The scion of a business family from Kanpur, Hari Shankar Singhania, 79, began his career in Calcutta when he was all of 18. He shifted his base to Delhi in the ’70s and is the president of the 100-year old JK Organisation, a group of diversified companies. Known for his entrepreneurial abilities and his pioneering ventures, Singhania, a Padma Bhushan awardee, shares his views on leadership and business ethics. Excerpts:
JK Organisation, whose roots go back 100 years, began purely as a family-run business and transformed into a multi-product, multi-location and multi-business industrial group. How did you transform your leadership style from a traditional one to a modern corporate outlook?
The transformation took place through evolution. In the past our aim was one of self-reliance — producing goods and delivering services that were then imported as per government policy.
As the economy expanded and got liberalised, our aim also changed. From the domestic market, we wanted to go global and change our style of functioning too. The focus was on innovation in a big way. For instance, we were the ones to introduce radial tyres in India.
Do you agree that in a family-run business, there is hardly any decentralisation in vertical leadership, and it is more about control by an individual?
I cannot comment on others. As far as our group is concerned, family members have become professionals. Each company has qualified professionals at the level of COO. They are all on the board.
You began your business career at 18 and through your entrepreneurial capabilities, have set up various pioneering ventures in India. What defines a true entrepreneur?
A true entrepreneur spots business opportunities before others can. When you analyse opportunities, do not get carried away by emotions. You should have a farsighted approach. Above all one has to have clarity of vision and goal. Let nothing deter you from this path.
Who has influenced you the most as a leader in your work field?
I have been influenced and inspired by a large number of persons, but it was my uncle Sir Padampatji and my father Lala Lakshmipatji who influenced me the most. They achieved many things despite difficult conditions and uncertainties and taught me what leadership is all about.
What would you consider to be your best leadership decision?
Shifting my base from Calcutta to New Delhi in the late ’70s, when West Bengal was on the precipice of de-industrialisation and flight of capital. And industrialidation was spreading its wings in the north — the political & economic powerbase of India.
And your worst business decision?
In the early ’80s, the shackles of control and regulations were being loosened and we the indigenous entrepreneurs were getting a taste of freedom, perhaps for the first time since Independence, in business. Many entrepreneurs were getting into reckless diversification in areas that were seemingly perceived as profitable and like many of our peers, we too had diversified into several areas of what you call today ‘non-core businesses’.
It ultimately couldn’t survive the turbulence of incoming-competition and failed to pursue the changing market. But as I look back, we were learning by committing mistakes and consolidating with wisdom.
As a leader, how difficult was it to steer your companies during the licence-permit raj and more recently, at a t ime when the economy is slowing down?
During the licence permit raj, one used to get notice for producing more than the licenced quota, unlike today. It was a different time. During adversities we steered with our experiences and focussed on the fact that life goes on as the business goes on.
You had been a president of both FICCI and the International Chamber of Commerce (Paris). How far can industry chambers act as catalysts in influencing governments’ decisions?
Chambers are social institutions and not just business lobbies. They have to play a proactive role in policy formation, like FICCI takes up issues on behalf of industry with policy-makers. At the International Chamber of Commerce, we initiated the process of globalisation in a successful manner. Moreover, a businessman should first nurture his own organisation and abide by the consensus worked out in these forums; otherwise he can’t command respect from either the government or the public.
During your 15 years as chairman of the governing body of IIM, Lucknow, a couple of centres of excellence were created. How would you define ‘excellence’?
I strongly believe that ‘excellence’ comes from an urge to strive and deliver the best every time. It is a mindset that says, “When it is good enough, improve it.” It is also a way of thinking and passion that comes only from a drive within.
Despite not being an MBA, you emerged as one of the most successful and respected corporate leaders. How was it possible? Do you think an MBA degree really matters in inculcating leadership quality in an individual?
An MBA degree is helpful. But to be a leader, you don’t need an MBA. What is important is vision, hard work, ability to accept challenges, take right decisions and to ensure that there is no trust deficit.
What about business ethics? What should a corporate leader follow?
One should accept that economic development is for the people, for the society at large, and the consumer in particular. Above all, in a country where nearly half the population lives below poverty line, overall growth by itself is not enough. It must find meaningful expression in the day-to-day life of the common man. Emphasis should be on addressing the unemployment issue and create jobs in both urban and rural areas, and on rural development.