Media shy and a bit of a recluse, Basant Kumar Birla’s younger daughter, Manjushree Khaitan, suddenly found the spotlight on her when Kesoram Industries appointed her as the executive vice-chairman this week. While it appeared sudden, the signs of it coming had become obvious at least two years ago.
In 2009, at the annual general meeting (AGM), it was a shareholder who first suggested Khaitan be made vice-chairman. It didn’t happen, but the 2010 AGM was clearly her show.
She addressed shareholders for the first time and also outlined a vision for the company, the most aggressive road map in recent times. Kesoram would go beyond Rs 10,000 crore, she had said, while emphasing the need for a strategically long-term view. And she is working towards it.
Kesoram’s annual revenue at the end of March 2012 was around Rs 6,000 crore, but it posted a significant amount of loss, too, at Rs 380 crore. FY13 is expected to be better, but will still end in losses. However, it’s almost certain the company will be back in the black by FY14. Khaitan can take credit for some of the good work that is expected to show up in the balance-sheet next year.
The Birla company, known to be run by old hands, was professionalised. Khaitan changed CEOs of both the tyre and rayon divisions to infuse younger blood and, more important, a new line of thinking.
“Her style of management is distinct from her father’s. She inherited her mother’s traits and has an eye for details.” This is how many who know her describe her work.
For one, she is completely hands-on and is actively involved in decision-making. The nonagenarian Birla, in sharp contrast, would meet CEOs once a month because he believed it was the manager’s job to manage and his role was to supervise them. “She likes updates on an hourly basis, if not minute-by-minute,” says an acquaintance. And unlike father, Khaitan is capable of making quick decisions that may border on being ruthless.
Khaitan got involved with Kesoram from 1998 and in 2001, she was inducted on the board as a non-executive director. But she is hardly seen in the corporate circles of Kolkata, as far as business meetings are concerned.
“I don’t think she has even attended an Indian Chamber meeting,” an industry representative observed. Indian Chamber of Commerce, incidentally, was founded by a group of industrialists led by her grandfather, Ghanshyam Das Birla.
Kesoram, however, is not the only institution to consume Khaitan’s time. A postgraduate in English literature, she takes a keen interest in music and is closely associated with several educational and cultural trusts, including the Birla Education Trust, of which she is a trustee. She is a member of the board of governors of Birla Institute of Technology and Science, Pilani.
“Members of the trusts are always seen in her office. She gives them a lot of time,” says a person known to her. It needs to be seen if slipping into the role of executive vice-chairman changes that habit.
More important, will it mean more public interaction for Khaitan, who likes to stay ensconced in Birla Building or Birla Park? A patient wait is the only answer right now.