IN the reshaping or transformation of a clutch of India’s top corporates in the post liberalisation era, two feisty leaders stand out. Strangely, the two have appeared to be connected in the way they steered their groups for decades and rebooted them to emerge as diversified conglomerates, fought bruising takeover battles and kept predators at bay while epitomising professional management. One was Yogi Deveshwar, the non-executive chairman of ITC, who died on Saturday, and the other is A M Naik, the non-executive chairman of L&T. When you think of the ITC now, the image that stands out is more that of its FMCG or packaging, hospitality or agri businesses, rather than a cigarette manufacturing firm with a foreign parentage.
Much of the makeover — or erasing of the perception of the ITC being only a cigarette giant — has to do with Deveshwar. He recognised the need to diversify into areas which promised paybacks over the medium term and to venture into agribusiness, way ahead of his time and backing the e-chaupal model, the company’s digitial platform for linking farmers and facilitating procurement of their produce. That drive and strategy helped build a company which clocked revenues of Rs 55,000 crore, a market capitalisation of $50 billion, a large institutional shareholding base and top local brands. The longest serving executive chairman of an Indian firm along with Naik and Deepak Parekh also represented a third kind of entity in India — successful professionally-run firms as distinct from the promoter-driven companies or business houses and state-run firms.
As has been the case in some of India’s top professionally-run companies, a quibble about leaders like Deveshwar has been about not letting the grass grow under their feet. The legacy test for the diversified group will now be the target of FMCG revenues of Rs 1 lakh crore by 2030 and motoring on the same model of professional management. India needs that, especially given the experience of two such models, ICICI Bank and Axis Bank.