India at 75: From Ambanis to Bajaj – 20 leaders who shaped India’s business
India’s independence day, August 15, 1947, is memorable in history and in people’s collective memories. India has inspired the rest of the world over the past 75 years by focusing her civilizational strengths and cultural diversity on a whole new shared future and prospects for achievement, progress, and wealth for its billion-plus residents.
Let’s look at 20 India Inc. leaders who are inseparable from the concept of India. Each of them contributed to the development of India by adopting concepts and giving them life.
1. Gautam Adani
In the late 1980s, it all began with a modest commodity trading firm. Liberalization followed, which paved the way for Gautam Adani’s meteoric development. Adani company grew into a multi-commodity star-rated export firm, and its entry into Gujarat’s Kutch district’s Mundra, India’s largest private port, resulted from this growth.
By the 2000s, the Jain industrialist seized new chances across industries when the business-friendly and infrastructure development-focused administration of then-Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi presented them. Adani, 60, has solidified his mining, ports, and power enterprises. He has since expanded into more recent industries, like telecom, where he competes with Reliance and Airtel. He has surpassed Microsoft Co-Founder Bill Gates to become the fourth richest person in the world, with a net worth of $112.5 billion, according to the most recent Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
2. Anil Agarwal
“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” These opening lines from Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities could well describe the life of Anil Agarwal, chairman of Vedanta Resources, whose entrepreneurial journey has been shaped by bitter-sweet memories. Agarwal, now 68, a Patna (Bihar) native and school dropout, went from being a scrap metal dealer to one of India’s richest tycoons in 20 years. Vedanta is a widely diversified natural resource conglomerate interested in oil and gas, power production, zinc, lead, silver, copper, iron ore, and aluminium.
Agarwal has written about all of his challenges, including overcoming depression and problems in school while learning English in Patna. He has written about establishing himself in business in Mumbai. The millionaire has established the Vedanta Foundation and has committed to giving 75% of his money to charity. He is a philanthropist.
3. The Ambanis
Few people thought Dhirubhai Ambani would change the game’s rules when he returned from Aden, Yemen, in the late 1950s to establish a textile plant in India. Ambani was not perceived as a danger by the Parsi and Marwari families, which controlled the Indian commercial world at the time. Local companies didn’t start paying attention to Ambani until his company, Reliance Industries, today the largest revenue-generating corporation in India, went public in 1977. From that point, Ambani and his sons Mukesh and Anil were unstoppable, acquiring businesses and eliminating rivals.
Ambani passed away without leaving a will in 2002, and his sons engaged in a contentious court dispute over company ownership. Anil, the younger brother, received the businesses in wireless telephony, electricity generation, financial services, and infrastructure under the terms of a peace pact agreed by the siblings in 2005.
Since then, Anil Ambani’s companies have filed for bankruptcy, while Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries has prospered. With Mukesh, 65, announcing his succession plan, which is centred on the Ambanis’ Gen Next: Akash, Isha, and Anant, the next major chapter in the history of Reliance Industries is being written.
4. Rahul Bajaj
Rahul Bajaj will be regarded as a businessman who continued this Gandhian legacy, just as Jamnalal Bajaj, the founder of the Bajaj Group and the foster son of Mahatma Gandhi, wore several hats, including those of industrialist, freedom warrior, social reformer, and philanthropist. Rahul Bajaj led from the front, fighting tenaciously against the Licence Raj and providing millions of Indians with the chance to buy a two-wheeler. As much with the scooter as with the man operating it, “Hamara Bajaj” became connected.
Under his leadership, the business introduced the Bajaj Sunny, a motorcycle with a 60 cc engine that quickly gained popularity among young ladies in India. He was an advocate of economic change and a proponent of modernization. Motorcycles appeared, keeping up with younger consumers’ shifting preferences.
Before handing the reins over to his son Rajiv Bajaj in 2005, he turned Bajaj Auto during the course of his four decades as company president into a global manufacturing behemoth. Bajaj Auto, Bajaj Finance, Bajaj Finserv, and Bajaj Holdings and Investment are all part of the business empire, which today has a total market value of about Rs 8.4 trillion.
The man who never shied away from calling a spade a spade owes a lot to corporate India. India Inc. lost a doyen with his passing in February of this year at the age of 83, and an era came to an end.
5. Sachin Bansal and Binny Bansal
Several years ago, during a frank conversation with BS journalists, Sachin Bansal, a co-founder of Flipkart and current entrepreneur in the financial sector (Navi Technologies), discussed the challenging path a company must take. When he and the other Flipkart founder Binny Bansal (not related) searched the book stores of Bengaluru for ‘Leaving Microsoft to Change the World,’ Sachin’s entrepreneurial journey actually started on a hard road, that too on a wet day.
