The death of Yogi Deveshwar in Gurgaon on May 11 after serving as chairman of the Kolkata-based cigarettes, hotels, agri-products multinational ITC Ltd (annual revenue: Rs.51,500 crore) for several decades, attracted considerable media comment and well-deserved encomiums for him.
Yet the plain truth which everybody seems to have forgotten is that the foundations of ITC’s prosperity and the initial decision to diversify this tobacco behemoth’s business mix was taken by its first Indian chairman-CEO Ajit Haksar (1925-2005). In his prime, Haksar was a legend. To the extent that in Calcutta of 1960-83 when one referred to “the chairman”, no further and better particulars were necessary.
Yet despite ITC earning annual profits of hundreds of crores during his long innings as chairman, Haksar lived and died in modest circumstances. Right through the 1970s, all corporate salaries were subject to a ceiling fixed at a maximum of Rs.7,500 per month, legislation crafted by the envious neta-babu brotherhood to ensure remuneration parity with themselves. Since he wanted to purchase a residential home before he retired, on sound legal advice Haksar retired for a day, cashed in his gratuity and signed a new employment contract the next day. This stratagem aroused the ire of jholawalas in the media who rained abuse on this perhaps most accomplished business professional in Indian history.
At that time, your correspondent as editor of Businessworld was the sole hack to defend Haksar and remind the public of the huge contribution made by him to the exchequer through ITC’s excise and income taxes. Moreover just before he retired, Haksar attracted further criticism when he appointed his brother-in-law Jagdish Sapru as chairman of ITC on the understanding that he (Haksar) would continue to work — out of the company’s newly constructed ITC Maurya Sheraton Hotel in Delhi — as a consultant and advise the board on diversification strategy. But no sooner he assumed office as ITC chairman, Sapru barred Haksar from entering the Maurya Sheraton and reneged on the agreement.
Undaunted, Haksar masterminded several greenfield projects in real estate and brand-building. Although successful, they didn’t amount to much and the chairman died bitter and disillusioned, another victim of India’s back-stabbing culture.