BK Birla: A hard worker with a Midas touch

Abishek Law | | Updated on: Dec 06, 2021

Basant Kumar Birla: 1921-2019 | Photo Credit: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury

From textiles to tea, he built an empire spanning several geographies and sectors

‘Birla’ literally means ‘a rare person’ and Basant Kumar Birla, the grand old man of India Inc who died in Mumbai on Wednesday, lived up to his name. He was 98.

Basant Kumar, or ‘BK’ as he was popularly called, was born in 1921 and is survived by daughters Jayshree and Manjushree. His son Aditya Vikram died in 1995 while wife Sarala died in 2015.

Basant and Sarala were married in 1942 in a match that was solemnised by Mahatma Gandhi.

A legend in his own right, BK, grandfather of industrialist Kumar Mangalam Birla, leaves behind a legacy that includes several listed and unlisted companies, and an empire which by modest estimates is worth at least ₹10,000 crore.

BK’s mortal remains were brought here this evening and the last rites will be performed on Thursday, family sources said.

BK learnt the ropes the hard way. The story goes that a 13-year-old Basant was told by his uncle Brij Mohan it was time he earned some pocket money by buying and selling shares. The very first year, he earned about ₹4,000 and paid taxes.

The youngest son — and perhaps the favourite — of his father Ghanshyam Das Birla, BK let go of his dream of becoming a graduate despite enrolling at Presidency College (now Presidency University). Instead he interned with the family group.

Shrewd leader

Throughout his life, BK believed he was a trustee of the confidence that his shareholders reposed in his companies.

He wouldn’t pay ‘exorbitant’ salaries to hire ‘outsiders’ for top posts. “People from within his organisations would work their way up,” recalled a former group employee.

Kesoram Industries, the flagship of the BK Birla Group, is a case in point. Founded in 1919 as Kesoram Cotton Mills Ltd, the company began as a cotton textile mill and later expanded into the production of rayon. BK led it all the way as it entered the tyre and cement sectors around the late 1980s and early 1990s.

As soon as the government started easing control on cement, BK set about the task of creating large capacities not just through Kesoram but also under the aegis of Century Textiles and Mangalam Cements.

Century Textiles and Industries is another example. From a single-unit entity in 1897, it has transformed into a commercial powerhouse with interests in diverse industries including cement, pulp and paper and real estate.

Visionary industrialist

Decades before Indian corporates went on to own manufacturing units abroad, BK set up and ran a textile factory in Ethiopia.

There is also a story around BK’s foray into the plantation business. His father required much persuasion before he allowed BK to enter that field. Thus Jay Shree Tea happened. Today, the company has 26 gardens, mostly across Assam and Darjeeling.

Eminent educationist

Schooling came to an abrupt end for BK, who entered the family business at 14 and started managing the companies by 18. But he tried to make up for his own lack of formal education by ensuring that his son Aditya went abroad to pursue management studies.

Frugal in his habits, BK built schools, colleges, engineering and management institutes all over the country. Some of the most noted ones include BITS-Pilani, BK Birla Centre of Education in Pune, Birla Institute of Management Technology in Delhi and Ashok Hall in Kolkata.

He also gave Kolkata the Birla Academy, with an enviable collection of paintings and sculptures, and a world-class auditorium in Kalamandir, among others.

Published on July 03, 2019
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