OBITUARIES: Aditya Birla

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The Independent Online
Aditya Birla was head of an 80-billion-rupee (pounds 1.65bn) industrial and business empire spread across India and south-east Asia.

Although born into a formidable business family, Birla branched out and established an industrial empire of his own which manufactured textiles, chemicals, engineering goods, fertilisers and palm oil.

He was one of the first Indian businessmen to start joint industrial ventures in Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia, where he was part owner of the world's largest palm-oil refinery. In south-east Asia alone, Birla's expanding companies are pledged to investing almost pounds 1bn over the next three years.

Birla believed the world was his marketplace, but his manufacturing base was India. "We are not afraid of global competition," he said at a time when Indian goods were being trashed overseas. "Let it be afraid of us." Last year alone, his business turnover was a shade under pounds 1bn, almost half of it from overseas concerns.

Birla was highly respected by the Indian government. He was a member of the Board of Trade and his business views and investment suggestions were constantly solicited by commerce. He believed that big business can prosper only when internationally competitive, an opinion he repeatedly voiced to a protectionist Indian government, supportive of monopolies and unrealistic import tariffs.

Birla was born in New Delhi in 1944, the favourite grandson of Ghanshyam Das Birla, founder of the vast Birla industrial empire. He graduated in science from St Xavier's College, in Calcutta, and took a chemical engineering degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston.

On returning home in 1965, he turned down his grandfather's offer of taking over Hindalco, an aluminium plant, and opted instead to enter the rayon and textile business, then virtually on its last legs, by establishing the Eastern Spinning Mills in Calcutta. Fifteen months later, after his maiden venture registered handsome profits, he was put in charge of Hindustan Gas and successfully managed its expansion.

Birla was also given control of Indo-Gulf Fertilisers and Chemicals Ltd, which faced a liquidity and managerial crisis. Within a short span it became a blue-chip company with a capital outlay today of over pounds 200m.

A series of industrial and business successes followed and by the late Seventies Birla had acquired the reputation of a wizard, capable of turning ailing companies around through a mixture of daring and the chutzpah to pump money into projects others were wary about.

In 1983, after his grandfather's death, Birla inherited the lion's share of this empire and over the next 12 years became one of India's foremost businessmen. Beside its size, Birla's empire is also a world leader today in manufacturing several products - Hindalco is amongst the world's largest low-cost producers of aluminium and Grasim the largest producer of viscose staple fibre.

In 1990 Birla was declared Business Man of the Year and soon after became a director of India's Central Bank and Air India, besides advising the government on its four-year-old market reform policies.

A competent badminton player, Birla was also a moderately successful artist, who held an exhibition of his oil paintings in Bombay in 1990.

Kuldip Singh

Aditya Vikram Birla, businessman, industrialist: born New Delhi 14 November 1944; married (one son, one daughter); died Baltimore 1 October 1995.