In 2007, they attempted to fulfil Flipkart’s first order while riding a mobike. The hub of the online book company that made e-commerce hip in India was their rented two-bedroom home in Koramangala.
As has happened with so many co-founders of garage renown, the two low-key IITians, now in their early 40s, have since parted ways. Regardless of their most recent endeavours, the Bansal team will be remembered most for establishing the face of Indian e-commerce.
6. R C Bhargava
R C Bhargava, the 88-year-old chairman of Maruti Suzuki India, has been a part of it all, whether it is the story of industrialization in pre- and post-liberalized India or the shifting ambitions of the nation’s middle class from the early 2000s to the present. He was a founding member of Maruti (formerly Maruti Udyog Ltd) in 1981, and from 1990 to 1997, he served as the company’s managing director.
He oversaw the transfer when the Indian government sold it to Suzuki Motor Corp. in 2003. Osamu Suzuki, chairman of Suzuki Motor Corporation, stated in an interview with Forbes India in 2015 that “without RC Bhargava, Suzuki Motor Corporation would not have thrived in India as now.”
Bhargava, a former policymaker who now leads the industry, is credited with not only Maruti’s success but with the change in the Indian automotive industry that followed, which grew to become the world’s largest manufacturer of small vehicles. With him in charge, India’s largest automaker is redefining itself with new releases and entry-level SUVs while keeping an eye on the EV market.
7. Aditya Birla and K M Birla
The stock market’s brightest stars were Basant Kumar Birla’s group enterprises, Kesoram Industries, Century Textiles, Century Enka, and Jayshree Tea and Industries. Basant Kumar Birla was the youngest son of Ghanshyam Das Birla. Aditya Vikram Birla was his son who expanded the family business outside of India and opened the first overseas textile plant in Malaysia in 1969. A cooking oil unit followed this in Indonesia.
Kumar Mangalam Birla (now 55) took over when his father, Aditya Birla, passed away from cancer in 1995. Presently, of the $60 billion in annual revenues of the Aditya Birla Group, half comes from abroad. Through mergers and acquisitions, the empire grew under Kumar Mangalam Birla.
Its holding company, Grasim Industries, will enter the paint industry by 2024. The conglomerate recently announced one of India Inc.’s largest foreign investments in a greenfield aluminium manufacturing plant in Alabama, US. In addition to holding a telco in a joint venture with Vodafone in the UK, it has a presence in fashion retail and financial services.
8. Kishore Biyani
The Future group’s founder, Kishore Biyani, famously claimed that he was both a creator and a destroyer in his 2007 book, It Happened in India. Over the course of his 30-year retail career, the 61-year-old Marwari merchant has experienced highs and lows. Biyani has experimented with all facets of the retail industry, starting with the production of denim brands in the early 1990s, expanding small- and large-format fashion stores under the Pantaloons brand, and establishing modern retail in India with the Big Bazaar hypermarket chain in 2001, which he later expanded with additional formats.
While he was entering the production and distribution of fast-moving consumer products, his debt began to soar, forcing him to sell companies like Pantaloons and quit formats like electronics and home furnishings.
However, the Covid-19 outbreak drove his heavily leveraged retail operation to the breaking point, with lockdowns closing the outlets overnight. In April of this year, a high-profile agreement with Reliance Retail that had been signed in August 2020 fell through after Amazon challenged the arrangement in court, forcing Future Retail into bankruptcy. The future for Biyani doesn’t now seem mainly promising.
9. Subhash Chandra
Subhash Chandra, chairman of the Essel Group, is best known for launching Zee TV in 1992, which marked the beginning of India’s cable and satellite TV revolution. Few people know that Chandra, 71, ran a prosperous business producing plastic packaging for FMCG corporations and pharmaceutical giants before founding the Hindi entertainment channel. In 2019, Chandra’s brother Ashok Goel’s Essel Propack was sold to Blackstone for Rs 3,200 crore. It continues to be one of Chandra and his family’s few recent successes.
Chandra, who formerly collaborated with competitor Rupert Murdoch to build Star TV in India, has been dealing with lenders who want to find a solution to Essel Group’s debt problems for some time. He has had to deal with challenging partners like Invesco in Zee and shareholders like YES Bank in Dish TV, the direct-to-home company that is a member of the Essel Group. A few months ago, Chandra acknowledged that he was depressed but not hopeless. And that if his creditors permitted it, he was willing to make a new start in the media.
10. M A Chidambaram
M A Chidambaram started the scooter revolution, revived India’s petrochemicals industry, revolutionized cricket administration, and served as Madras’ mayor (now Chennai). M. A. Chidambaram was a multifaceted individual. Chidambaram announced a revolution in urban transportation following India’s attainment of independence as it realized its lofty goals. He was key in introducing the Italian Lambretta, known as “the common man’s automobile,” to Indian roadways.
