Shri Ram College of Commerce, Lady Shri Ram College, Modern School and Sri Ram Center for Performing Arts are reputed institutions of Delhi. Not many of connect the dots to the man behind all of them – Lala Shri Ram. He was one of the pioneering industrialists of Delhi.
In this Biography of Lala Shri Ram by Sonu Bhasin, I got to learn a few things. It talks about the entrepreneurial atmosphere in North India in early 20th CE. Then, there are always lessons from the life of a businessman who created many enterprises and institutions.
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Let me share some of these learnings with you:
- You do not have to start business ab initio, you can grow up in a business you work for and eventually own it. Yes, Lala Shri Ram did not start DCM or Delhi Cloth Mills, but he took ownership of it, first by his hard work and eventually financially as well.
- He repeated the same with Jay Engineering that produced Usha Sewing Machines.
- A successful businessman is always tuned to overall environment in the world around and sense opportunities and potential closure of opportunities. When it was war time, Lala Shri Ram started producing clothes for the army’s vast requirements. He not only produced but also created a whole ecosystem to be able to meet the large demand which he could not have done with his single mill.
- Diversification is key. His first major diversification was in Sugar Mills in western UP around Meerut. He was not a pioneer but he jumped when the demand for the domestic sugar is bound to go up. However, you must stick to your value systema and reject things like Tobacco and Alcohol.
- When factories were setup, the worker colonies along with schools and medical facilities were planned. I look at the IT corridors in major cities and miss this comprehensive planning that leads to traffic jams and unnecessary traffic movement leading to pollution and bad quality of life.
- Quality of product was his focus weather it was cloth, pottery, sugar or chemicals.
- Incentivizing good behaviour is better than punishing bad behaviour. Read more in my Mathura Pedha story.
- Employees must be taken care of.
- DCM Soap Bar, Basant Toilet Soap, Phenyl, Rath and Panghat Vanaspati and Usha Sewing Machines are brands from DCM Group. Growing up in North India, I have seen most of them but never connected them
- Family remains your most trusted team in business. Irrespective of weather you get along with them personally or not, handing over parts of business to them is easier than passing it to an outsider. Family of course includes extended family. Succession must be planned well to avoid conflicts after the patriarch passes away.
- CSR may be a buzz word now. It often gets used as a PR exercise for the company. Most traditional business communities engaged in CSR on their own by way of employee welfare and institution building. Look at the quality of institutes left by Lala Shri Ram, still coveted after so many decades. Has the forced CSR spend produced anything worthwhile. Personal CSR includes helping government with various inputs like The Bombay Plan.
- Women of the family though did not conduct business directly; they did contribute to the social fabric of the society. In Lala Shri Ram’s family’s case, his daughters-in-law were responsible for hosting and promoting Indian culture through performing arts in their own house. They even performed in some plays that tells us about the freedom women had even when their demeanour today many not convey the same.
- Travel is a way to gain new knowledge, enhance business network and sense new opportunities. Lala ji travelled across the country, worked in different industrial hubs and created industry in remote locations. He travelled across Europe to learn about new machinery that can be brought to India. Also remember most of these businessmen had no formal training and they learnt everything on job. Traveling is where their continuous education happened.
- It was not easy to do business in post-independence India with socialist government looking at businesses with suspicion. Hats off to people like Gujarmal Modi, Tatas and Lala Shri Ram for meandering through red tape and create wealth.
- In an Agarwal Samaj meeting I heard a big businessman say – Hamara haath dene mein hi rehta hai. He meant we are always expected to be paying to everyone. I saw a glaring example of this in this book. Lala ji took is newly wed son and daughter-in-law to meet Mahatma Gandhi, to seek his blessings. In lieu, Gandhi asked the young bride to donate all the gold jewellery she was wearing, and she had no option but to oblige. No one gives credit to business families who contributed to freedom struggle while the politicians took away all the credit.
- Lala Shri Ram led a simple and frugal life despite being one of the richest men in the country. They say Banias spend only on a house and a wedding. This was true for him too, as he built lavish homes for his family and hosted huge wedding for his son. I want to see those 24 Ramayana and Mahabharata based paintings he commissioned for his ballroom.
Tho book also paints a picture of the late 19th and early 20th CE Delhi that lived in Gullys and Kuchas. Having walked most of those lanes during my Old Delhi walks, I could visualize the life of a big Haveli in a lane with temple known for its bells. I missed the temple and hope to visit it next time I am in Delhi.
You get to see the slow transformation of elite Delhi from Shahajahanabad to Civil Lines to Lutyens Delhi.
Overall, an interesting read. Read it.