BK Birla, doyen of Indian industry, dies at 98
Basant Kumar Birla, chairman of the BK Birla Group and grandfather of industrialist Kumar Mangalam Birla, died on Wednesday in Mumbai. He was 98.
BK Birla, or Basant babu as he was fondly called in business circles, was born on January 12, 1921. He was industrialist and philanthropist Ghanshyam Das Birla’s youngest son. Soon after completing his matriculation exam from Kolkata’s legendary Hare School in 1936, BK Birla was inducted into the family business, specifically in Kesoram Industries Ltd. His father ensured that BK Birla got a feel for the business by starting out at the bottom and working his way up. In fact, BK Birla once mentioned in an interview that his first assignment was as a cashier at Kesoram.
In 1942, BK Birla married Sarala Biyani, the daughter of Savitri and Brajlal Biyani, a freedom fighter and the first finance minister of Madhya Pradesh in independent India. Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Vallabbhai Patel attended their wedding. The couple, in many ways, represented independent India’s diverse values: Modern without sacrificing traditional values, fulfilling their economic responsibility towards shareholders without surrendering the sense of public duty, gracious to invited guests and strangers alike. The couple had three children—son Aditya Vikram Birla (who died in 1995), and daughters Jayshree Mohta and Manjushree Khaitan.
GD Birla’s close association with the Indian independence movement and its leaders also allowed BK Birla to observe and absorb the spirit of the times, including the philosophies of Gandhi, Patel and Jawaharlal Nehru, from close quarters.
In fact, his business philosophy was deeply imbued with Gandhi’s socio-economic concept of trusteeship. As a responsible custodian of wealth, BK Birla was also inspired to expand the family business from cotton textiles to other areas. An astute businessman, he soon expanded the Birla group’s manufacturing footprint through flagship companies Kesoram Industries and Century Textiles into rayon, engineering, cement, medium-density fibreboards, pulp and paper, shipping, tyres, tea, and chemicals, among others. The group’s turnover in FY19 stood at ₹16,500 crore.
He also led the growth of the group beyond Indian shores. Over time, the group’s main companies were Kesoram Industries, Century Textiles and Industries, Century Enka, Mangalam Cement and ECE Industries.
His close team of executives cite multiple examples of his business acumen. For example, whenever he was travelling—in India or overseas—he would demand a one-sheet summary of the group’s performance at the end of the day, highlighting the day’s production, opening and closing inventory of raw material and finished goods, and the day’s sales revenue. This snapshot allowed him to get a sense of the day’s business performance.
But it was not always about business: BK Birla loved photography and art.
Over the years, he held many positions in many companies, including his own group companies, but his favourites probably were his associations with the group’s charitable ventures. BK Birla and Sarala Birla oversaw many charitable trusts and educational institutions.
He was the chairman of the Krishnarpan Charity Trust, which runs the BK Birla Institute of Engineering and Technology in Pilani, Rajasthan, the Swargashram Trust, which administers a Sanskrit school in Rishikesh. He also established Birla Public School in Qatar and the BK Birla College of Arts, Science and Commerce in Kalyan near Mumbai. BK Birla authored several books, including an autobiography titled Svantah Sukhaya, where recounts his early childhood experience of growing up in pre-independence India, and, especially, his time with Gandhi.
He even continued his father’s practice of maintaining cordial ties with other business families. For instance, he persevered with the group’s investment in Tata Steel without disturbing the company’s management, thereby providing the steel firm with stability during periods of turbulence and policy volatility.
BK Birla’s sense of stoicism was perhaps strengthened and reinforced through the two tragedies in his life: His son’s demise in 1995 and his life partner Sarala’s passing away in 2015. After his son’s untimely death, he helped his grandson, Kumar Mangalam, take over the AV Birla Group’s leadership mantle.
BK Birla preferred to attend office—on the 15th floor of Birla Building in Kolkata’s business district of BBD Bagh—every day, even if it was for a few hours. That corner office will now lie vacant.
BK Birla’s life arc touched a wide swathe of people, institutions and activities. His legacy will live on through his numerous charitable and educational institutions. His funeral will be held in Kolkata on Thursday.