Finding leverage

Jagdish Rattanani | Updated on March 15, 2018


The life of T Thomas, former HLL chairman

Much has been said of the leadership and professionalism of T Thomas, the former chairman of what was Hindustan Lever Limited or HLL (from 1973 to 1980), who passed away in Mumbai recently. He was 90. Thomas, or TT as he was called, was among the last of the towering business leaders from an era that seems almost prehistoric now — controls, licenses and restrictions on making a simple commodity like soap.

Two stories illustrate those times. One is the meeting Thomas had with the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, no less, to discuss price control on soap. The story begins when Thomas took over as chairman of HLL in 1973, one year after the massive price hike announced by OPEC. Inflation spiked and the government’s answer was to impose strict price controls on several manufactured items, among them soap and vanaspati, which were the two key products for HLL at the time.

Within a year, HLL was reporting losses for the first time in its history, sending a worried chairman straight to New Delhi to lobby with the powers that be. This was to no avail, and the CEO was told to just grin and bear it in the cause of the nation and to help fight the huge spike in inflation that the rising oil prices had brought along.

Then came a meeting with Defence Minister Jagjivan Ram, who floated the idea of soap for the common man, a “Janata” soap. This was also recorded at the time by the Committee on Essential Commodities and Articles of Mass consumption, 1973, which noted: “The feasibility of establishing a large sized unit preferably in the public sector for manufacturing standard Janata soap with less fatty material, no perfume and with simple packing should be examined as such a unit would go a long way in making available soaps to the poor sections…” Thomas then took this thought to Dev Kant Barooah, who was in charge of chemicals and fertilisers, the ministry which controlled soap, and got directed straight to Mrs Gandhi because only she could decide on essential commodities. And soap was essential and in short supply by then.

In the words of Thomas, as reported in a publication edited by this author, “Mrs. Gandhi asked only one question: “What will be the price of the ‘janata’ soap?” I had to think on my feet as we had not actually worked it out. So I told her a figure which was about 50 per cent more than the controlled price. Her only question was as to how soon we could restore production to full capacity. She was obviously aware of the problem created by the shortage of soaps. I told her that we would do so immediately. She was as good as her word. Within a few days, on September 20, 1974, soap was decontrolled.”

The story almost reads quaint now, but it speaks of an era when control was the watch word, India’s leeway in the global economy was limited and a move from OPEC could turn the heat on India.

The other side of Thomas shines through in the story of Asha Daan and how a meeting with Mother Teresa led him to build an institution that even today stands tall in the service of the disadvantaged in the Byculla area of South Central Mumbai. Thomas met Mother at ‘Mother House’ during one of his visits to Calcutta and she asked him for help build a home for the dying in Mumbai. Thomas, of course, had no such place available and the two parted with these words uttered by Mother: “Mr. Thomas, you think about it and I will pray for it.”

Years later, when a godown used by HLL was being given up for a new one in the suburbs, the words came back to Thomas. The man who ran the place, a brother of cricketer Vijay Merchant, happily agreed to give it for Mother’s work. So on January 8, 1976, Mother came down for the formal inauguration of Asha Daan (Gift of Hope). Asha Daan has grown and to this day serves as an inspiration to leadership, service and commitment to a larger cause.

The writer is a faculty member at SPJIMR, Mumbai. Via The Billion Press

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Published on March 15, 2018
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