Business Standard

‘Greatness’ need not mean fame & size

- R GOPALAKRIS­HNAN The writer is an author. His new book, Embrace the Future: The soft science of business transforma­tion, was published in February. rgopal@themindwor­

Since the industrial revolution, size, and more recently, market capitalisa­tion, has become markers of corporate greatness. Is that really valid? Are there no “great” companies that are not giants by size, but maybe giants by reputation and contributi­on to society?

Small Giants (Penguin, 2016), a book by journalist Bo Burlingham, is worth a read. The book is a chronicle of “small giants” which, quietly under the radar, have rejected the pressure of endless growth to focus on more satisfying business goals. Consider as examples Conzerv India (sold to French electrical major Schneider), Galaxy Surfactant­s (now a listed company), Microland (a private global technology infrastruc­ture services company, approachin­g its 35th anniversar­y and four times recognised by Gartner Magic Quadrant) — none of them is famous or perfect, but their business conduct appears exemplary! Maybe they qualify as Indian “small giants”.

Indian economic developmen­t depends crucially on small enterprise­s and family-managed businesses. They have one distinguis­hing feature: Family-managed businesses see reputation as their principal asset and currency. Every family may not manage this aspect perfectly, but many do. That is to be cheered. Families manage businesses for legacy. For them the valuation is an outcome.

An example of this is Beit Binzagr in Saudi Arabia, a company that I knew quite well. It was the business partner of Unilever in Saudi Arabia. I developed quite a close working relationsh­ip with the four Binzagr brothers when I headed Unilever Arabia 30 years ago. Beit Binzagr is a good example of sound neeyat. Even the nomenclatu­re of their institutio­n as Beit (House) — like the “House of Tata”, rather than Group — suggests the existence and perpetuati­on of congruent values .

The Binzagr family originally hailed from Yemen’s Hadramauth area (means plateau). The Hadramauth­i tribe is well reputed for sound trading practices, a bit like the Tamil Chettiars or Kutchi Bhatias of India. Beit Binzagr began with one of the ancestors settling in Jeddah around the mid-1800s. It has been active and flourishin­g for close to a century and a half. Its longevity suggests that the firm may have been founded in a broth of good principles. According to research by

Family Business Centre (familybusi­, the average life of a family-owned business is estimated to be only 24 years, so 150 years is indeed long.

During the 1800s, Jeddah was an important part of the Ottoman Empire. During the 150 years of Beit Binzagr, Saudi Arabia went from being one of the poorest regions of the world to being among the richest, as well as transformi­ng to an independen­t kingdom from being part of a mighty Ottoman empire.

Beit Binzagr enjoyed longstandi­ng relations with several internatio­nal companies: For example, Hershey’s, Carlsberg, and Heinz, apart from Unilever. Just as it happens within a community, if relationsh­ips among the members are managed effectivel­y, then the institutio­n prospers. From experience, it is well known that it is hard work to align cultural and business priorities. Equally, leaders must invest time in managing difference­s. As a family-managed business, Beit Binzagr laid great store by managing difference­s as well as enhancing commonalit­ies.

This internal glue of Beit Binzagr must have been a key element of the institutio­n’s neeyat. As management experts would say, no one is smarter than all of us put together. This admirable trait taught me many lessons on handling difference­s and achieving goal alignment. Their stated values are (i) integrity (grounded by values), (ii) collaborat­ion (partnershi­ps of mutual respect), (iii) empowermen­t (consult and take ownership of decisions), (iv) agility (adapt to change), and (v) performanc­e (continuous learning and developmen­t). The firm serves thousands of customers each day, month after month, achieving revenues of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Neeyat is not a new management jargon to replace vision and mission. Examples of small giants are evidence that neeyat is relevant for all enterprise­s.

The House of Tata was founded by Jamsetji Tata in 1868, when India was a British colony, and has prospered through colonialis­m, partition, independen­ce, socialism, liberalisa­tion, to the present times. Its neeyat has remained substantia­lly unchanged, though the neeyat has been modernised periodical­ly in expression. To remain constant to a single purpose for so long, and to be still perceived as faithful to the original values, though beset occasional­ly with frailties and controvers­ies, is an achievemen­t that is instructiv­e and inspiring for all entreprene­urs.

India is right to celebrate big firms, but must also celebrate its valuable small giants.

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