Podcast | The business of family — The Bajajs

We have been bringing to you stories of homespun empires and few brands are as evocative of strong family values as Bajaj.

‘Buland Bharat ki buland tasveer’ was a catchphrase that not even any astute political party’s election manifesto can better. It was a slogan rooted in national pride and industrial autonomy. And in the legacy of a family steeped in Gandhian idealism. The tagline of “Hamara Bajaj” was first used in a Chetak scooter TVC in 1989.

The Lintas ad encapsulated not just the history of the Bajaj conglomerate but the sense of kinship India feels with the name, “Bajaj.” So iconic was this tagline that in 2013, Bajaj Auto went to court to stop it from being used as a Hindi film title!

The tagline came at a time when the Bajajs felt the need to readdress their automobile consumer base. Much like General Motors that had wooed America with their Chevrolet ads in the eighties. Hamara Bajaj is after all not very different semantically from the slogan ‘Heartbeat of America.’

The Hamara Bajaj ad represented a simpler time where a harmonious sense of community, the joy of needs being met, a seamless dialogue between tradition and change seemed to point the way to a happier India.

The ad communicated what all happy families know. That co-existence must come before every other consideration. And that every family and community also must make space for innovation and youthful aspiration.

This was a time of economic transition into a more adventurous economy. The days of the license Raaj were numbered and the government was making overtures towards an influx of foreign brands.

On the other hand marketing geniuses at Ogilvy and Mather were busy creating Doordarshan campaigns like Mile Sur Mera Tumhara and the Torch of Freedom at the behest of  the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s office.

So naturally, traditional Indian brands were confused about what messages to give to their loyal consumers. Should they assume the edge of a global competitiveness to deal with potential international competitors or continue to project their tried, tested and trusted Indianness? The ad hit the right chord then and continues to inspire nostalgia.

And even though Bajaj scooters went out of production in 2009, the Bajaj conglomerate continues to represent what the great Indian business family stands for — Longevity, Resilience and an unbreakable connection with the Indian psyche.

In 2014, Bajaj was ranked 46th among India’s most trusted brands by the Brand Trust Report. The Report also listed Bajaj Pulsar, Bajaj Allianz, Bajaj Electricals and Bajaj Almond Oil among India’s most trusted brands.

The man who planted the future

But let us go back to very beginning of this story. The Bajaj Group was initiated by Jamnalal Bajaj in 1926 in the years when the prospect of Indian selfhood and nationhood was imminent. The Group has since then seen the euphoric era of independence, many economic climates and has grown to encompass over 37 companies and counting.

The group has stakes in various industries that include automobiles (2- and 3-wheelers), home appliances, lighting, iron and steel, insurance, travel and finance. Their flagship company Bajaj Auto despite the challenges it has faced is ranked as the world’s fourth largest two- and three-wheeler manufacturer.

The remarkable thing about Bajaj as also the companies that were founded before independence is just how acutely they were aware of the role they could play in nation building from the ground up. Profit making was crucial but so was giving back to society in ways that laid the foundation for the mandatory CSR activities undertaken by companies today.

But back to Jamnalal Bajaj. He was born on 4 November 1889 into a humble Marwari family, in a village named Kashi Ka Bas, near Sikar, Rajasthan.

He was, however, destiny’s child and was adopted by Seth Bachhraj, a rich trader from Wardha and also a distant family relative. Wardha would go on to become a place of great significance in the Indian independence struggle but we are getting ahead of ourselves.

With time, Jamnalal learnt the family trade and in 1926, founded what we today know to be the Bajaj group of industries. Infused in the DNA of the company was a robust nationalism as Jamnalal was a close associate and follower of Mahatma Gandhi.

What came first was a sugar factory. This was an era when the idea of Swadesi was gaining momentum and the factory was a significant gesture in that direction because India then had barely thirty sugar factories.

The heirs of Jamnalal Bajaj since then have not only expanded the Group’s flagship sugar company Bajaj Hindusthan Ltd but also kept up with tradition of philanthropy, in the process preserving the founding father’s vision.

Jamnalal’s idealism was unwavering. During the First World War, the British government conferred on him the title of Rai Bahadur for contributing to the war fund, but he surrendered it during the non-co-operation movement of 1921. His proximity to Gandhi of course had a lot to do with it.

