I-Day Special | The five Indian businesses that broke barriers

R Srinivasan | Updated on August 14, 2021

These firms did things which broke previously unbreakable barriers and charted new paths into the unknown

Seventy-five years is a staggeringly long sweep of time. It is longer than the average human lifespan. It is even longer in the world of business when you consider how short-lived most business ventures are. A 2017 study by McKinsey found that the average life-span of companies listed on Standard & Poor’s 500 was 61 years in 1958. Within half a century, it had dropped to less than 18 years. McKinsey estimated that by 2027, three out of four companies listed on the S&P 500 70 years earlier would have gone out of existence.

India is no different. As the nation kicks-off the celebrations for its 75th year of independence, it is sobering to recollect that many of the ventures which came into existence in a newly independent nation, are today, long gone. A case in point is Indian Telephone Industries. It holds the distinction of being the first genuine public sector enterprise in free India.

There were several government-owned and government-run businesses at the time of Independence, of course, but they were either departmentally managed ones – like the Railways’ rolling stock and engine plants, or the ordnance factories – but were not independent corporations. Others were the product of nationalisation. But ITI was a true-blue corporation, promoted and wholly-owned by the Government of India. However, today, while the landline – to make switchgear and instruments for which it was set up – still exists, ITI does not.


But there are others who have not only managed to last but have actually grown and transformed with the times. In the process, they also manged to leave an indelible mark on the economic history of the nation. In one way or the other, these companies did things which broke previously unbreakable barriers and charted new paths into the unknown. You could actually call them the flag-bearers of Indian business’s own freedom movement. And remarkably, almost all of them did their pathbreaking work well before the onset of economic reforms in India, when entrepreneurship was finally allowed to run free of choking bureaucratic oversight and micromanagement, proving that mindset and self-belief can trump red tape any day.

The list of such companies is encouragingly long. But for the sake of brevity and space, we have picked five companies which exemplify this spirit of ‘Azadi’. In their own way, each was a pioneer, proving that it was possible to do something previously thought impossible in this country, while sustaining and growing the business as well. So to make the cut, these companies not only had to be innovators, they also had to be successful and profitable. And guess what? It’s a list any nation can be proud of. Our boundary breakers are:

Taj Hotels: Breaking the quality barrier

From the day Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata opened the doors of the Taj Mahal Hotel in 1903, this luxury hotel marque has stood as a symbol for India’s legendary hospitality. Designed after the ‘grand hotels’ of Europe, the flagship Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, overlooking the Gateway of India (which was actually built seven years later) has played hosts to the world’s rich, famous and the powerful. It was the first to prove that something which was Indian-owned, Indian-operated and Indian-managed can be better than the world’s best. Long before ‘export quality’ came to stand for everything that ‘Made in India’ was not, this brand gave Indians a feel for what ‘world class’ meant.

TCS: Breaking the global barrier

When it was launched on April Fool’s Day in 1968 as Tata Computer Systems, it was simply providing punch card services to other Tata Group Companies. It took the genius of Padma Bhushan Faqir Chand Kohli, TCS’s first CEO to see the potential in the IT services business. Kohli is widely recognised as the “father” of the Indian IT services industry because he built the first offshoring business model powered by cheap but talented Indian engineers working for international clients – a model which was to spawn Indian IT giants like Infosys and Wipro. TCS was the first Indian company to cater almost exclusively to the global market. Today, it is a true Indian multinational, with offices in 46 countries. The world’s seventh most valuable technology company is also one of India’s biggest employers, with its headcount nearing the half a million mark.

Reliance Industries: Breaking the scale barrier

At nearly 15 lakh crore, India’s most valuable private corporation by market capitalisation is worth nearly half the country’s Budget. But RIL is not in this list because of its hugely valued share, which actually spawned the equity investing culture among middle class Indians, ever since its IPO in 1978. It is in because it was the first Indian manufacturing enterprise to build something world scale right here in India, that too, a facility almost entirely geared to the global market. RIL’s Jamnagar refinery, commissioned in 1994, is the largest integrated petroleum refinery in the world, with a capacity to process 1.25 million barrels per day. From the start, it was never meant to service the Indian market, then heavily controlled by the government. Instead, RIL founder Dhirubhai Ambani had his eyes firmly set on the market he wanted to conquer – the world.

Maruti Udyog: Breaking the affordability barrier

In 1983, Maruti Udyog gave the Indian consumer something she had only dreamt of till then – a modern, high-quality product at an affordable price. The tiny, 800 cc hatchback manufactured in partnership with Japanese carmaker Suzuki went on to become a legend, not just in the Indian but the world automotive market. Today, Maruti Suzuki India is bigger than its Japanese parent and has a dominant 50 per cent share of India’s automobile market, now the world’s fifth largest, where the world’s biggest auto brands jostle for space. All of which would not have happened if this Indo-Japanese venture had not paved the way.

Amul: Unleashing the power of the many

Amul’s history began just a year before India’s birth as a free nation. And like its motherland, it too emerged out of protest. Angered by the exploitative actions of middlemen, farmers in a small town in Gujarat banded together to form a milk co-operative – the Kaira District Milk Producers Union. Its first diary was set up at Anand in Gujarat. The initials of the Anand Milk Union spawned – Amul – not just India’s most powerful dairy brand but an even more powerful symbol of co-operative action. Amul spawned the ‘White Revolution’ in India, powering the nation to the top of the world milk production league. Even more important, India is the world’s largest dairy market dominated by farmer-owned cooperatives – more than 16 million dairy farmers banded together in more than 223 district co-operatives. It has changed the nutritional map of India – 12 per cent of the protein intake of Indians comes from milk and milk products, more than pulses, meat, poultry or fish. The most successful farmer cooperative leadership model in the global food industry is something which arguably no other Indian enterprise is – a role model for the developing world.

Published on August 14, 2021

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