This article celebrates India’s enormous managerial
talent by remembering a great, pioneering
manager-motivator-thinker. A man whom youngsters
will know nothing of. Who influenced the managerial
behaviour of so many. A man called Prakash Lal
But let me first tell you how I thought of writing
on Prakash, for that story itself speaks volumes of
the man. A week ago, at a small convivial
bar-cum-restaurant in Mumbai called Busaba, I met
Walter Vieira and Hiru Bijlani. I had bumped into
Walter a couple of times earlier; Hiru I met for the
first time. Within fifteen minutes, we somehow began
talking of Prakash Tandon; and we talked and talked,
each with his many nuggets. And I promised Hiru and
Walter — and Prakash, wherever he may be — that I’ll
write a piece about him.
Here’s the biographical bit. Prakash Tandon was born
in 1911. After qualifying as a chartered accountant
in England, Prakash returned to India in 1939 to
join Unilever as the first Indian management
trainee. He was among the first professional
managers in India in an MNC; the first to focus on
market research, understand the importance of
marketing as a management tool and systematically
develop brands; and to insist that if you wanted to
be manager worth the name, you had to have a deep
interest in understanding the economy, society,
history and how different people in India actually
behaved in their day-to-day lives.
Here’s a nugget. Prakash Tandon created Dalda. For
years, he engaged wandering minstrels, puppeteers,
storytellers and itinerant cooks travelling through
villages and mofussil towns propagating the virtues
of Dalda and showing that it was as good as ghee at
a fraction of the cost. In the process, he succeeded
in transforming Dalda from a company-specific brand
to a common noun. Soon, vanaspati meant Dalda.
In 1956, Prakash was the first Indian to join the
board of Unilever in India. In 1960, he became the
first Indian executive chairman of Hindustan Lever.
As the boss, he moved business towards rural India;
set up a full-fledged R&D centre in Mumbai; created
Hindustan Lever’s famous management trainee
programme; set the standards for the highest norms
of transparency and corporate governance; and proved
that an MNC chairman could be an Indian with his
head held high.
After retiring from Hindustan Lever, Prakash chose
the public sector. He was the chairman of State
Trading Corporation, after which he became the
chairman of Punjab National Bank. As if these were
not enough, Prakash served as the chairman of
IIM-Ahmedabad and was the helm of the National
Council of Applied Economic Research. And found the
time two write three books: The Punjabi Century, The
Banking Century (a history of the PNB); and Beyond
Prakash Tandon died in 2004.
How did I meet Prakash? At a business history
seminar in IIM-Ahmedabad in 1984, where I was
reading a paper on Marwari entrepreneurship under
colonialism. We hit it off, and Prakash invited me
to his room where, over his fascinating early
marketing stories at HLL, he taught me to how to
make a mean gin martini with ice and orange peels.
We became friends ever since — trading books,
opinions and articles whenever we met.
Here is another vignette. The day he retired from
Hindustan Lever, Prakash arrived at the Backbay
Reclamation head office in the chauffeur driven
company car. After the farewell tea party, Prakash
walked down, waved the driver away, got in to his
old Fiat and drove off. Just like that. No fuss. No
For a man who was at the very top of the heap in
Hindustan Levers, STC and PNB, Prakash took no
favours. He lived in a modest DDA flat in Vasant
Kunj; drove his increasingly rusted Fiat everywhere;
never jumped queues; and was unfailingly courteous
to all. He read everything under the sun; and
whenever he heard something interesting, out would
come the small red leather diary for taking short
notes. And right up to his mid-eighties, Prakash
could drink most of us under the table — quietly
sharing insights and wisdom as he sipped along!
The greatness of Prakash Tandon lay in many things.
Motivating people across the board; being fiercely
anti-hierarchical; attention to details; importance
of facts; getting processes in place, and making
them work; stickler for punctuality and delivery;
inquisitiveness; always learning; scrupulously
honest; and without an iota of arrogance. A leader;
a great manager; and everybody’s friend.
Here’s my request. Will all those who knew Prakash
get in touch with each other and share stories of
one of the greatest professional managers India has
ever had? Mail me, and I’ll do the coordination.
Prakash deserves a case study — or at least many
stories. Even he would have liked this idea.
Published: Business Standard, June 2008