R K Krishna Kumar, who retired from the executive positions of the Tata group recently, is a leader with unmatched qualities
Kochi: The successful story of the purchase of the loss-making Kanan Devan Hills Produce Company Ltd from James Finlay and turning it into a profit-making company through innovative marketing strategies is an epic chapter in the history of Indian management.
The acquisition of the Tetley group of London against the global competitive bids was another historic milestone in the highway of Indian industry. It was a prestigious win-win not only for the Tata group but also for the whole Indian industry. The credit for all these achievements goes to R K Krishna Kumar, who retired from the executive positions of the Tata group on 19 July 2003.
The first time I met Kumar was in the second-floor corridor of the Bombay House, on one fine morning, 35 years ago. Then he was the executive director of Tata Finlay and I was an employee in the public relations department. Though he did not know me, he gave me a pleasing smile and walked away. This rare trait of the person surprised me. Later, when I enquired, my colleagues told me all about this unassuming TAS executive. Even in those days, he was called 'KK' by his close friends and colleagues.
It was world-renowned astrophysicist Dr Vainu Bappoo who made it possible for us to come closer. Bappoo had a lot of accolades to his credit. He was the only and the first Indian to become the president of the World Astrophysicists Forum. He was the only Indian scientist in whose name a comet is known to the world. And is probably the only scientist in the world whose name decorates a planetarium. The list expands, but this globally acclaimed scientist never liked publicity. And this distinguished personality was none other than Kumar's brother-in-law.
Bappoo was to deliver the keynote address at one of the seminars organised by the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai. The previous day Kumar called me to his office and said: "Dr Bappoo is a media-shy person, who keeps himself aloof from publicity. Can you arrange without his knowledge some media coverage on his visit to Bombay?"
The following day Bappoo was greeted with the news about his visit, prominently published by all the newspapers in Bombay - a warm welcome to the world-renowned scientist at the Gateway City of India. The reports carried a detailed profile of the personality and biography of the great scientist - a good dose "lifted" from The Times of India Directory and Who is Who. When the flabbergasted Bappoo asked Kumar on how all this happened, the latter only responded with his characteristic say-it-all innocent smile.
A spiritual man
A staunch god-fearing man as he is, Kumar visits temples, churches and mosques with a spiritual equipoise. He strongly believes in the religious tenet: 'One Caste, One Religion, One God for Man.' His favourite gods are Sabarimala Sastha, Guruvayoorappan and Thirupathi Venkateswara.
Kumar has never harmed anyone by thought, word or deed, as far as I know. And I am sure anyone who knows him personally would have nothing to say otherwise. However, some people tried to wrong him and failed in the end, which we all knew through the news, which made headlines in the media regarding Tata Tea and the Assam militants controversy. It was allegedly cooked up by a powerful personality who had to face a disgraceful exit from one of the Tata companies, in connivance with a chief political figure of that time. But Kumar, who has the unique personality of never harbouring grudge against even the persons who did hurt him, was so determined in his conviction that evil would face an evil death in the hands of god.
However hard the trying times were, he would only say: "Everything happens as per the will of god." A couple of times, when I tried to convey some news or the other about the persons who tried to harm his reputation, he had only said: "We should never rejoice at the sufferings of even our enemies." On hearing this I felt: "This man should have been born a priest." His nature is to love not only his neighbours but also his enemies, which is an admirable quality of his personality. Probably that may be one of the reasons why Mother Theresa occasionally used to visit his office when he was in Kolkata.
On 4 August 1993, Bolin Bordoloi, then a senior manager in Tata Tea's Guwahati office, was abducted by militants. Those were the times Kumar looked so perturbed and fatigued. He was the then the managing director of Tata Tea. And he was very much concerned about and involved in analysing the ways and means of securing the safe release of Bordoloi from the militants.
To release Bordoloi, the militants demanded a ransom of Rs 15 crore, that too in dollars. But Kumar's stand was very clear. There was no way by which money would be given to the militants, which they would obviously utilise for subversive anti-national activities. But at the same time, he ran from pillar to post, knocking at every possible door to get his colleague released. He asked all employees of Tata Tea to hold daily prayers. He himself prayed to all gods, invoking their blessings for Bordoloi's safety.
The list of temples included the powerful Pazhavangadi Ganapathi temple as well, which is down south near Thiruvananthapuram. I am sure the god must have heard the pleas and seen the plight of this pious man. After a long agonising period of 11 months Bordoloi was released. Kumar rushed to the Pazhavangadi Ganapathi temple to fulfil his vow, cracking 1,001 coconuts with religious fervour.
Soaked in Tata values and philosophy as he is, Kumar never wanted to take a detour from truth. He is straightforward and transparent. He never yielded to threats and pressures. This was evident from the fact that in 1995, when another militant organisation tried to extort a huge amount of money from Tata Tea, the company, under the leadership of Kumar, strongly rejected their demands. But at the same time declared that the company was prepared to participate in the developmental processes in the state of Assam. Soon the company established an eight crore multi-specialty referral hospital in Chaubwa in Assam. There is no other such well-equipped state-of-the-art hospital anywhere in the North Eastern states. In addition to that, Tata Tea also provided community medicare to a number of villages in Assam.
Since I have been closely associated with Kumar all through the Assam episode, I could empathise with him and feel the intensity of the mental agony experienced by him and his family for four to five months. This period in his life must be an unforgettable nightmare. But Kumar courageously faced all difficulties with a steel resolve. When Ratan Tata, as chairman of the company, offered to shoulder the responsibility for the incidents in Assam, Kumar did not agree to that. This is proof enough to show how much Tata is fond of Kumar and how much the latter is a man of principles.
Love and sympathy for others is an inborn quality in Kumar. There are stories aplenty about his kindness in helping a lot of people from all corners of India. The following is just one such incident. When Kumar was the MD of Tata Tea, he paid an official visit to the company's general hospital in Munnar. There, he saw a restless crowd with worried looks gather outside the intensive care unit. On his inquiry, the doctor said: "A patient is dying. And these are his relatives." The doctor's response made Kumar angry. "How could you as a doctor talk like this? Your job is to save the life of a patient."
Quickly he learnt about the case, which required a specialist's assistance from Ernakulam. That meant at least three to four hours' time, which made the doctors hesitate to go for it since they feared the patient might not withstand that long. As soon as Kumar heard this, he said: "Use the company's helicopter to fly the doctor here. Quick." Within the next 45 minutes, the doctor was in Munnar to save the patient from the clutches of death. Two days later, the patient's father met Kumar. "Sir, you are god's messenger. Had you not come that day, I would have lost my daughter for ever." Yes, as the man said, had Kumar been not there in the hospital that day, the daughter of a tea estate worker would have died.
A born leader
Kumar's leadership quality and the alertness with which he reacts quickly to solve problems are amazing. Few years back, when Kerala Merchants and Traders Association decided to boycott all products of Hindustan Lever, it was Kumar who had reacted instantly, saying if they were successful in their attempt, they would try the same pressure tactics with any other producer company.
In one of his meetings with the senior executives of Tata Tea he asked all of them to be vigilant and formulate ways and means to scuttle the move. When I suggested that we should urge a consumer to file a petition before the Monopolies and Restrictive Trade
Practices Commission, he immediately approved of this strategy. We then organised discreetly for an old lady to file a complaint before the commission. This worked. The verdict was against the merchants' association. At that time no one knew, including Hindustan Lever, who was behind the move.
(The writer was the vice-president [corporate affairs] at Tata Tea. At present he is the vice-president [corporate affairs, South] at Indian Hotels Company. The views expressed above are personal. He can be contacted at )