A candid look into the illustrious career of industrial pioneer S. S. Mahansaria.
By Tom McLean and Shruti Kothari
When you meet S. S. Mahansaria, you immediately feel a sense of calm; he’s quick to smile, and his voice is mellow. This demeanour initially seems to belie the ambitious series of achievements and accolades he has collected over decades. However, as we delve deeper, we learn that this same, balanced outlook is the very factor that has allowed him to take risks, foster strong networks, and build an impressive legacy over the span of his career.
Born in Bhagalpur in the state of Bihar, Mr. Mahansaria studied at Bhagalpur College and then finished his degree in Kolkata, where in 1959, he was one of the 2 percent of students who passed his Chartered Accountancy exam in the first try. As he studied, he stayed at a hostel and worked with a chartered acccountant’s firm to help pay the bills. In 1963, a friend working at Hindustan Gas and Industries Ltd., a Birla company, informed Mr. Mahansaria that there was a vacancy for a chartered accountant, who then proceeded to apply.
“The President seemed to like me, perhaps because I worked very hard in those days,” Mr. Mahansaria explains humbly. One company was given to him within a few years to lead as the Senior Finance Executive. “Mr. Aditya Birla was studying in America, and when he returned in 1964, he was given charge of Hindustan Gas, and that’s how our relationship began.”
Mr. Birla was keen to expand the business, but at the time, the government of India was slow to grant leading industrialists licences. Thus, he looked beyond the borders and decided on Thailand as a fruitful location. A handful of people were selected to begin this new venture, and Mr. Mahansaria was one of them. “I wasn’t sure why they chose me, I felt there were other people who were better suited. I said I wasn’t interested, because I didn’t know anyone in Thailand, I had absolutely no connections. But the President was insistent. In addition, a visiting friend encouraged me to go; I had nothing to lose, so why not take the risk?”
Thus, on the 10th of April of 1969, Mr. Mahansaria moved to Bangkok. Nobody spoke English, there was not a single multistorey building in Sukhumvit, no telephones with which to call home. He only had access to a telex service at the old post office near the Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok. “I was alone. Just imagine living in a hotel, typing away, not knowing anybody.”
Fortunately, the hotel owner, with whom he developed a friendship, was the President of the Thai Chamber of Commerce. That gave him the idea to locate the India Thai Chamber of Commerce, and he scheduled a meeting with then-President Amarnath Sachdev in Sampheng. “I asked if he would invest in our spinning plant for yarn, and promised to do his investment justice. He agreed, and also helped me to find other investors. He was well-known as a very honest man, so he was able to achieve that.”
Of course there were setbacks. His request for bank loans were rejected by Bangkok Bank, K Bank, and Siam Commercial Bank; the Indian Overseas Bank finally consented. To find land, he didn’t have a car so he asked Mr. Sachdev to drive him around, until they found a 100-rai property in Bang Pa In. “It was completely flooded,” Mr. Mahansaria laughs, “but it was THB 17,000 per rai, and somehow I just said yes.”
The beginning days were difficult. “As our team grew, the budget remained tight. I only ate rice and tom yum without goong from a street vendor for months. I didn’t have an office. In fact, when bank managers came for an inspection, one asked me, where is your toilet? I had to tell him, there is no toilet! Here is the garden, you can go wherever you want.”
Despite these adversities, hard work won out. “Once the first company was successful, I personally developed each of the others, 10 in Thailand and four in Indonesia. Our products included yarn, rayon fibre, the chemical STPP, acrylic fibre, carbon black, epoxy resin, hydrogen peroxide…”
I ask him how he learnt about such a vast range of products, as most were not traditional areas of the Aditya Birla Group, and his answer reveals the sharp mind behind the calm exterior. “I applied a very simple theory. I looked at customs data to see which high value items were being imported into Thailand. Then I would look into the technology, where I could source it, whether local production was viable. We’d apply to the Board of Investments (BOI), get a licence, and then proceed. I’ve found the BOI very helpful. The key is not to play games, or try to be sneaky. If you approach them with honesty, they respond to you the same way. I’ve never used underhand methods, everything is always neat and clean, we are a very high tax-paying group.”
Mr. Mahansaria believed strongly in working as a team. “If I profit, so should my team; we pay some of the highest salaries. It’s important to make sure your buyers are getting a good deal, too. I’ve never raised prices unless my cost has gone up. I don’t worry about profit and loss; as long as you work hard and are making quality products, you will succeed.”
Is this the secret to his serenity? “I have a few principles. I delegate and trust my team. I don’t have any papers on my desk, because I assume everything is going smoothly unless somebody calls me with a problem. When they do, I make a decision immediately, because a late decision is akin to a wrong decision. Of course, when mistakes are made, I also then take full responsibility because as a leader you are always accountable.”
It is no surprise, given the goodwill he has fostered and his vast achievements, that when Mr. Mahansaria wanted to retire, the Birlas didn’t let him. He remains a Director on the Board of all 14 companies, and is deeply respected by those around him.
