Family came first to KK Birla

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By The Telegraph Online
  • Published 31.08.08
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In 2005, Krishna Kumar Birla went into a huddle with brother Basant Kumar, cousin GP Birla and nephew Sudarshan Kumar Birla: they were looking to untangle one of the last knots that yoked several Birla group entities.

In one sense, the untangling of the cross holdings at Pilani Investments and Industries Corporation Ltd — an overarching holding company with controlling interests in a wide range of Birla group companies — was the final act of freedom, the last goodbye to a family holding structure that put kinship before everything else.

After Ghanshyam Das Birla’s death in 1983, the Birlas had hammered out a fairly comprehensive separation of family interests — but the only issue that defied solution was Pilani Investments. There had been several rounds of discussion on resolving the Pilani tangle but it remained as intractable as ever.

The end was surprisingly easy. The two patriarchs — Krishna Kumar and Basant Kumar — finally persuaded the others to arrive at an amicable cash-for-shares settlement. And then, Krishna Kumar made his magnanimous gesture: he offered his 7 per cent stake in Pilani — valued at over Rs 100 crore — to brother Basant Kumar as a gift.

Basant Kumar would, of course, have none of it: but that grand gesture by his elder brother meant more to him than anything in the world.

But the bigger relief was that the brothers had been able to tie up all the loose ends and head off the possibility of any unseemly family squabble — something that the Birlas have always hidden from public gaze. They failed only once: when the legal dispute over Priyamvada Birla’s will erupted up in 2004.

That spat probably acted as a trigger for them to seal the deal on Pilani Investments, in which the MP Birla group still holds a disputed 25 per cent stake.

Grand beginning

The Birlas have always been known to make grand statements: Krishna Kumar went a step further — he opened with one. He was born at Pilani in Rajasthan on October 11, 1918, his birth coinciding with an epochal event: the signing of the armistice that signalled the end of the First World War.

But he chose to celebrate his birthday on October 12: he had been born on Gopashtami and the family tended to follow the lunar calendar, which meant that the date always bounced around on the western calendar.

After passing out from Lahore University in 1939 with a BA (Honours) degree, the young Krishna Kumar went to work the following year to build India’s sugar industry. He quickly expanded the business, acquiring interests in textiles, engineering, shipping and fertilisers.

But it wasn’t business alone that engaged his attention: he was drawn to the hurly-burly of politics. The Birla family and the Congress Party had a relationship going back to the early days of the freedom struggle but it wasn’t until 1984 that he formally joined the party as a life member.

He had close ties with the Gandhi family and was especially close to Indira Gandhi and son Sanjay. He was a member of the Rajya Sabha for three consecutive terms between 1984 and 2002.

KK Babu also served as the chairman/chancellor of Birla Institute of Technology & Science since 1983. He was inducted into the central board of the State Bank of India and graced the ICICI board for many years.

He liked reading, music and playing bridge. He was president of the Bridge Federation of India for a number of years and also headed the Indian Lawn Tennis Association.