The word baniya has come to mean different things to different people. Some associate it with the quintessential spirit of entrepreneurship; others use it to refer to a set of class-based ideals; while for most it brings to mind the unscrupulous moneylender waiting to fleece his pound of flesh. Popular culture—especially cinemas and plays—too, on most occasions, are guilty of perpetuating this cliché.
Management literature though has been kinder—bookshops abound with tomes that chronicle the success of the baniyas or businessmen who have shaped the nation’s economy. From Kolkata to Mumbai to Chennai, this community has contributed immensely on developing these cities into major commercial hubs.
Nikhil Inamdar’s ‘Rokda — How Baniyas do Business’ at first glance seems to be another well-written book that features legends and stories of Young Turks from this community. Each chapter gives us a brief insight into the history of a family business, the challenges faced, and the final triumph. So, why should one read it?
Firstly, the book allows readers to peek into the lives of lesser-known legends such as Radheshyam Goenka and Radheshyam Agarwal, who founded Emami Limited, and R K Somany of Hindustan Sanitaryware & Industries Limited (HSIL). It also tracks the gradual change in the mindset of people from this community. While the Emami Group founders focus on building personal relationships over cold professional ones and have a well-thought succession plan in place, Somany of HSIL is strongly opposed to conducting business with the extended family.
The idea of keeping business separate from the family is a novelty in this close-knit community. The tales reiterate the reason behind the community’s success in establishing sustainable businesses—they keep a firm ear on the ground, have a strong ethical value system and do not shy away from getting their hands dirty. These qualities help them identify trends and tweak strategies to suit the market. Many have been trend-setters—when branding was still restricted to management books, Emami carved an entire market through intelligent branding and packaging strategy.
Baniyas, typically, are known to not sharing ownership with third parties. However, business decisions of Rohit Bansal of Flipkart and Neeraj Gupta of Meru Cabs tell us a story of adaptability. They are open to sharing ownership with third parties when it is essential for their growth. Baniyas, in the past, preferred to trade in commodities and goods rather than services. Here again, Flipkart and Meru have broken the mould and succeeded in a service-led sector.
However, for a business history buff like me, the book falls short in two areas. First, it stops at mere story telling. Second, it fails to give the reader an insight into the DNA of this trading community. The ‘how’ in the title is not elaborated upon.
However, history and past records play a vital role in shaping the future of a business. The absence of documented history often leads to hypothesis founded on poor knowledge of the past. This is where books such as ‘Rokda’ form an important link between the past and the future of a business.