The Southern Petrochemical Industries Corporation (SPIC), which was founded in 1969 and still provides need-based solutions to the farming community, was the brainchild of this individual. Chidambaram played a crucial role in many reforms while serving as president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), including the intro of air travel for Indian Test cricketers and funding for retired players. He was a man who established himself in many industries, including agribusiness, chemicals, petrochemicals, detergents, electronics, shipping, engineering services, infrastructure, logistics, and port administration.
11. Y C Deveshwar
ITC changed its name from Imperial Tobacco Company of India Limited to India Tobacco Company Limited and finally to I.T.C. throughout the past 112 years. The full stops were removed in 2001 when its chairman, Y C Deveshwar, began forming the ITC of today: a business identified by Aashirvaad (staples, ready meals, salt, fresh dairy, and more), Sunfeast (cookies, biscuits, and cakes), Bingo! (snacks), and Yippee! in addition to its cigarette brands, India Kings, Classic, and Gold Flake (noodles).
Even though British American Tobacco was and still is ITC’s sole shareholder, it was in line with Deveshwar’s vision of developing “Indian” brands and establishing ITC as India’s Trademarks Corporation.
His philosophy spread to other areas: in 2000, the ground-breaking e-Choupal initiative became a showcase project and a crucial component of ITC’s agri-sourcing infrastructure, resulting in higher farmer incomes. And Deveshwar promoted the need for innovative corporate strategies that go beyond increasing shareholder value long before it became important for businesses to achieve sustainability goals. He passed away in 2019, but ITC still lays the groundwork for him.
In addition, Deveshwar held the positions of chairman and managing director of Air India from 1991 to 1994 after being chosen by Madhavrao Scindia, the country’s then-minister of civil aviation. During this time, the airline’s profitability increased.
12. Arun Firodia
“We wished to contribute in some small way to the societal changes that were occurring in India in the 1970s. People found it challenging to commute on bicycles as cities grew. We believed the timing was right to release a cheap vehicle that would enable mobility. According to Arun Firodia, head of the Kinetic Group, “while the Luna brought mobility to the average man, the Kinetic Honda gave mobility to ladies. The first indigenous moped, the Luna, became a huge hit. In a partnership with the Honda Motor Company, Firodia is recognized for delivering one of the most cutting-edge scooter models to India, bringing accessible mobility to the masses.
One of the earliest businesses to develop e-scooters was The Kinetic.
13. Adi Godrej
One of the most recognizable names in Indian business is Adi Godrej. Adi Godrej, 80, continues to serve as chairman emeritus of the Godrej group, which includes operations in many industries, including soaps, real estate, and defence. He handed the chairmanship of the family-owned Godrej Industries (GIL) over to his brother Nadir last year.
The 125-year-old family-owned company is actively disentangling cross holdings through a separation process. Adi Godrej, a graduate of MIT with degrees in engineering and business, deserves credit for making the consumer goods company the largest landowner in Mumbai, with 4,000 acres. The company’s history began in 1897 when Ardeshir Godrej decided to launch a business producing strong locks after reading a brief news article in the Bombay Gazette about a group of robbers breaking locks in the city.
The Godrej Brothers Company, which Ardeshir and his brother Pirojsha Burjorji jointly created, has grown under Adi Godrej into a $4.1 billion conglomerate.
14. Rama Prasad Goenka
A family agreement drafted by father Keshav Prasad among his three sons served as the impetus for Rama Prasad Goenka (RPG), commonly referred to as India’s original takeover tycoon, to begin a string of acquisitions. Goenka founded RPG Enterprises in 1979 with the inherited businesses Phillips Carbon Black, Asian Cables, Agarpara Jute, Murphy India, and Rs 105 crore in revenue.
The 1980s saw a series of acquisitions; when CEAT was bought in 1981, KEC, Searle India, HMV, Spencer’s, Harrisons Malayalam, and CESC were all acquired. However, other projects were unsuccessful, like Premier Automobiles, which was purportedly postponed at Indira Gandhi’s request and on the advice of some friends. Gandhi had an effect on RPG; when she lost control, this proximity locked him up. Despite a few small setbacks, RPG constructed one of the fastest expanding industrial houses, which he eventually divided between his sons Harsh and Sanjiv before passing away in 2013.
15. Captain Gopinath
Capt Gopinath’s Air Deccan inspired Vinay Dube, the founder of the new low-cost airline Akasa, as he developed the idea for founding his own airline. Gopinath’s pitch to get Indians to fly for one rupee, which he announced in the summer of 2005, is still unmatched today.