Hailing from Uttar Pradesh, Vashi Purswani has been a shareholder in the Birla Group since 1969. Now retired, Mr. Purswani feels very strongly about his friendship with Mr. Mahansaria, the two having known each other for over 50 years. He reflects deeply upon Mr. Mahansaria’s character and wisdom. “He is generous. Selfless. Always available to give good advice. This is why Mr. Mahansaria has been such a crucial part of the Birla group for so long.”
Originally from Himachal Pradesh, Dr. Sant K. Bhatnagar joined the Birla group as Marketing Chief for the Thai Carbon Black subdivision of the company before becoming president of Thai Epoxy and Allied Products Company (TEC). Throughout his career, Dr. Bhatnagar, who has a PhD in chemistry and rubber technology, has written prolifically on different spiritual faiths and science. Since retirement, Dr. Bhatnagar remains close companions with Mr. Mahansaria. “Mr. Mahansaria is a boss par excellence, always delicately steering his associates in the right direction. I could never be a man like Mr. Mahansaria. He’s too good.”
Having left Delhi for Thailand almost 50 years ago, Surendra Yamdagni’s occupation with the Birla Group has taken him across many different divisions and sectors of the organisation. From working with their chemical division, to overseeing the production of goods in the Birla Group’s rubber plants, Mr. Yamdagni speaks wonders about Mr. Mahansaria’s integrity and understanding. “He is a number one executive who gives those around him incredible opportunities to grow.”
Santosh Chanani started his career with the Birla Group in Kolkata. A close associate of Mr. Mahansaria since 1985, Mr. Chanani now works for a different organisation but still remains a strong admirer of his old boss. “I have learned so many lessons from Mr. Mahansaria. Teachings that you can’t find in books, regarding the nature of business, industry, and life as a whole. He is one of the finest people I’ve ever met.”
M.P. Pathak of Varanasi was part of the Birla Group for 33 years before establishing his own consultancy company. His most notable position in the company was as a Senior President in their chemical business development sector and while he and Mr. Mahansaria have been good friends for 25 years, Mr. Pathak never had the opportunity to work under him directly. Despite this, they meet often, exchanging ideas, views, and opinions. “He is a true gentleman. Highly professional, to the point, and accommodating.”
Nirmal Kumar Dalan’s formative years took place in Kolkata. Now semi-retired after a distinguished career with the Birla Group, he continues to work for a separate company founded by Mr. Mahansaria. Having known him since 1974, Mr. Dalan credits Mr. Mahansaria as his lifetime management guru. “Mr Mahansaria is always relaxed. Whenever we would have a problem, he would never talk, just listen and ask questions. And through that, he guided us towards the solution.”
Born in Haryana, P.D. Sharma began working for the Birla Group in 1963. He moved to Thailand in 1969 to help aid the inception of new plants and factories alongside Mr. Mahansaria and their friendship blossomed ever since. Having retired in 2004, Mr. Sharma greatly values Mr. Mahansaria’s ideas. “Mr. Mahansaria has an incredible, wide vision. And exceptional leadership skills. A superb guide for life and business.”
Bir Kapoor, Executive President of viscose rayon fibre of the Aditya Birla Group, also on the Board of several Group companies, got to know Mr. Mahansaria in his capacity as a Board Member. “I would describe Mr. Mahansaria as having extreme passion for business excellence, with great acumen. In the areas of finance and management, he is a maestro. He is one of the most logical and analytical people I have come across. Even at this stage, he continues to learn and grow.”
Manjul Kumar Kapoor was born in Lucknow and began work for the Birla Group in 1974. His career with the group saw him working in various manufacturing initiatives and factories. Mr. Kapoor thinks back upon Mr. Mahansaria’s hard-working, outgoing, and empathetic nature. “Mr Mahansaria is such a humble and nice man. Even after retirement, he continues to provide his friends with guidance on a personal level.”
From Mumbai, P.M. Bajaj has been with the Birla Group since its inception, working alongside Mr. Mahansaria to build the group’s quickly evolving enterprises. Retiring from the Birla Group in 2011 to form his own jewellery manufacturing business, Mr. Bajaj still has very fond memories of Mr. Mahansaria’s leadership and character. “He is a focused, meticulous person with an incredible eye for detail, and, above all, he is a very good boss.”
D.G. Kaveeshwar from Indore was the Vice President of Thai Polyphosphate and Chemicals Co., Ltd. during Mr. Mahansaria’s tenure before being promoted to President of the Chloro Alkali plant in Rayong. He extols Mr. Mahansaria’s tenacity, empathy, and how he inspires everyone around him. “From the early days of the group’s inception in 1969, words can’t describe the trials and tribulations that Mr. Mahansaria had to face before he established himself as a friendly corporate giant in Thailand, so it’s no wonder he’s called the ‘Man with a Golden Touch!’ However, his most heartwarming qualities are very personal – the ability to inspire people to grow to their full potential and the simplicity of his nature.”