The Great Indian Family Business – then and now
When I tell people I know here in the Netherlands that my parents’ marriage was ‘arranged’, they cannot hide their curiosity. So I tell them more. I tell them that at the time that the marriage was arranged, my father’s family ran a business and my mother’s father had a job as a highly respected bank manager. Out of the union of these two families, other businesses were transacted besides my brother, my sister and myself.
Then quite often, I see an expression that borders on ‘poor you’ or sometimes ‘ a not knowing how to react to such a story’ look. One that happens to be true and is presented as just another fact of life. Like you are born, you grow up … then old …. and then you die. Hopefully time passes between each stage and you have enjoyed the ride.
I guess my parents enjoyed the ride, bumpy as it was at times, though unfortunately neither of them lived to old age, even by Indian standards. For them and my grandparents before them such liaisons that appear to be so utterly transactional were essential to how families and communities generated wealth and a net of social security for each member in a trusted environment. The ‘transactional’ is the ‘relational’ so to speak.
I grew up listening to business talk along with my daily daal and rice, as do probably millions of others in India even today. In 2018, India figures as third in family run businesses worldwide. Not only that, these businesses are generating more capital than non- family run businesses, and have been doing so since India’s independence in 1947. In that sense, nothing much has changed. However, a lot has changed in how these businesses are run. What defines family and how each member presently goes about conducting their business has gone through a sea change in the India of today.
So if my father had lived in this day and age, would he have necessarily given up being the army officer that he was, to join the family business as a junior as was then expected of ‘the eldest son?’ If yes, would the head of the family business suggest he had better first get a management, business or law degree in order to prepare him for the challenges ahead, while at the same time offering to support my mother while he did so? Or would my mother have been the one to use her talents and/or qualifications to enrich the family business and support my father through his formal education? How would she, in turn be supported to make sure that my siblings and myself got the nurturing that we needed in order to grow up? Would the family have a constitution or a council to structure and regulate the business? Or would decisions continue to be taken around the dinner table – along with the feeding of daal and rice into the mouths of young ones? These and the answers to questions like them mark the difference between a family’s business then and now.
To this day, my maternal and paternal family members run businesses. Their children are not expected to take over from them. As India faces myriad social and economic influences from outside and within, family businesses are also be evolving in order to thrive. As the well-known industrialist Adi Godrej has predicted, a lot of family run businesses in India today choose to hire professionals to manage them. It won’t be long before these businesses become institutionally run ones. As for those of us in the Netherlands with a desire to broaden our horizons with regard to India, it should be some source of comfort that when it comes to professional culture, there are meeting points. Engineers understand engineers across the board. Sales people understand others in their profession. However, this does not make it necessarily ‘easier’ to do business together. The deeply entrenched cultural norms that we all carry with us can be very determining as to how we conduct ourselves and communicate. Cross-cultural awareness of intercultural communication is crucial for successful international partnerships.
As for my father, he was probably better off pursuing his career where he was. Not that he was made to fight battles. He was ‘offered’ to the Indian army by the family – another practice in the Sikh community of those times. But that is another story. Like a lot of army officers of his time, he was excellent at all things ‘relational’. He could make genuine contact with people of all ages in a matter of minutes, had no head for balance sheets and, in his own words, ‘invested in people’. In the India of today, he probably wouldn’t be chosen as a candidate for the family business at all.