BK Birla: Visionary industrialist, great patron of arts and education
The ionic Basant Kumar Birla, respectfully and lovingly called B.K., was a visionary industrialist who could spot businesses of the future for the country and go about clinically using his great organisational skills to turn greenfield ventures into industrial behemoths.
The ionic Basant Kumar Birla, respectfully and lovingly called B.K., was a visionary industrialist who could spot businesses of the future for the country and go about clinically using his great organisational skills to turn greenfield ventures into industrial behemoths. The youngest of the three sons of the legendary G.D. Birla - the doyen of India`s famous Marwari industrialist family - he was born in Kolkata on February 4, 1921, and showed an uncanny business sense even in his early teens to become a tax payer by successfully trading in shares.
By the age of 15, he had joined the family business in a big way, and eventually went on to become the chairman of Kesoram Industries. He concentrated on diverse portfolios ranging from cotton, viscose, polyester and nylon yarn, paper, shipping, tyre cord, transparent paper, cement, tea, coffee, cardamom, chemicals, plywood, etc. A meritorious student, B.K. had taken admission in the famed Presidency College (now Presidency University), aiming to earn a B.Sc degree, but dropped the plans following G.D. Birla`s insistence, and instead honed his business skills under his father and elder brother Laxmi Niwas Birla.
Late in his life, in a number of his interviews, B.K. would speak glowingly about a over a month-long trip in the company of L.N. Birla to various Asian nations that sharpened his business sense and made him feel like a "frog jumping out of a well." Frugal in his daily needs, B.K. had great man-management skills, and financial acumen, hating cost reruns and tardy business deliveries.
But once he saw merit in any prospective business, he would go all out and climb all mountains to implement his plans in a particular sector. It is said that G. D. Birla was not in agreement with him that the family venture into the tea business, but had to finally yield to the persistence of his son, and so was born Jay Shree Tea, whose heady brew has much fan following among the creme de la creme in distant geographies in Europe.
Deciding to extend the imprint of the business group beyond Indian shores, B.K. set up the Indo Ethiopian Textiles Share Company, considered the first major joint venture by any Indian industrialist. It was an acknowledgement of his contribution that the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I decorated him with the medal of the Order of Menelik II, the highest award in the east African nation.
In April, 1941, B.K. married Sarla, the daughter of activist and writer Brijlal Biyani, after the duo was introduced to each other by Jamnalal Bajaj and Mahatma Gandhi. They had a son, Aditya Vikram Birla, who died of prostrate cancer, and two daughters, Jayashree Mohta and Manjushree Khaitan. Aditya`s son Kumar Mangalam Birla, considered the apple of B.K Baabu`s eyes, now handles a large part of the group`s business.
But to describe B.K as only a successful businessman would be nothing but showing a great amount of disrespect to him. He spent enormous time and energy in the fields of education, arts and culture, founding leading schools, colleges and engineering and management institutes. He chaired the Krishnarpan Charity Trust that administers BK Birla Institute of Engineering & Technology in Pilani, Rajasthan, and the Swargashram Trust, which runs a Sanskrit school in Rishikesh. He also set up the Birla Public School in Qatar and the Birla College of Arts, Science & Commerce in Kalyan near Mumbai.
The much-sought after arts centre in Kolkata - Birla Academy - that houses a rich treasure of paintings and sculptures, and the city`s well-known auditorium Kalamandir were also built through his efforts. He has also penned everal books, including an autobiography "Svantah Sukhaya".