Family Feud, India Style

In the mid-1990s, when the Birla family, which ran India’s second-largest business group, was in the midst of a bitter division of assets, one young family member quipped that “blood is thicker than water. But profits are thicker than blood.” A decade later, the country’s fast-rising prosperity is causing even more confrontations.

The list lately has grown to include the Bajaj family, the world’s manufacturer of the ubiquitous tuk-tuk, and the Mansukhani brothers, owners of the popular Onida brand of consumer electronics and promoters of Bhushan Steel Ltd., a leading manufacturer of steel sheets and strips. Perhaps the most spectacular was the 2002 breakup of Mukesh and Anil Ambani, whose squabbling following the death of the patriarch, Group Chairman Dhirubhai Ambani, nearly ruined the Reliance empire before peace was ultimately declared.

The pace of family splits picked up after economic reforms launched in 1991 began to take effect. Many of the old stalwarts were unable to adjust to the new environment. Earlier, expanding a business empire meant proximity to what was called the License Raj ‑ the powers that be in New Delhi, where all-important permits were issued. But post-reform, when it was no longer necessary for businessmen to depend on New Delhi, factors that have contributed to the rise of businesses worldwide – like professional management – became more important.

There are other reasons as well. Unlike US and European business groups, in which succession plans are often – but not always ‑ well defined, many Indian families fail to acknowledge future eventualities. Dhirubhai Ambani started off as a gas station attendant and went on to build India’s largest private-sector conglomerate. But not even he could envision that his only two sons would have such an acrimonious falling out so soon after his death.

Second, the barrier between family interests and business interests is often lacking in India. The result is that those closer to the decision-making process often enjoy the trappings that go with company posts, which is resented by family members not involved in the day-to-day running of the organization.

Finally, Indian company boards are often packed with cronies of the founders, who often fail to see – or report – signs of friction between siblings.

Certainly, Indian business families have been fighting and dividing for a long time. One of the earliest was the Modi group, founded by Rai Bahadur Gujarmal Modi in the 1930s. Five decades later, it was one of the most prominent industrial houses in north India before a vicious squabble ensued between Modi’s five sons and three nephews, resulting in dispersal of the assets in a 1989 settlement that ultimately destroyed Modi’s industrial prominence. Similarly other important business families like the Kirloskars, Doshis, Mafatlals, Shrirams, Goenkas, and Singhanias have fallen by the wayside.

As the families splinter, one of the hazards is turning to the Indian courts. Take the case of the five Bajaj brothers, led by the eldest, Bajaj Auto Chairman Rahul Bajaj. Although Shishir Bajaj, who runs Bajaj Hindustan decided to part ways in 2002, the case has been wending its leisurely way through the courts and a possible settlement drags on. With India’s stock market rebirth, the share prices of various Bajaj companies have risen sharply and there is no agreement between Rahul and Shishir Bajar on a buy-out price.

This has also happened to the family running Patni Computer Systems, India’s sixth-largest software services company. Ashok and Gajendra Patni, two brothers on the Patni board, recently decided to exit the business. But an elder brother, Narendra Patni, runs the show and enjoys key managerial and shareholder rights. He has blocked their departure from the company. Similarly, there is a power tussle in Onida where Gulu Mirchandani is in the driver’s seat while the families of his brothers Sonu and Vijay do not appear to be keen about continuing in the family business.

As the License Raj collapsed, groups like those headed by Rama Prasad Goenka, which thrived in the license era but failed to change times, suddenly went off the radar. A loyalist of the Congress Party under former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Goenka was a master strategist who, thanks to his political connections, managed to start or take over 20 companies. While many of these units are not exactly foundering, they are not trail-blazing either. Many feel that the Goenka group could have progressed much faster if the patriarch had not split with his younger brothers, Jagdish Prasad and Gouri Prasad, in 1979.

Most recently, second-generation siblings of the Chauhan families have taken each other to court over trademark disputes. Brothers Ramesh and Prakash Chauhan had jointly built a far-flung empire embracing confectionery, soft drinks and bottled water. In the late 1990s they made a killing by selling their Thums Up cola brand to Coca Cola for an undisclosed sum.

With a new generation arriving, some amount of friction is bound to come into play. Indian business has never seen better days. The country has clocked an average GDP growth of around 8.25 percent over the last four years. ICICI Bank supremo KV Kamath has told local media that India can definitely grow at 10 percent this year.

It is in the interests of business siblings to be a part of this growth – and to grow together. A case in point has been Mukesh and Anil Ambani, whose breakup made headlines in July 2002. Younger brother Anil refused to play second-fiddle to the heir apparent, Mukesh. The brothers divided the business following a formula suggested by ICICI banker Kamath, and have since gone on to consolidate their holdings as well as venture into fresh businesses. According to Forbes magazine, they are now India’s second and third richest individuals, with a net worth of $49 billion and $45 billion, respectively.

All's well that ends well.