When Mahatma Gandhi returned from South Africa, Jamnalal was swept away by his principles, his life at Sabarmati Ashram, his use of Ahimsa and Swadesi as tools of resistance and his leadership that was inclusive and did not exclude the poorest of the poor ostracised by the caste system.

Jamnalal even brought his wife Jankidevi and his children to live in the Ashram. Shiksha Mandal Wardha was established as early as in 1914 by Jamnalal and was the first institute in India to prepare text books and conduct examinations in Hindi and Marathi at the graduation level. In 1923, he participated in the tiranga satyagraha, defying a ban on flying the national flag in Nagpur, and was detained by the British.

It was because of him, that Gandhi decided to move to Sevagram, Wardha and make it the base for his activities.

Jamanalal was also named the president of Gandhi Seva Sangha, a group of workers who dedicated their time to constructive work. He was later elected a member of the Congress Working Committee and as the treasurer of Congress in 1933.

The foundation for the company’s CSR initiatives was laid when Jamnalal joined Gandhi in his campaign against untouchability and fought for Dalits to gain admission into the temples in Wardha. He went as far as to open his own family temple, the Laxmi Narayan Mandir, in Wardha, to the Harijans in 1928.

He also opened public wells for them. He did all he could to promote Khadi and rural Industries. In 1925, he was chosen as the treasurer of the All India Spinners Association.  As the president of the All India Hindi Sahitya Sammelan, he did his bit to publish and popularise Hindi magazines and books. And he initiated the Gandhi Hindi Pustak Bhandar in Bombay.

Jamnalal dedicated a large part of his wealth to the poor, in line with the trusteeship concept proposed by Gandhi. In honour of his social initiatives, the Jamnalal Bajaj Award has been instituted by the Bajaj Foundation. Past awardees incidentally include Nelson Mandela and Desmund Tutu. If that is not a legacy to take pride in, we don’t know what is.

The legacy of investing in more than just profit

Today the Bajaj Group via its many Trusts and Foundations spends up to Rs 100 million (USD 1.5 million) every year on multiple philanthropic activities.

Currently, Shiksha Mandal started by Jamnalal runs two commerce colleges, a Science College, an Agricultural college, a Rural Institute and a Polytechnic at Wardha. Benefitting from them are almost 10,000 students.

Among the many other initiatives funded by the Bajaj family down the decades are:

The Kamalnayan Bajaj School at Chinchwad that was established in 1976.

The Janaki Devi Bajaj Institute of Management Studies that was established in August 1997.

The Kamalnayan Bajaj Hospital in Aurangabad that was established in 1990.

The Bajaj-YCM Hospital A.R.T Center for HIV/Aids in Pimpri.

The Jankidevi Bajaj Gram Vikas Sanstha that trains women to use technology for income generation and to be self-aware about reproductive health.

The Jamnalal Bajaj Seva Trust that initially assisted Sarvodaya workers and Gandhian programmes, has gone on  to  promote agriculture, dairy development, rural development and a lot more.

The Institute of Gandhian Studies, established in 1987, facilitates long-term and short-term study courses on Gandhian philosophy.

The trusts that work towards rural development strive to improve the living conditions of the rural communities,  fortify health and sanitation initiatives, provide drinking water, educate communities about better agricultural and land maintenance practices.

The Story Continues…

The thread of continuity is what keeps a family together and in a Forbes interview in 2013, Chairman Rahul Bajaj echoed the Gandhian philosophy of his grandfather Jamnalal Bajaj in simple, crisp sentences.

He simplified what business schools complicate. The core values that keep businesses and families together. Love, truth and non-violence. Communication. Magnanimity. Reason. On the other end of the spectrum is stuff that destroys relationships and empires. This stuff and we quote him, is made up of ego, selfishness, greed and pride.

In the interview, he even went as far as to give advice to other business families: Said he, “Be reasonable. Believe in give-and-take and don’t be greedy.”

And we will interject here what Gandhi once said. That there is enough in the world to satisfy human need but not enough to assuage human greed.

That the house of Bajaj has survived discord between family members speaks volumes for the trickle-down effect of Jamnalal’s values.

