Mahindra: Pioneering industrialist Keshub Mahindra passes away


India’s oldest billionaire, philanthropist and doyen of India Inc, Keshub Mahindra, passed away on Wednesday. He was 99.
Born on October 9, 1923, in Shimla, the chairman emeritus of Mahindra Group witnessed up close and personal the transformation of the Indian economy. His nearly five-decade-long tenure at the helm of Mahindra & Mahindra saw the company negotiate everything from licence permit raj to liberalisation. Under his stewardship, M&M transformed from its beginnings as a steel trading company to a utility vehicle and steel maker to further diversify into telecom, tractors and other businesses.
“Keshub Mahindra was and will always remain a source of inspiration for me and the entire Mahindra Group,” said his nephew Anand Mahindra, chairman of Mahindra Group. “He was a man of principles and led from the front to preserve the legacy of our founders which has ensured that the organisation has remained rooted in ethics, values and good corporate governance. Keshub Mahindra was known for his astute business acumen that helped in transforming Mahindra into a diversified federation of companies. His compassion and people-centric approach made him a global business icon, who was much loved and respected.”
Keshub Mahindra became acquainted with change right from the year he joined the company – 1947. Independence and Partition was a crucial time for the company, forcing the founders JC and KC Mahindra to rechristen what started out as Mahindra and Mohammed into Mahindra & Mahindra after the third founding partner, Ghulam Mohammed, left India to become Pakistan’s first finance minister. Sixteen years later, when Keshub Mahindra took over as the chairman of the company in 1963, M&M changed course again — first to forge its steel alliance with Ugine Kuhlmann and then to get into tractors in partnership with International Harvester.
Mahindra old-timers say he had a distinctive leadership style that combined future-ready vision with a people-first approach. He was instrumental in the group getting into partnerships with Willys Corporation for utility vehicles, International Harvester for tractors, and British Telecom for software services among others. He also expanded into sectors like hospitality and real estate. In a sense, he transitioned the company onto its first growth spurt before liberalisation, after which his nephew and successor Anand took up the mantle to rapidly transform the group.
“I joined the company in the 70s and found him to be very accessible – he was unfailingly kind, had an infectious charm and always remembered names and faces,” says Avinash Datta who retired as president & MD of Mahindra China Tractor company in 2006 but continued as adviser on international business development for another eight years, forging a more than 50-year long association with M&M. “That compassion continued long after people retired from the company, fostering a culture of ‘once a Mahindra man, always a Mahindra man’. When my wife passed away long after I retired, I got a beautiful condolence letter from him. That kind of personal touch was his leadership style.”
That personal touch is also something that former M&M MD Pawan Goenka mentioned in his tribute. Keshub Mahindra, he tweeted, was “the nicest person I had the privilege of knowing and I always looked forward to meetings with him and (was) inspired by how he connected business, economics and social matters.” For the auto industry, Keshub Mahindra was an early leader whose stewardship “led to India being recognised as an important player globally and also helped in India becoming a manufacturing hub for the automobile sector”, says Vinod Aggarwal, president, SIAM and MD & CEO, VECV.
Keshub Mahindra served on several boards and councils in the private and public sector, including SAIL, Tata Steel, Tata Chemicals, Indian Hotels, IFC and ICICI. He was also the founder chairman of HUDCO (Housing and Urban Development Corporation Limited); vice-chairman of Housing Development Finance Corporation Ltd; chairman of Mahindra Ugine Steel Co. Ltd; director of Bombay Dyeing & Manufacturing and Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation Limited.
Watch Keshub Mahindra gets lifetime achievement

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