VR Logo

Heroes in Corporate India

Indians will admire and appreciate a few good men who build transformative institutions

There is plenty that is happening in India that bodes well for the country. When you look at society, you see that the position of woman has transformed over the past 20 years. Female literacy has shot up, as has female labour force participation. As a result, women are marrying later, having fewer children and are continuing to work post marriage in far greater numbers. This obviously bodes well for income levels in our country, especially in the less privileged sections of society where such trends have become very marked in the last decade or so.

When you look at politics, you cannot but admire how a combination of the law courts, helpful legislation, the media and ‘civil society’ have derailed the poisonous intersection of politics and commerce. Furthermore, the rise of a dozen or so independent economic regulators (TRAI, CCI, SEBI, PNGRB, etc) lead by competent and largely fair minded civil servants is yet another startling positive as is the relentless rise of regional parties. All of this should be celebrated because as James Robinson and Daron Acemoglu highlight in their book Why Nations Fail, countries which fail to create inclusive political systems eventually collapse because without inclusive politics, you cannot get inclusive, and therefore sustainable, economic growth.

And yet for all this profound and positive change, we appear to be a nation lost for direction and fed on a daily diet of corruption scandals. One manifestation of this lack of direction is the paucity of heroes in our country. If you leave aside the make believe heroes from the world of cinema and sport, our country really does not possess idols that we can look up to and emulate.

Many of our business icons are now largely discredited either because they are either viewed as reckless adventurers with little or no focus on shareholder value and/or eager rent seekers, keen at the drop of a hat to cut a dodgy deal or two with avaricious politicians. It would appear that we will have to wait for a long time for our domestic Steve Jobs, Richard Branson and Akio Morita. Or will we?

In this time of drift, I find it fascinating that a number of important corporate captains have chosen to maintain a low profile. Rather than take a stand on the issues which will define our generation, these men and women, many of whom come from humble middle class origins, have chosen to continue doing what they know best – building great businesses.

If you look at the Nifty when it was first created in 1995, only 19 companies from the original index are still part of it. Two of those companies are HDFC and HDFC Bank. Right at the top of the pantheon of Indian corporate heroes I would place the group which created HDFC and HDFC Bank – Deepak Parekh, Aditya Puri, Keki Mistry and many others whose names I know not. These are world class financial institutions and the bankers who built these firms are right up there with any globally feted Wall Street titan. Most of these men have chosen to avoid the media spotlight but in the years to come, the Indian public will, I think gradually come to admire and appreciate this genuinely inspiring tale of a few good men who built two transformative institutions.

Even more startling than HDFC and HDFC Bank are the companies from the Tata stable. Of the 19 companies from the original 1995 Nifty that are still in the Nifty, three are from the Tata empire – Tata Motors, Tata Power and Tata Steel. I used to live in the UK when both Corus and JLR were acquired by the Tata’s. Along with the Brits, I gave the Indians little chance of pulling these moribund businesses around. The fact that they did, shows the strength and discipline that they bring to running large, capital intensive businesses. One day their story will be told in ‘technicolour’.

And my final set of heroes are Indian middle managers in offices and shop floors across the country. I have worked in many different parts of the world and my discussions with others who have also done so suggests that there are few countries with a more competitive work ethic than India. Combine workplace competition that with long commutes to and from work, cities with few civic amenities, temperamental promoters masquerading as professional managers and clients based at the other end of the world, life and work in India is uniquely draining. The fact that the Indian professionals continue to deliver in such circumstances and continue to push this nation forward makes them my ‘Hero number 1’.