - she is always by his side and he does his homework every single day. Well, after he comes home from work, he immediately takes 30-45 minutes off and spends it with his wife and updates her on what happened in the office - that's what the family calls his 'homework'!
Everyone in the family agrees that they are the perfect romantic couple who are looked up to and if the others figured out their secret, they would also enjoy a long and happy married life. But ironically, their children have not had the same luck. Basant Kumar and Sarala Devi had three children - the oldest was a son - one of India’s best-known business trailblazers - Aditya Birla and their two daughters Jayashree and Manjushree. Life offered little to complain about till Manjushree’s marriage broke up.
Manjushree says, "I do think they are very modern in many ways because at that time, when they realized that it really wouldn’t work - to say that 'go ahead and you can come back home'. My father had come over to my ex-in-law’s place and he was the one who said thinks didn’t work and the fact that I came back and the fact that they stood by me and told me that - do things for yourself and we are behind you. I think, at that point in time, that was tremendous."
The next challenge was the toughest that parents can be expected to ever face. In 1993, Aditya Birla was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Aditya started handing over the reigns to wife Rajashree and son Kumar Mangalam Birla. In October 1995, after a brave four months battle in hospital, Aditya Biral passed away. Rajashree Birla recalls, "I think my source of strength was their strength because they were there for me. I think we were giving strength to each other."
But, as the family grieved, 28-year-old Kumar Mangalam Birla had to get back to work. He explains, " In fact, right after my father passed away, the day after the funeral, my grandfather sat me down and said - you have this huge responsibility thrust upon you and the whole world is going to see how well you are going to do or otherwise. And if there is anything I can do in terms of running a business or running a clutch of businesses, and something that you think is very difficult for you to do - I am very happy to do that."
"And that was very poignant moment for me and I just thought at that point in time, if God forbid, I was in his position because he was 75 when he lost his only son and I thought to myself that if ever I was in his position, I doubt very much that I would had said something like that to my grandson. But just knowing, the fact that both of them are there, has been a great source of strength for me."
"There have been times, fairly often, when I've been in a situation when I am not able to think through (issues) and arrive at a solution - then all I have to do is call my grandfather. I know he is there at the other end of the line and gives his point of view but he makes it a point to say that this is 'my point of view, and I could be completely wrong. You have to do what you think is the best under the circumstances'. And he will never again ask me if I did follow his advice or not."
BK Birla adds, "We told Kumar Mangalam that we are not going to interfere in your work and in case you need our help, you come to us. But otherwise, we are not going to interfere in your work, but you should be careful and you should ensure that you maintain Aditya's standards.
In building individual business groups, four Birla generations have displayed distinctly different management styles. GD Birla was a cautious businessman; his son Basant Kumar a risk-taker, Aditya Birla's zeal to go global was much ahead of his time and Kumar Manglam Birla has consolidated and reformed a sprawling empire.
Kumar Mangalam Birla explains, "Management styles have a context to them and times has changed a lot since my grandfather’s time, when he first came into work, as also from my father’s time when he started working right up to the time that he passed away. I think the whole medium of Indian business has changed dramatically in the last 10-15 years. So, the whole role of a CEO, of a business dealer has completely transformed."
A different management style that is evident, when Kumar Mangalam Birla introduced a new retirement policy at the AV Birla Group, to make place for fresh talent. Kumar Mangalam Birla says, "When we announced the retirement age, it was quite a shock because that had never happened in the Birla family. We had a policy of pretty much - a womb to tomb policy - people stay on till they pass away. Their grandsons and sons all came to work in the Birla organisation."
"Just before we had announced the policy, I remember talking to him about it and I was really amazed that people like him (BK Birla) who have seen a very different business context, can remain so contemporary and so forward looking. I think even people half their age today, find it very difficult to stay contemporary. He is very encouraging and he said that it is the right thing to do for today’s business environment - so go ahead and do that. He said 'you must understand the implications of it, you must understand that you will get flak for it and you should be prepared to face that. If you think that’s the right thing to be done for the organisation, if you think that’s important to attract young talent, then go right ahead and do it'."
This eternally in love young-old couple are always on the move and on the look out for fresh experiences to liven up their lives. Last year, the Birlas took their first ever trip to China and next on the list is Cambodia. At 82, Sarala Birla is trying to learn French. At 86, Basant Kumar goes to work every single day. This young-at-heart couple is enjoying life - one day at a time.
READ MORE ON Basant Kumar Birla, book, One Day At a Time, Sarala Devi, Mahatma Gandhi, AV Birla Group, Kumar Mangalam Birla, Jamnalal Bajaj
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