For, a very long time now that dips beyond pre-independence days, Marwaris have been the back bone of Indian business; considered almost a generic term for business in India. They crafted some of the country’s oldest industrial empires- Birlas, Dalmias, Jhunjhunwalas, Goenkas; the list is long and accounts for a quarter of Indian names in the Forbes billionaire list. And in the process Marwari surnames have almost become household names.
And there is no denying the fact that first generation of Marwari businessmen started in a very modest way. There are stories galore about them, which you tend to believe, even without feeling the need to ratify; and knowing the finer details owing to their present stalk in Indian business scenario. For, you can’t help but believe in the hearsay that late Ghanshyam Das Birla mortgaged his lota (a round waterpot, typically of polished brass) in Hissar long ago, then a small town of Haryana for some pennies to start his business in the early twentieth century and when India liberated from the British Raj the worth of Birla group was somewhere around 60 lakh. Their histories and life philosophy of ‘simple living and high thinking’ has led them to the vying mantra of success and has always been a matter of great inquisition for many other communities that wanted to emulate Marwaris.
And there penchant to tread unknown areas for new business opportunities is time immemorial. They swarmed into Bengal and North-East of India as business entrepreneurs when many in India feared these areas.
Thomas A Timberg, author of a recent book, ‘The Marwaris’ wrote his doctoral thesis on them at Harvard back in 1978, and he has something interesting to say about Marwaris in an interview with Times of India.
In popular belief all shopkeepers and traders are Marwaris. But going by the definition of All-India Marwari Sammelan – all of those traders and business families from Rajasthan and some adjacent areas of Haryana are Marwaris. The Jodhpur region of Rajasthan is called Marwar. But many of the leading business families hail from the Shekhawati belt- Sikar, Jhunjhunu, Churu and Nagaur districts. Some are from Jaisalmer area. So I include the whole state of Rajasthan.
And, on how they became so successful he says, ‘It’s a long story.’ But what can be said is they all had common features that helped in their success. Starting from about the 1820s, they moved to Bengal to build a network of traders that covered large parts of the countryside too. This upcountry network was indeed their backbone and also the school for learning the ropes.
They developed a local sophisticated system of book-keeping called the ‘parta.’ By early 20th century this was updated in real time through phone. They had a well though-out personnel policy, with loyal and qualified people placed at key points. They had a system of incentives for good performance. Finally, they were very adaptable to changing economic or political situations.
In the 1970s, during the height of Naxalite terror, I met a Bengali lady and a Marwari insurance agent at breakfast in the guest house, where I was staying. The lady got irritated at the man’s boasting and said that the Naxalites would get him someday. The trader chuckled and said, “Before that can happen, we would join them.”
And to build a trade, one needs money. So, where did all the money come from, initially? Timberg feels different families have different tales. But during the British times, some of today’s successful families took advantage of the speculative market, as in opium and also jute. In the early 20th century when the British were easing off on opium (which they exported to China), some Mawari families in Bombay made a killing. They used their connections in Malwa where opium was grown to do so. Another family owes its origin to playing the international silver market through tiny loans. What these stories tell us about this community is that they had the ability to take risks and also that they acted on market information. And of course this should be seen in the context of tremendous hard work that these families did in going to distant places, staying in community messes (basa) and building their trade from the ground.
Their entrepreneurial spirit fared well even in the Nehruvian, economic regime controls, and most seem to have done pretty well for themselves. A 2010 study by Tarun Khanna and Krishna Palepu of Harvard Business School has shown that the share of Marwari and other family business groups in the ownership of large scale business in India is not so different from what it was in 1939, 1969 and 1997. Some like the Bajaj family, suffered for several years. Dalmia too had problems. But by and large the Marwaris benefited from their networks and especially, from their ability to negotiate with the governments of the day.
And how about the modern Marwari business houses following the same traditional practices that made them successful earlier? Some features may survive, others may get replaced. A lot of study has been done on the academic question: is tradition hostile to modernity? The Marwaris have successfully gone from being traders to industrial houses (Birlas, Goenkas, Dalmiyas) they have both tight focus and diffuse focus groups. They have largely resolved the succession problem, something that dogs every family business.
They have embraced new technologies, especially IT. In fact Birlas gave up their traditional book-keeping system for an IT based system a few years ago. Many have encouraged their daughters to study and take over business responsibilities. In fact most of the young Marwaris are now educated in Western Business schools; however there are exceptions and I’m only talking of the general trend.