'The Inheritors' book review: Family values seen in entrepreneurship tales

The Inheritors 
Stories of Entrepreneurship and Success
Sonu Bhasin
Penguin Random House
248 pages; Rs 299

Family businesses have been the backbone of the Indian economy since Independence and played a significant role in nation-building even before that. However, in the era of the Mallyas, Modis and Choksis they have received bad press, a few rotten apples impairing public perception about the rest. Positive stories are hard to come by. Sonu Bhasin’s The Inheritors fills this gap by narrating the stories of grit, gumption and guts of the next generation of some of India’s well-known family businesses. The exception being Motilal Oswal and Raamdeo Agrawal, who are the founders, not inheritors, of the Motilal Oswal group.

The book is an easy read and the narrative is interesting for the most part, and would engage the layperson as well. The interviews are detailed, insightful and reveal many unknown aspects of the family, the business, successes, failures and strategies. It is easy to feel that the protagonists are sharing their fears and their deepest, heartfelt emotions with readers. 

Consider the following examples: 

Replying to then Hindustan Unilever Chairman Keki Dadiseth’s overture to Marico to buy out the profitable Parachute brand of hair care products, Harsh Mariwala said, “Mr Dadiseth, you may think I am a nut but you will find out that I am a tough nut to crack. Thanks, but no thanks”.

Then there is the very human insecurities of a daughter-in-law, now a successful lawyer in her own right, marrying into a prominent family of lawyers. “It was not something that I had ever thought that I would do… I used to look at all the lawyers and my in-laws and feel somewhat intimidated,” said Saloni Shroff who married Rishabh Shroff, the fourth-generation scion of the law firm Amarchand Mangaldas (or Cyril Amarchand Mangaldas as it became after the brothers split in 2015).

Many of the groups and the next-generation leaders whom Ms Bhasin has interviewed for this book are well known and widely covered by the media, so some of the stories may be familiar. It was refreshing to read about the ones that aren’t as well known — such as Agastya Dalmia of Keventers, a hundred-year-old brand that he revived with two partners, or Arjun Sharma of Select group. Both created new ventures to revive and advance the family business.

The weakness of the book lies in the fact that Ms Bhasin has missed several opportunities that would have given it a longer shelf life. One of them would have been to synthesise the learnings from the leaders’ experiences. This would have been very helpful for the next generation of the thousands of business families in India. Ms Bhasin also missed the opportunity to weave together a road map for the next generation for successfully establishing themselves. For example, succession challenges plague most family businesses at some point in their life cycle. What was done right in the companies that Ms Bhasin chose for the book?

Another big gap is the lack of an explanation for the choice of companies and leaders featured in the book. Was the choice dictated by convenience, availability or was there a pattern or logic for selecting the people she did? To be sure, there are plenty of fascinating stories in the book: The account of Dabur and Amit Burman exemplifying professionalisation and separation of ownership from the management; how Pooja Jain found the perfect mentor in her father; why the Dhingras believe that harmony amongst family members is key to the success of the business; how Tara Singh Vachani is proving her mettle through her passion for “senior citizen living”. But why has the writer chosen these groups and not some of the others?

The production also left much to be desired. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri calls the cover of a book its “clothing”. “If the process of writing is a dream, the book cover represents the awakening,” she writes. I am not sure if enough thought has gone into designing the cover of the book under review. It is not appealing enough to entice anyone into picking it up at a bookstore. Also, the editing is poor and there are typos. It is to be presumed that these can be taken care of in the future editions and in the digital versions of the book. Lastly, the Foreword by Anand Mahindra could have been longer. 

To summarise, the book is well worth a read, not least because with a staggering 90 per cent and more businesses in India being family businesses, success stories need to be told. A little more rigour in the production values and framework may have made it a great book.