A business may be a money-making enterprise. But money does not make it into a respectable entity. It is a moral dimension that made the Tatas and Birlas into business houses that will survive for decades
07-Jun-2007 •Jay Dubashi
Why is it that some businesses last a long time, sometimes centuries, while some don't? Take Tatas. They are a 150-year old group and still going strong. Scores of others have come and gone, some even bigger than Tatas but they have fallen by the wayside and vanished into thin air.
Businesses are essentially money-making enterprises. Money is what keeps them going. But money is not enough, nor is it everything. Money is to business what food is to living organisms. You cannot do without food, but you have to have something more to keep you going.
That something is a moral dimension, something bigger than you, or at a level much higher than money. Without such a dimension, you are just like a pig at the trough, using the trough as a sole reason for your existence.
Ghanashyam Das Birla always said that he was not a businessman. He was actually much more than a businessman. He was a political activist all his life, intensely interested in India's struggle for freedom and supported Gandhi through all his ups and down.
This at a time when the British were closely watching him. In fact, GD Birla's close association with Gandhi so alarmed his brothers that there was a move at one time to split the family business and get rid of GD. But it does not seem to have bothered him.
It was the same with Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata. Jamsetji set up his first industry, a textile mill, immediately after the so-called Mutiny, but what he wanted to do was something much bigger - a steel plant. But the British government in India was deadly opposed to Indians musling in on their monopoly.
Jamsetji received no help at all from the Britishers, and he had to take the help of Americans for his new enterprises. The steel plant at Jamshedpur was set up in the teeth of opposition from foreign vested interests, and it was this, not money, that drove Jamsetji. Incidentally, Tata Steel will be completing its centenary this year.
There were times during the depression of the thirties when it was touch and go whether Tata Steel would survive. There was no money in the kitty and things were so bad that at one time the Tatas have almost decided to close down the factory and go into liquidation. But Jamsetji's two sons and their wives saved the day.
GD Birla was so much involved in Gandhi's politics that at one time the Britishers were seriously thinking of shutting down his jute and cotton mills and throwing him into jail. Somehow he managed to survive, though his brothers were very much cut up with him and almost disowned him.
This is what I call moral dimension, when your drive comes not from money but something bigger than money. I once spent a whole evening with GD in his Delhi residence. He was then past eighty but as perky as ever. Throughout the evening, we did not even once mention business, though it was very much on the agenda. At one point, GD said that he was not a businessman. To call GD a mere businessman is tantamount to calling Gandhi a politician. In fact, Gandhi, a baniya, was more of a businessman than Birla, which is why they got on so well.
Take it from me. Half the businesses you see today will not make it beyond the half-way mark of the 21st century, if at all. But the Tatas and Birlas will still be there, because they are not really business as you and I know them.