Keshub Mahindra And The Passing Of An Era

Murali Gopalan
12 Apr 2023
02:20 PM
3 Min Read

The former Chairman of Mahindra & Mahindra was the epitome of grace and elegance. He represented a generation of entrepreneurs which laid the base for a new India.

Keshub Mahindra

Over the last few days, Keshub Mahindra’s name was doing the rounds online as India’s oldest billionaire. 

When news of his passing trickled in on Wednesday, there was a sense of sadness that the former Chairman of Mahindra & Mahindra was not around to celebrate his 100th birthday on October 9 this year. It would have been the best tribute to an individual who stood tall in corporate India circles and was the epitome of warmth and elegance. 

At a personal level, Keshub Mahindra brings back fond memories of a calmer era when cell phones still had not pervaded the landscape, when Mumbai was Bombay and when India had just stepped into its post-reforms era. It was sometime in 1994, when the newspaper I was working in then had asked me to interview the M&M Chairman.

I had just moved to Bombay and was finding my way around in this incredible city while forging contacts and being part of an editorial team that was super excited about working in a new business daily from a prestigious group. 

Reaching Out 

I must confess about being nervous about calling Keshub Mahindra’s office for an interview. Would he even deign to meet me considering that we did not even know each other? I called up the landline at M&M’s corporate headquarters at Apollo Bunder in Colaba near the iconic Gateway of India landmark and remember being told that he was not around then.

The person concerned took down my number — there was just one direct line in our office while all other calls had to be routed through the board line — and I told myself that nothing much was going to come out of this. A few hours later, my extension number began buzzing and it was from the Chairman’s office at M&M.

Keshub Mahindra came on the line and in his inimitable polished voice and said he would be delighted to meet me. He had very kind words to say about our newspaper group, which left me dizzy with happiness.

Butterflies were, however, flying furiously in my stomach on the day of the interview and I was soon face-to-face with the man I had read so much about in business magazines. He was class personified and spoke about a range of issues while seated in his lovely office at Apollo Bunder. 

Remember this was nearly three decades ago and I just wish I had preserved the interview at least to reminisce about a person, who truly represented a generation that was suave, polite and courteous.  As someone who had been given the responsibility of covering the auto industry, I was building up my network in Bombay and, clearly, M&M was a critical component of this landscape, which included other brands like Tata Motors and Bajaj Auto.

Different Generation 

It was during this time that I met RK Pitamber, another remarkable individual, who was the Managing Director of M&M. Like Keshub Mahindra, he was part of the leadership team at the Gateway office which was barely 15 minutes from where I worked. 

Pitamber, like his Chairman, represented a generation which was westernised in its outlook and had liberal values. He did not throw his weight about and interviews with him were a delight while he puffed away on his cigarettes. When he passed away over a decade ago, I was completely gutted.

Winds Of Change 

Keshub Mahindra was an integral part of the Indian automotive industry which had seen more than its share of challenges post-Independence, when companies like his had to play a role in the nation building process. There were a whole lot of bureaucratic hurdles to overcome for entrepreneurs then and the going was not easy. All this was part and parcel of the work style in those difficult days.

Yet, industrialists like Mahindra were resilient and keen to take the game to the next level even while India remained a closed economy for decades before the 1991 reforms process kicked in and changed the contours of the landscape.

During the time of my meeting with Keshub Mahindra, his company was tipped to join hands with Chrysler for the Jeep Cherokee in India. Then came the surprising news of M&M teaming up instead with Detroit’s other big name, Ford Motor, in 1995. The company that Keshub Mahindra had led for decades before the liberalisation era was now poised for a new chapter in growth.

It is to M&M’s credit that it continues to be a force to reckon with three decades later even while it has gone through its share of upheavals. Reforms saw some legacy auto brands like Premier and Hindustan Motors elbowed out of the market, while M&M, along with the likes of Tata Motors, are still going strong. Its former ally, Ford, also exited India soon after General Motors, which is a grim reminder that this is not the easiest of markets to operate in. 

Project Scorpio 

Keshub Mahindra’s tenure also saw M&M work on its historic Scorpio project, which was then a make-or-break initiative for the company. Had the plan gone awry, there is no telling what may have happened.  The Scorpio was, however, a smash hit and even today the brand continues to be a draw among buyers. 

Keshub Mahindra gracefully passed on the baton to the next generation and an all-new leadership team at M&M under his nephew, Anand Mahindra, began focusing on an aggressive growth strategy, which included going global. The seeds sown in the initial years had helped create a robust base from where the company would leverage its strengths in a fiercely competitive market.

The passing of Keshub Mahindra also marks the end of an era, where people like him represented a different value system. Last year saw the departure of Rahul Bajaj, the former Chairman of Bajaj Auto, who was once again someone I respected and liked immensely. Keshub Mahindra, RIP.

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