The low-cost carrier, or LCC, concept was introduced to India through it. By 2007, there were 380 flights per day operated by Air Deccan from 67 airports, most of which were in Tier B and C cities. 25,000 people were travelling every day, up from 2,000 when the airline first started. Three million Indians took flights for one rupee each.
LCCs now serve over 80% of India’s domestic market, but Gopinath’s Air Deccan is no longer in operation. It struggled to survive as losses grew, was sold to Kingfisher Airlines, owned by Vijay Mallya, and was grounded in 2011.
16. Yusuf Hamied
Yusuf Hamied, a chemist with a degree from Cambridge, joined his father’s business, Cipla, in the 1960s. From the start, he was committed to ending the dominance of foreign multinational corporations over the Indian pharmaceutical sector. In 1972, he succeeded in persuading the Indian government to amend the country’s patent laws.
This single action completely changed the Indian pharmaceutical sector. India is the largest generic medication producer in the world. When Hamied introduced medicine that cost less than one-tenth of what it did elsewhere in the world but delayed the development of AIDS in HIV-positive patients, he instantly became a household name. But due to a WTO commitment, India updated its patent rules in 2005 to conform to global standards and outlaw unlicensed medicine copying. Hamied has consistently insisted that each nation’s patent laws should be based on local needs.
17. The Hindujas
The original commodities trading company, established by Parmanand Deepchand Hinduja in 1914 in the Sindh region of Pakistan, was expanded by his four sons, Srichand, Gopichand, Prakash and Ashok, both within India and outside. Most Hinduja families reside in the UK, and the professionals there are in charge of running their six publicly traded companies in India.
The Hindujas are Queen Elizabeth’s next-door neighbours in London. They host their yearly star-studded Diwali party in Carlton House Terrace, a row of four interconnected Georgian residences near Buckingham Palace. They are the richest persons in Britain and have stock in IndusInd Bank and truck manufacturer Ashok Leyland.
But things haven’t been all roses. The High Court rejected an accusation that the brothers had accepted a commission from Bofors gun manufacturers in the 1980s.
Additionally, they became involved in the UK’s “cash-for-passports” scandal in the early 2000s. Srichand’s family is engaged in a court dispute over ownership of the $18 billion corporate conglomerate. The group should adhere to the adage that “everything belongs to everyone and nothing belongs to anyone,” according to the other three brothers.
18. T V Sundram Iyengar & Venu Srinivasan
T V Sundram Iyengar established the now-global business TVS Group in 1911. However, TVS Motor Company Chairman Venu Srinivasan, a descendant of the automobile pioneer, is the man carrying the torch forward. As a 50cc moped producer in the 1980s, TVS is credited with Srinivasan’s transformation into the third-largest two-wheeler manufacturer in India, competing with brands like Hero, Bajaj, and Honda.
Although the firm controls the moped market, it produces e-scooters, gearless scooters, race motorbikes, and BMW bikes. Srinivasan, a motivated businessman, created a new standard for Indian two-wheelers worldwide. In June of this year, the government named him to the central board of the RBI as a part-time non-official director.
19. Rakesh Jhunjhunwala
Rakesh Jhunjhunwala should be credited for sparking interest in the equities markets, just as Sachin Tendulkar did for national cricket. Every investor, both new and experienced, hopes to achieve Jhunjhunwala’s feat of turning their money into crores. By purchasing and selling the same stocks as him, many people attempt to imitate him. But through thick and thin, Jhunjhunwala’s secret sauce has been a long-running bull in India. In 1985, when the Sensex was at 500, he began investing with just Rs 5,000.
The chartered accountant had the foresight and bravery to stake major sums of money on businesses that profited from the India story. He has amassed a major fortune by holding onto his investments in stocks like Titan, CRISIL, and Lupin for at least ten years. His stakes in publicly traded stocks are valued at Rs 30,653 crore (as of August 10). In addition, he co-produces movies and has stock in many unlisted companies. With his aircraft company Akasa Air just beginning, he is still far from finished at 62.
20. O P Jindal
Om Prakash Jindal saw doorways where other people saw walls. So when he came across steel pipes with a “Made in England” label, he thought of changing it to “Made in India”. Jindal, a farmer’s son, left his home in the Haryana village of Nalwa to pursue his goals. He was 20. He planted the roots of a steel empire by establishing a pipe bends and socket-making firm in Liluah, West Bengal, two years later, in 1952. From there, he travelled to Hisar and inaugurated Jindal India Ltd.’s pipe unit.
After that, a plant beneath Jindal Strips. As more units arrived, a monolith of steel-to-power began to take shape. He was a politician and industrialist who was three times elected to the Haryana Assembly. His sons now run his steel company, which has grown since he died in a helicopter crash in 2005.
Edited by Prakriti Arora