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Saluting a Genius

Omkar Goswami

This article celebrates India’s enormous managerial talent by remembering a great, pioneering manager-motivator-thinker. A man whom youngsters will know nothing of. Who influenced the managerial behaviour of so many. A man called Prakash Lal Tandon.

But let me first tell you how I thought of writing on Prakash, for that story itself speaks volumes of the man. A week ago, at a small convivial bar-cum-restaurant in Mumbai called Busaba, I met Walter Vieira and Hiru Bijlani. I had bumped into Walter a couple of times earlier; Hiru I met for the first time. Within fifteen minutes, we somehow began talking of Prakash Tandon; and we talked and talked, each with his many nuggets. And I promised Hiru and Walter — and Prakash, wherever he may be — that I’ll write a piece about him.

Here’s the biographical bit. Prakash Tandon was born in 1911. After qualifying as a chartered accountant in England, Prakash returned to India in 1939 to join Unilever as the first Indian management trainee. He was among the first professional managers in India in an MNC; the first to focus on market research, understand the importance of marketing as a management tool and systematically develop brands; and to insist that if you wanted to be manager worth the name, you had to have a deep interest in understanding the economy, society, history and how different people in India actually behaved in their day-to-day lives.

Here’s a nugget. Prakash Tandon created Dalda. For years, he engaged wandering minstrels, puppeteers, storytellers and itinerant cooks travelling through villages and mofussil towns propagating the virtues of Dalda and showing that it was as good as ghee at a fraction of the cost. In the process, he succeeded in transforming Dalda from a company-specific brand to a common noun. Soon, vanaspati meant Dalda.

In 1956, Prakash was the first Indian to join the board of Unilever in India. In 1960, he became the first Indian executive chairman of Hindustan Lever. As the boss, he moved business towards rural India; set up a full-fledged R&D centre in Mumbai; created Hindustan Lever’s famous management trainee programme; set the standards for the highest norms of transparency and corporate governance; and proved that an MNC chairman could be an Indian with his head held high.

After retiring from Hindustan Lever, Prakash chose the public sector. He was the chairman of State Trading Corporation, after which he became the chairman of Punjab National Bank. As if these were not enough, Prakash served as the chairman of IIM-Ahmedabad and was the helm of the National Council of Applied Economic Research. And found the time two write three books: The Punjabi Century, The Banking Century (a history of the PNB); and Beyond Punjab.

Prakash Tandon died in 2004.

How did I meet Prakash? At a business history seminar in IIM-Ahmedabad in 1984, where I was reading a paper on Marwari entrepreneurship under colonialism. We hit it off, and Prakash invited me to his room where, over his fascinating early marketing stories at HLL, he taught me to how to make a mean gin martini with ice and orange peels. We became friends ever since — trading books, opinions and articles whenever we met.

Here is another vignette. The day he retired from Hindustan Lever, Prakash arrived at the Backbay Reclamation head office in the chauffeur driven company car. After the farewell tea party, Prakash walked down, waved the driver away, got in to his old Fiat and drove off. Just like that. No fuss. No fanfare.

For a man who was at the very top of the heap in Hindustan Levers, STC and PNB, Prakash took no favours. He lived in a modest DDA flat in Vasant Kunj; drove his increasingly rusted Fiat everywhere; never jumped queues; and was unfailingly courteous to all. He read everything under the sun; and whenever he heard something interesting, out would come the small red leather diary for taking short notes. And right up to his mid-eighties, Prakash could drink most of us under the table — quietly sharing insights and wisdom as he sipped along!

The greatness of Prakash Tandon lay in many things. Motivating people across the board; being fiercely anti-hierarchical; attention to details; importance of facts; getting processes in place, and making them work; stickler for punctuality and delivery; inquisitiveness; always learning; scrupulously honest; and without an iota of arrogance. A leader; a great manager; and everybody’s friend.

Here’s my request. Will all those who knew Prakash get in touch with each other and share stories of one of the greatest professional managers India has ever had? Mail me, and I’ll do the coordination. Prakash deserves a case study — or at least many stories. Even he would have liked this idea.

Published: Business Standard, June 2008


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