Keshub Mahindra: The man who saw it all

The Chairman emeritus of the Mahindra Group, who passed away on April 12, was a pioneer with a persuasive style of leadership who laid the foundation of an organisation that grew from making Jeeps and tractors into a diversified conglomerate.

By Hormazd Sorabjee calendar 17 Apr 2023 Views icon10035 Views Share - Share to Facebook Share to Twitter Share to LinkedIn Share to Whatsapp
Keshub Mahindra: The man who saw it all

I met Keshub Mahindra for the last time in October 2019 at an impromptu meeting at his Gateway Building office. His nephew Anand, whom I had come to meet, said, “Keshub uncle is in office, would you like to catch up with him?” That catch-up, which I expected to last for a few minutes, went on for over an hour. The fact that I could walk into his office, without an appointment, demonstrated his easy-going personality and how he didn’t stand on ceremony. In fact, Mr Mahindra was known for his openness. Until the end, he kept in touch with many people across the ranks of the Mahindra organisation and even had informal reviews with them. He would patiently hear out their issues and then encourage and motivate them with sound advice and guidance only a person who had been at the helm of the Mahindra Group for most of his long life, could give. 

Mr Mahindra was looking noticeably frail when I met him, but what could you expect of someone who had then just turned 96? However, the grand old man was full of beans, his mind tack sharp and curious as ever. It was like old times. We chatted about the heady days that followed the de-licensing of the auto industry in the early 1990s, the joint-venture era, and his experiences with Chrysler, Ford, and Renault.

What amazed me, though, was how up-to-date he was with the nitty gritty of the auto industry. He wanted to know what the competition was doing, all the ‘scoops’ I had on rival products, and what I thought of Mahindra’s own product line-up. Mr. Mahindra kept himself engaged with his companies right until his passing on April 12, 2023. In fact, I was told that just two weeks ago he attended a KC Mahindra Trust meeting (via video-conference) during which he was fully involved and asked some pertinent questions. At the age of 99! 

Mr Mahindra’s life was a life well-lived. He was a pioneer of Indian industry and a true nation-builder who laid the foundation of an organisation that grew from making Jeeps and tractors into a diversified conglomerate. What made him stand apart was his strong sense of ethics, values, and compassion which remain deeply embedded in the DNA of the Mahindra Group. At heart, Mr Mahindra was a philanthropist and touched countless lives using his wealth and influence to support causes he strongly cared about like social justice, education, and healthcare.

People who have worked closely with Mr Mahindra say he was an inspiring leader who rarely forced his view but took people along with him. His inclusive leadership style played a pivotal role in greenlighting the Scorpio, which was Anand Mahindra’s baby and eventually the SUV that single-handedly transformed the company. The Mahindra board wasn’t comfortable approving the Rs 800 crore being asked for the Scorpio project (a lot of money back in the late 1990s) despite Anand’s view that this all-new SUV would be the company’s future. That’s when Mr Mahindra stepped in and shrewdly played both sides. He told the Scorpio team that if they could reduce investment by 25 percent, he could then recommend it to the board. The team thought it was impossible, but went back to the drawing board and met the lower target.

Mr Mahindra, then, convinced the board, and the Scorpio project was through. The rest, as we know, is history. That is how Mr Mahindra operated and ran his business. Not with heavy- handedness, but with a gentle and persuasive style which made him loved by all. When he retired, Mr Mahindra visited the company’s Kandivli plant for his farewell. The emotional response from the staff, they threw themselves at him, wanting to touch his feet like he was their God,  was illustrative of the bond he shared with his workforce.

Mr Mahindra stepped down as Chairman in 2012 and though he continued as Chairman Emeritus, he handed over the reins of the Mahindra Group to his nephew and successor Anand. After decades as Chairman, you would think Mr Mahindra would miss his position and the privileges and power that came with it, but he didn’t. He retired with dignity and grace, completely empowering Anand and didn’t intervene in any of decisions the leadership wanted to make. However, Anand always kept his uncle up-to-date and often sought his advice on key issues. In fact, the seamless passing of the baton from Mr Mahindra to Anand, and the special bond between uncle and nephew, forged by shared principles and values, has been the bedrock of the Mahindra Group’s strong foundation and corporate governance.

Mr Mahindra was a man who saw it all, including the birth of the Indian auto industry after Independence. In 1947, he joined the company his father Kailash Chandra founded (as Mahindra and Mohammed) and started making Jeeps. His company endured four decades of protectionist and restrictive policies and then had to face the frightening prospect of competing with a tidal wave of global players who rushed into India after the industry was delicensed in 1993. The fact that Mahindra and Mahindra is the only auto maker to have survived since independence (HM and Premier have long gone), shows how well- fortified Keshub Mahindra left the company. In fact, he must be smiling from above knowing that his father’s company which he joined as a 25-year old after graduating from Wharton, has never been in better shape.

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