How 'bhadralok of business' B M Khaitan built an empire through buyouts

Khaitan was invited to join the board of directors in 1963 and by 1964 he assumed the role of managing director
Industrialists who build an empire by snapping up firms rarely earn titles like “Gentleman Raider”, but till he breathed his last on Saturday, Brij Mohan Khaitan was fondly called “bhadralok”.

From tea to batteries and engineering, the B M Khaitan group — or the Williamson Magor group as it came to be called — was a business empire built meticulously through acquisitions, big and small.

Perhaps, the only thing that he built was the corporate headquarters of his group, 4 Mangoe Lane — which was once Hampton Court for the British managers of Williamson Magor & Company, one of India's top managing agency firms. 

Gita Piramal's book Business Maharajas mentions that when the old building was demolished and the new one built to cut cost, Khaitan stood in the parking lot and observed, “At least, I have built something in my life.” 

Nine floors from ground level, the Mangoe Lane headquarters boasts of an attractive penthouse. Built through the 1960s, it is symbolic of the rise of Khaitan, a story that had its beginnings in the supply of packaging materials and fertilisers to Williamson Magor & Company. But the equation took a new turn when, in 1961, Magor's controlling share of 26 per cent in the flagship firm Bishnauth came under attack from investor B Bajoriaa. Bajoria had shored up a 25 per cent holding, a per cent shy of Magor's stake. 

In stepped Khaitan as the white knight. The Khaitan family provided money to buy out the investor's stake and there has been no looking back since. Khaitan was invited to join the board of directors in 1963 and by 1964 he assumed the role of managing director.

Other investments followed, the prized one being McLeod. In 1987, Khaitan stitched a deal with the John Guthrie family for McLeod Russel India. A tenuous business attachment earlier helped tilt the scales in favour of Khaitan to close a deal that made him the largest private tea producer globally, with 54 gardens.

But what really put Khaitan on the national map was the acquisition of Union Carbide (now known as Eveready Industries India) in 1993. For $96.5 million (Rs 300 crore), Khaitan managed to put his stamp on Union Carbide, beating the Wadias. It was the biggest corporate takeover of its time. 

Of course, the going got tough after the buy-out when investors lost confidence in the company and the scrip fell on the bourses. Then there was the scare with the McLeod rights issue used for funding the Union Carbide buy-out, but Khaitan passed by a narrow margin.

By 1995, Khaitan's portfolio consisted of 25 companies with interests apart from tea and batteries (Eveready Industries, Standard Batteries), engineering (Macneill Engineering, McNally Bharat, Kilburn Engineering, Worthington Pumps, Deutsche Babcock), packaging (India Foils), financial services (Williamson Financial Service). 

But between early and mid-2000, the businesses that took centre stage in the Khaitan scheme of things were tea (primarily consolidated under McLeod Russel), batteries (Eveready) and engineering (McNally Bharat Engineering and Kilburn Engineering). Yet, the ride for him wasn't always smooth. 

Among his unfulfilling acquisitions would be Metal Box, which ran into labour problems and India Foils, which it acquired in the late 1980s from Alcan and later sold to Sterlite group. 

Together, the two companies were supposed to steer the company's packaging business and encash on a boom that he believed was lurking in the corner. Among all the acquisitions, Khaitan's two big successes would be the tea and batteries business, both leaders in their trade. 

McLeod Russel, till recently, held on to its status as the world's largest private tea producer. After a series of garden sale to reduce debt, it is still the country's largest.

The tea business has had a fair share of ups and downs even in the past, when the split with the Magors happened and then Khaitan went on to acquire the company in a perfect homecoming.  Khaitan had managed to ride the storm and emerge stronger in most cases.

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