Ram J Shahaney: A man of few words and big dreams

N Madhavan Chennai | Updated on September 08, 2020

Ram J Shahaney

Ashok Leyland’s first MD did not just steer his company to the top league; he also helped the auto industry grow

When Ram J Shahaney, who passed away in Chennai on Tuesday aged 89, took over as Ashok Leyland Ltd’s (ALL) first Indian Managing Director in 1978, Control Raj was in full flow in the country.

It was particularly difficult for ALL to expand its capacity as it was a foreign company by definition (British Leyland held the majority stake). Its licensed capacity remained at 12,500 for long even though Tata Motors, which also commenced operations around the same time as ALL, expanded its operations.

One of Shahaney’s first moves was to expand the capacity to 40,000 trucks. As British Leyland was not ready to invest, he got the parent company to reduce its stake and found innovative ways to raise resources for the expansion. It was this move that helped ALL remain a strong player in the Indian commercial vehicle space.

Astute negotiator

“He had the audacity to dream big,” recalls R Seshasayee, who followed in Shahaney’s footsteps to lead ALL as its MD. “It was not easy in those days to negotiate with the labyrinth of government without straying from the path of rectitude. He was adept at that,” he adds about his boss of 30 years.

Shahaney loved to push the boundaries. He took ALL national by setting up facilities in Alwar (Rajasthan), Hosur (Tamil Nadu) and Bhandara (Maharashtra). He took the company international by setting up a plant in Sri Lanka.

He also took ALL into the defence business, as he saw it as an opportunity to de-risk its traditional business that’s susceptible to frequent adverse business cycles.

“Under his able leadership, we expanded our footprint and manufacturing capacity,” says Dheeraj Hinduja, Chairman, ALL. At the same time, he put his foot down when proposals came for ALL’s entry into the car business. He never saw merit in it.

A passionate engineer and technology enthusiast, Shahaney sowed the seeds of making ALL a technology-focussed company which over time introduced products and services such as air brakes and rear engines that have become industry norms.

“Ram Shahaney literally laid the foundation for the modern Ashok Leyland. He completely changed the culture of ALL in terms of technology, processes, sales etc. He created what Ashok Leyland is today,” says Venu Srinivasan, Chairman, TVS Motor Company.

Beyond Ashok Leyland

Shahaney also thought beyond ALL and helped the industry grow. “Ram was a great champion for the industry — not only for the role he played with the government but also with the international organisations. He was a pillar of strength for AIEI, later re-named CII, when he was the President,” says Suresh Krishna, Chairman, Sundram Fasteners.

Adds Tarun Das, former Mentor, CII, “A simple man. A straightforward man. A man of few words. When he spoke, it was always to the point and reasoned. There was never a personal agenda. He was truly a role model of a President (of CII) who saw his term as a year of public service.”

He was humane, too. Once, an ALL employee was to be sacked for dishonesty. The management learnt that the employee was suffering from cancer. When the matter reached Shahaney, he remained steadfast in sacking him but ensured that the company took care of all his medical expenses.

Similarly, when a shareholder accused the ALL management of looting the company at an AGM, he did not lose his cool. He denied it but added that the shareholder was entitled to his opinion.

At the end of the AGM he greeted the shareholder with a hello and walked out of the venue with a smile on his face.

No wonder Srinivasan says his demise is not just a loss to the industry but the entire country.

With inputs from

G Balachandar and M Ramesh

Published on September 08, 2020

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