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Empires And Succession

Most business fathers were not sure if their progeny would stay together. Very few family businesses stay together or last longer than three or four generations.

It's all settled. The older brother will get the two big companies, the younger one, the rest. The empire the father built up will remain more or less intact, at least for the time being. Did Dhirubhai have an inkling about all this? I doubt it. At least he never spoke about it. Of course, he was so busy building his empire, he had no reason to believe his own children would undo what he had done.

Most other business fathers I have met were not so sure about their progeny. Once I met the head of a Calcutta - now Kolkata - based business house in his den not far from the stock exchange. The family had been very close to Birlas and, also at one time, to Britishers. It had snapped up a large chunk of British-held companies after independence and since the family was also close to the new Indian leaders, it had prospered.

But the head of the family was not so sure about the future. When we were being served tea the eldest son sauntered in to have a word with the father. No sooner had he left, the father burst into tears. It was so sudden, I had no idea what to do. I asked him whether I could get him another cup of tea.

"Not tea," said the old man, "I need sympathy." He spoke more like a character in an Arthur Miller play. He explained he had doubts whether his three sons would stay together after his death.

And that is precisely what happened. The sons separated within a year of father's death. They now have their own empires, but they are not, I am told, even on speaking terms.

One of the very few families who have been able to manage their affairs amicably are the Birlas. They are all separate now, but they are still very much a family. Ghanashyam Das Birla once said that there was no such thing as a Birla group, not in the strict corporate sense. Every company was different, managed separately. He had actually told his sons and nephews to set up their own households after marriage, which means separate kitchens. "They must first learn to manage their own households before they learn to manage their businesses," he used to insist.

All the Birla sons were running their own separate businesses and households long before their fathers passed away. One never read in the papers about any big dispute, though there must have been scores of joint sessions on dividing the spoils.

Very few family businesses stay together or last longer than three or four generations. Birlas are an exception, precisely because they are not really a family business. Look at Mafatlals or the Sri Rams of Delhi, or, for that matter, the Doshis of Walchand Hirachand. Technically, they are still in business but not in one group. The Ambanis are not an exception, but it has been all too sudden!1