Though the family did see some inevitable ups and downs. As is well-documented, the business started by Jamnalal Bajaj remained within the control of his two sons, Kamalnayan and Ramkrishna. This was the quintessential business family even though when the patriarch died at the young age of 52 in 1942, he left most of his wealth to Mahatma Gandhi’s Satyagarh.

He, however, left behind a fertile ground for his children to build upon. His sons were brought up in Gandhiji’s and Vinoba’s Bhave ashrams and blended idealism with business acumen. They went on to add both to the business empire and to the family tree.

Kamalnayan had two sons — Shishir and Rahul — and a daughter, Suman. And Ramkrishna had three sons: Shekhar, Madhur and Niraj.

It was around 2000 that cracks between Shishir and Rahul began to appear and the split was announced in 2008. The Bajaj brand name has, however, not suffered because of it.

Rahul has been a keen student of management guru Peter Drucker’s philosophy that a successful businessman must never short-change the customer. The wisdom has held him in good stead. In 1971, his fastidious sense of right and wrong saw him not exploit the mandatory ten-year delivery period of the Bajaj scooter for profit even though the premium on the vehicle was high.

He has often said that wealth creation is no big deal but how wealth is created is. He famously said in his Forbes interview, “I am not a Gandhi. I am not saying I have never made a mistake. But I have not consciously cheated anyone or done anything corrupt. “

The statement represents what most of the Indian companies founded before independence stood for. Steadfastly ethical business practices.

Despite being on the list of one of the richest Indians in the world, he remembers the times when in 1964, after completing his MBA from the Harvard Business School, he came back to India and travelled economy class.

Before going to Harvard, he had studied extensively in India and when he came back, he set his base in the factory colony in Akurdi, which was about 19 km from Pune city.

The place had no creature comforts or even basic infrastructure resembling a semblance of civilisation. Later on, his children went to the same school where the children of the workers, studied. And from this humble place, he continued to build one of India’s most valuable brands.

When he started helming commercial operations in Bajaj Auto in 1965, its turnover was just Rs 7 crore. When he became the CEO in 1968, he decided to streamline the commercial operations in keeping with international standards. And since then the company has seen no more than one major labour strike in its history.

The thumb rule for any business leader he thinks is to recognise that a motivated workforce is a stakeholder in brand equity. As for dealing with foreign competitors is concerned, he believes in order to outlast rivals, a company must invest in innovative product development to meet the evolving needs of consumers across various demographics.

And to remain strong internally and stay adaptable. He also holds in high regard, values such as integrity, courage and the confidence to encourage dissent and meritocracy. His elder son Rajiv, who holds a master’s degree in manufacturing systems engineering from the UK for instance had to begin his career in the Bajaj group as an officer on special duty.

Rahul’s nephew Kushagra who incidentally is married to Kumar Mangalam Birla’s sister, also had to start as a trainee on the shop floor at Bajaj Auto.

In 1998, he delegated a lot of his responsibilities to his sons Rajiv and Sanjiv.

The 2000s brought more change but much of it for the better as it turns out. The brothers Rahul and Shishir split, with the latter and his son in control of the Bajaj Hindustan and Bajaj Consumer Care. Rahul’s engineer sons Rajiv and Sanjiv set forth on their own, the former taking Bajaj auto and the latter the finance businesses (Bajaj Finserv and Bajaj Finance.

The popular Pulsar brand of bikes is a result of Rajiv’s focus on product development and research. Rajiv incidentally is a mechanical engineer. The decade that saw the birth of a popular brand also saw the Bajajs exiting their iconic scooter business.

Bajaj auto has a market cap today of 94,000 plus crore and the two finance entities Sanjiv controls, of 1.8 lakh crores.

Several of the 34 companies that are part of the Baja group are today controlled independently by various members of the extended family. The group today has a turnover of 280 billion rupees and employs 36,000 people according to its website.

But the Rahul Bajaj quote for all seasons that perhaps inspires his heirs and also future entrepreneurs is, “Listen effectively, think like an entrepreneur, go for multi-tasking and combine hard work with smartness.” The smartness in question perhaps refers to the ability to change with the times and to continuously grow in different directions.

That in effect sums up the career of Rahul Bajaj who considers passion to be the biggest attribute that distinguishes success stories from mediocrity. But to leave you with a piece of trivia – Rahul Bajaj was a boxing champion in his early days. You really can’t beat this Bajaj.