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Review: The Inheritors: Stories of Entrepreneurship and Success by Sonu Bhasin

Sonu Bhasin highlights the complexities of family politics across generations

books Updated: Mar 16, 2018 20:34 IST
Sujoy Gupta
Harsh C Mariwala of Marico in March 2011.
Harsh C Mariwala of Marico in March 2011. (Priyanka Parashar)
The Inheritors: Stories of Entrepreneurship and Success; Sonu Bhasin; Rs 299, 304pp; Penguin Random House

This delightful book deserves both praise and rebuke. Let me get done with the latter. One, it is badly proof-read. There are over half a dozen errors including silly ones like ‘diary’ for ‘dairy’! Two, the chosen inheritors belong to families based in Mumbai and Delhi. There’s none from south of the Vindhyas. Three, accuracy of dates is a bit wobbly. In chapter 5 on Keventers Bhasin writes “the original business was actually set up in 1922.” Yet Keventers’ prominent newspaper ad on 4th March claimed “over 125 years enriching lives”. So who’s correct?

I forgive these trespasses without demur. Bhasin has deftly used her past expertise in creating an editorial platform dedicated to family-owned businesses. Her writing style isn’t facile or superficial but true to complexities of family politics across successive generations. An inevitable issue is the role of the widowed mother, the matriarch. She holds immense emotional sway over the children, the inheritors, who will now run businesses she presides over but knows nothing about.

The author is truthful but neutral about intra-family disputes. Much is available nowadays via archival online records but Bhasin gets high marks in credibility since each chapter ends with a section listing detailed references which researchers are welcome to examine.

This factor rebuts possible charges of interviews with business chieftains -- who have agreed to reveal family history, intrigues included -- being stage-managed. Obviously, conversations aren’t hostile or inquisitional. Interviewees are tough-as-nails business practitioners. Without sharp eyes, ears and tongues they couldn’t have survived. Yet, true to their decision to face authorial audit, Bhasin is given firsthand narrations of family culture, ego battles and internecine rivalries that have ruinously led some family-owned businesses to doom.

I found the authentic accounts of brand warfare particularly fascinating. Stiff upper-lipped, financially powerful and always aloof heads of prestigious corporations are quoted and named with disarming felicity.

I simply can’t resist the temptation of telling readers about the brand war between Hindustan Lever Ltd (HLL) and Marico, owner of coconut-oil brand Parachute. HLL wanted to buy Parachute. Keki Dadiseth, HLL chairman, phoned Marico owner Harsh Mariwala late one evening to tell him so. “Mr Mariwala, I will give you enough resources to take care of you and all your future generations.” Mariwala replied with silence and heard the threat that if he didn’t sell he would be the loser as HLL would make sure that there would be nothing left of Parachute in the market. Mariwala replied, “Mr Dadiseth, you may think I’m a nut but you will find that I’m a tough nut to crack. Thanks, but no thanks.” He wasn’t boasting. In 2006, Mariwala vanquished HLL by buying out its coconut oil business for Rs 216 crores.

The author’s summation of the intra-family scenario in Berger Paints depicts an unhappy semi-equilibrium between generations. Kuldip has three daughters while Gurcharan has two daughters and a son. The daughters are not at all keen about joining the family business. The son studied in the US and not too keen about coming back. It would be a shame, opines the author cogently, if history were to repeat itself. The next sells off the business built assiduously by one generation. It’s clear a business will thrive only if family culture and values that have lasted four generations keep the fifth one growing as well.

Sonu Bhasin (Courtesy Penguin Random House)

Let me end this review with a stern rebuke. True, all enterprising lives carry on through fun and frolic, good and evil, quarrels and rapprochements, profits and losses. Bhasin has focused on Indian business families and fascinatingly unveiled lots of human stories kept from public view. I take her to task for not addressing the broader issue of these families’ obsession with keeping success stories secret. Bhasin’s candid analyses would have added substantial value to this book.

Very seriously, why does Indian business need an independent scribe to tell its success stories? Why don’t successful entrepreneurs write their own tales firsthand? Possibly, their road to success is strewn with the skeletal remains of annihilated marketplace foes. Too many skeletons rattle in sleazy boardroom cupboards that are kept firmly shut! Is this why none dares take the slightest risk of letting a tiny bone tumble out? I don’t know the answer. Maybe Sonu Bhasin does.

Sujoy Gupta is a business historian and biographer.