Corporate Goliaths
Hindustan Times, May 5th, 2002.

By Siddharth Zarabi

They are the trailblazers who have built their empires out of the debris of the licence raj era

Twenty seven-year-old Ekta Kapoor is surrounded by gods of all hues in her office in the Light House of Mumbai’s entertainment and instead created a television software empire out of virtually nothing. In tune with Sooraj Barjatya’s Hindu Undivided Family concept, she has found that Indian eyeballs connect with tradition, saas and bahus.

Taking this to the logical corollary, today her programmes dominate the Top 20 TV shows. A single episode of her serials fetches a price of Rs 9 lakh. The lady has broken the star system and hefty payment tradition by asking Travel Variety Sunday Sentiments Lifestyle for incentive- based payoffs. In the process, Kapoor has come to represent the face of India’s new generation of entrepreneurs. Meanwhile, BPL Innovision Group chairman, the 38-year-old Rajeev Chandrasekhar, is on his way to London for a confabulation with his investors. The technocrat-turned-business leader is on track to complete corporate India’s largest merger to date – the coming together of BPL, Birla AT&T and Tata’s cellular business – at a whopping valuation of $ 2.1 billion.

Part of the team that designed the 486 micro-processor at Intel with the father of the Pentium, Vinod Dham, RC, as friends know him, is passionate about flying and cars. He has plenty of the latter, but what really drives him is his passion for building business. Pitted against nimble-footed cellular giant Hutchison of Hong Kong, RC credits the late Rajesh Pilot for making him stay back in India. “Don’t go back. India is opening up and you will have a future here,” Pilot had told him.

His family said otherwise, but RC’s determination saw him open a one-room office in Nariman Point and learn the ropes of Indian business – tackling politicos and regulatory uncertainties. And while marriage to BPL founder T.P.J. Nambiar’s daughter in August 1990 may have helped, RC’s belief in hard work and destiny seems to be paying off.

Similarly, 44-year-old Sunil Bharti Mittal has his origins in selling Honda gensets and Mumbaikar Manoj Tirodkar sold telecom equipment. All of them, including Mr Moneybags Uday Kotak himself, made it big at a time when India was embarking on a new journey, stemming from Nehruvian socialism getting an official burial from the party that had preached it for countless years. And while America, which boasts the highest number of billionaires in the world, is far ahead of us, these young turks can stand and be counted amongst the global best.

Mittal, for instance, has built a world-class company from scratch and Airtel today runs services across the length and breadth of India. Other rags-to-riches stories abound.

Chartered accountant Sushil Suri is a 37-year-old globetrotter who inherited the mantle of chairman and managing director, Morepen Laboratories Ltd, after the untimely death of his brother K.B. Suri. The man has played a major role in building the outfit into the aggressive healthcare company that it is today.

Or take the case of 50-year-old Venugopal Dhoot. A brilliant electronics engineer by training but a businessman at heart, the eldest of three brothers bid his time in the family business of cotton and sugar, till he set up Videocon in 1984 to produce colour television sets. In just over a decade, the company was ranked amongst India’s best.

An insight into Dhoot’s nature can be gauged from the fact that he pulled out his youngest brother from an MBA course and instead threw him into the task of setting up the colour TV factory.

Or take Jaithirth (Jerry) Rao, ex-Citibanker and founder-chairman of infotech company MphasiS BFL. He junked the safe confines of the Citi in 1998, and last year was anointed the ‘Ernst & Young Entrepreneur Of the Year’. With blue chip clients, this native of Bangalore has been called by the US Congress to testify on e-commerce.

Another entrepreneur and biotechnology pioneer Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, 49, is chairperson and managing director of Biocon India Group. This Bangalore-born and educated went on to Ballarat College, Melbourne University, Australia to specialise in malting and brewing technology. She ended up as India’s first ‘lady brewmaster’.

Her entrepreneurial career commenced in 1978, when, at the age of 25, she set up Biocon India Ltd as a joint venture with an Irish multinational biotech company. The co-author of several patents in biotechnology, Shaw is not just concerned about business but has lent support to the Bangalore Agenda Task Force that aims to resurrect the city.

Manoj G. Tirodkar, 37, is another first-generation entrepreneur who conceived, built and nurtured Global Telesystems Ltd, an infotech services and telecom engineering company. The first Indian to win the prestigious World Young Business Achiever Award 2000, given to outstanding first generation entrepreneurs on a global scale, the avid runner is also known for having lost 40 kg of weight. Maybe the hard work did it. After all, his early days were spent in selling fax machines.

When it comes to employee satisfaction, Ashank Desai’s name always crops up. An IIT-IIM alumnus, he is the founder of Mastek, one of India’s better software export companies. With a development centre in SEEPZ, Mumbai, Desai is constantly on the lookout for good deals for his company. His staff, however, fondly remember one instance when the entire office booked the Cidade De Goa for one week for a retreat. They call themselves the Mastekians.

Among the troika of Ks who dominate Mumbai markets, Uday Kotak is the youngest along with Hemendra Kothari and Nimesh Kampani. Known for his sharp financial acumen and deal-making skills, the Kotak Mahindra Finance Ltd vice-chairman is known as ‘Mr Moneybags’, partly for being amongst the top five non-banking finance companies in India and also for his consumer finance and merchant banking activities.

Reclusive and media-shy, Kotak is now readying for a brand new challenge – that of heading his own bank

These people are part of the new elite – the cream of Indian entrepreneurs who have benefited from the unshackling of the economy over the last decade. Seeding businesses, these go-getter corporate Goliaths have shown flair, panache and chutzpah in creating empires out of the debris of the licence raj era. They represent India’s future – modern day neophytes who have created wealth, employment, taken India global and burnt a new trail that inspires countless others. In doing so, they have drawn the best from their roots and traditions and junked shibboleths with their belief that making money is not a shameful crime. May their tribe prosper.