In business journalism circles, Jagdish Khattar, former MD of Maruti Udyog, is known to be aloof and frosty. But he reveals a different persona in his memoirs, Driven, where he comes across as a man who won over people and steered change through friendly interaction and by deploying a bevy of management styles.
Very few have journeyed on so many career paths — lawyer, IAS officer, an MD in the midst of the hustle and bustle of corporate competition (though a government nominee), and, currently, entrepreneur. In the book Khattar has penned with journalist Suveen Sinha, he begins at the start — as a young and impressionable child in Pakistan’s Dera Ismail Khan. Khattar and his kin were forced to flee during Partition while his father was ordered by the Pakistani government to stay behind to look after the family’s electric supply company. The family is eventually united and is compensated for some of the losses they had suffered in Pakistan by land in Gurgaon. His father — whom he called Babaji — along with his uncles start from scratch by entering the civil contract business and setting up a brick kiln in Ballabgarh, near Faridabad.
A student of Delhi Public School, Mathura Road, when it was still in tents, Khattar played a small role in a film called Gandhi Path, which never released. “…the whole endeavour left a lasting impression on my ten-year-old-mind. You cannot constantly hear and speak about Mahatma Gandhi’s principles without being influenced by them.”
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And was it these principles that Khattar clung on to through his various professional avatars over the years and did they cost him his job at Maruti? Perhaps, yes. The book relates instances of Khattar being asked to do the government’s bidding as its nominee to the company, and his refusal to be a walkover. He writes, “I was now summoned often to the ministry and asked to respond to various issues. I was often told that, being a government nominee, I could be removed from the director’s post if I did not do as instructed. My fellow director, K Kumar, received similar messages. Both of us thought of ourselves as neutral and professional, but the others clearly did not… On one occasion, the minister called me to his office… [The] brief was to scuttle plans that Suzuki had finalized for new models and for the expansion of capacity. These plans were to be placed before the board of directors of Maruti for approval. As a government nominee on the board, I was advised to oppose the proposal.” But Khattar did not. His conscience refused to stymie the future of a company so that the government could retain control over it.
While the Maruti years saw Khattar tackling ticklish union issues, taking on foreign competition by the horns and conducting a successful IPO, in the government, too, he took some strong decisions — which reflect his willingness to embrace entrepreneurship. Readers begin to understand why, during his stint at the Uttar Pradesh State Industrial Development Commission, he was willing to approve a quick bridge loan to HCL, when its main lender was going to take six months; or how his unconventional steps managed to turn around the UP Transport Corporation.
After such a long run, he did not want to retire:“I could not see myself playing golf and tending to gardens.” And that’s where the current story of enterprise began, how he sold plots of land and took a loan to give birth to an idea whose time had come — a multi-brand car sales and servicing network called Carnation. His last words in the book are: “Life has turned a full circle: I am now upholding the family tradition of entrepreneurship”.