BK Birla

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A brief biography

Udit Mukherjee, July 4, 2019: The Times of India

G D Birla (third from left) with son Basant Kumar (left), grandson Aditya Vikram and great-grandson Kumar Mangalam (right)
From: Udit Mukherjee, July 4, 2019: The Times of India

B K Birla was among first barons to forge global alliances


Basant Kumar Birla, the grand old man of Indian industry, is survived by his grandson, Kumar Mangalam Birla, daughters Manjushree Khaitan and Jayshree Mohta, and an extended family of nephews, nieces, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. ‘B K Babu’ or ‘Basant Babu’ as he was fondly called by his peers and juniors, was the last surviving member of a generation of industry greats, who included JRD Tata (the two pre-eminent business families also lent their surnames to the ‘Tata-Birla’ duopoly in the pre-Ambani and pre-liberalisation days).

Besides being among post-Independence India’s first generation of industrialists who helped shape India Inc’s growth, the Birla family patriarch also enjoyed close relationships with national leaders, including Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. Sardar Patel, in fact, was said to have played a part in his marriage (in 1941) to Sarala.

Birla’s cremation will take place in Kolkata on Thursday in accordance with his “express wishes”, family members said. “He was the first Birla of his generation to have been born in Kolkata and, so, always wished that his cremation take place here,” a family elder told TOI.

President Ramnath Kovind, Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee and Tata Trusts chairman Ratan N Tata were among the first to condole the death. “Sorry to hear about the passing away of veteran industrialist Shri B K Birla. He made crucial contributions to business, education and several social causes,” Kovind said. Birla’s death creates a void that cannot be filled, the Bengal CM said, recalling the 2013 Banga Bibhushan honour the state conferred on him. Son of the illustrious Ghanshyam Das Birla, B K Birla started his career at the bottom of the rung — as a junior employee in Kesoram Industries. He diversified the business from textile and jute and entered sectors like cement, tyre, chemicals and engineering, turning the B K Birla Group into a Rs 16,000-crore business empire, of which he was the chairman till he breathed his last. The group now comprises five major companies — Kesoram Industries, Century Textiles & Industries, Century Enka, Mangalam Cement and ECE Industries — and several smaller, unlisted entities.

What marked him out, his juniors said, was his enthusiasm to take risks. Birla Tyres (a part of Kesoram) entered the radial segment, considered to be the tyre industry’s future, with an investment of over Rs 800 crore — setting up two facilities in Haridwar and Balasore in 2013-14 — when Birla was 93. The group also kept investing in two cement units — Kesoram Cement and Vasavdatta Cement — to increase combined production capacity to over 7 million tonnes.

Like Kesoram, he also transformed another family business — Century Textiles and Industries — into a diversified company with interests in cement, paper and textiles. Entities like Century Enka, Mangalam Cement, ECE Industries, Mangalam Timber and Jayshree Tea & Industries were all set up, one after the other, under his close watch.

He was considered a pioneer in another area: setting up joint ventures with global majors. He roped in Akzo Noble for Century Enka, now a leading manufacturer of nylon tyre cords, back in 1969. Family, friends and colleagues remember him as a visionary who guided Indian industry through its infancy.

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