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Friday, February 15, 2013

Lessons for Nair businessmen; Learning from Rajan Pillai and Dr KTB Menon

Nairs are known as leaders, warriors, administrators, politicians and feudal lords but rarely as great businessmen. It needs to be analysed why Nairs failed to establish their supremacy as businessmen in India where professional skills alone won’t ensure success. In this context it would be pertinent to analyse the rise and fall of two Nair business tycoons late Rajan Pillai and KTB Menon, harbingers of entrepreneurship as far as Nairs are concerned.

This write up attempts to look into the professional growth of Pillai and Menon in foreign lands and difficulties they experienced in India from the perspective of the need of social support for business success in present day India. In India businessmen needs to satisfy money hungry politicians and officials who if antagonized are powerful to ruin their lives. Here comes the relevance of caste organizations. If a businessman has social support (ie support of his caste or religion) no politician would turn down his request for help in times of need. Even politicians in Kerala take support of their caste organizations to win elections and tide over crisis in life.

KTB Menon: Philanthropist and businessman

Let us start with the story of rise of KTB Menon who was the elder of the two. While KTB started career with British Army, he eventually became one of the richest businessmen in Kuwait. Menon was known for his generosity and it had been reported that during the time of Iraq invasion of Kuwait, Menon had offered to bear expenses of all Indians who want to return to home. Menon reportedly shared business interests with big South Indian businessmen like M.A.M. Ramaswamy and Viay Mallya.

Menon’s story in Arab lands began before India got independence and Nairs have a lot to learn from his spirit of entrepreneurship. While in British army he was injured in Basra in Iraq and then moved to Kuwait in 1948. He joined the family business of Al Gharabally family. Abdullah Al Gharabally and Menon established Ash Al Gharabally Co in 1958. An enterprising businessman Menon, realized the growing need for electricity and water in Kuwait and quickly brought in Japanese giants like Mitsubishi Heavy Industries there to build the infrastructure. He developed great influence in Kuwait and was awarded several contracts to build power plants and water desalination plants. By the mid 1960’s he was one of the most prominent foreign businessmen in Kuwait. Menon helped several people to find employment opportunities gave them loans, capital etc. and also took lead to found Kuwait Indian School. In 1978, he was awarded a doctorate in humane letters in the USA for his outstanding contributions to society.

However Menon when he returned to India allegedly met with umpteen challenges from the Indian administration and some of his big businessmen Indian friends ditched him. Menon had helped many big Indian businessmen during their period of crisis. Several reports had been published point that death of Menon occurred under dubious circumstances. However none dared to investigate further. Some reports said Menon had given huge loans to one spirited hi-fi  businessman who did not return it. Perhaps a magnanimous person like Menon who worked with in foreign lands during his prime time failed to realize the complex realities in India where businessmen needs powerful lobbies to protect them and allow them to grow.

He did not get any help here and none pressurized the government to give him justice. Had an organization like Nair Service Society intervened on his behalf he would have got justice. But it is not known whether NSS knew him or he knew NSS.

Rajan Pillai, the biscuit king

Rajan Pillia came from a business family based at Kollam. His father K. Janardhanan Pillai was one of the richest Keralites and biggest cashew exporter in India at one point. He owned five ships and was perhaps the first Keralite to own modern ships.
Rajan grew to an international businessman in his own capacity in his 30s itself. When he became the chairman of Britannia Industries, it was symbolical. Britannia, a colonial prestige symbol passed into the hands of an Indian, a native of one of Britain’s former colonies. But everything came to a naught with the trial Rajan faced in Singapore following a case filed by his former associate and CEO of RJR Nabisco Ross Johnson. 

Rajan Pillai was accused of being a fraud but Rajan managed to escape from Singapore and reach India. However his own homeland let him down and he died as a prisoner. It had been reported that he had been attacked inside Tihar jail and his friends turned down his pleas for help. Even a judge turned down his plea for medical help. His wife in an interview to a Malayalam magazine had pointed out that she ran from pillar to post in Delhi only to return dejected. Rajan’s death was horrific indeed.

Relevance of community’s support

Here comes the relevance of support from his own community. It might not have helped him to win the case which is for the judiciary to decide. But it would have helped him to get justice. If a criminal had attacked him in Tihar, it was because the jail authorities turned a blind eye towards it. If Rajan had the strong support of his own community jail authorities could not have dared allow criminals who took money from his business rival to attack him. If Rajan had done anything wrong he should be punished, but only according to the laws of the country. Popular support from a community like Nairs who have a significant vote bank can ensure that justice will be implemented.

The moral for businessmen is that when you build your Empire take care to ensure popular support of your community.  As the saying goes “Charity begins at home”. Give something to your community which gave you identity. Give them something back.

Many religious groups in India now have separate organizations of their caste or religion among government employees; for example dalit organizations, Muslim organizations etc. They can give valuable inputs to any community member in trouble. Nairs should have a network spreading to politics, administration, media etc. If it is based on community the unity will be cemented. I am not advocating this to do wrong things to others. Just to ensure that you got justice. When all others have intelligent networks it is suicidal to believe are things are done on the basis of merit only. We need to protect ourselves using our system intelligently.


  1. Dear Sir,

    Read your article on Dr. KTB Menon. Hats off to you. Appreciates your efforts to acknowledge his charisma.

    Thank you for writing about such a legend.

    As usual, Kerala neglected its another son.

    Please share your contact details.

    Thanks & Regards

    K Govindan Nampoothiry
    Kochi, Kerala
    Mobile: + 91 9747056838
    Mobile: + 91 9747056838

  2. Nice to see this article. Dr KTB Menon was my grandfather and a wonderful human being. There is much more great things about him and the strides he took. If you would like more information, I am glad to assist. My email ID is below. Wishing you all success in your endeavors. Regards Prahanth Nair

    1. I am much more impressed and greatful to Late.KTB Menon...

    2. HEllo Mr PRashant -- Request you to give your contact details, will like to get in touch with you for a few details regarding your grandfather and uncles. Thanks Vijaysri R Chari

  3. A perfect article by you Sir, Thanks for this and appreciation from a fellow Malayali.

  4. Great share. One thing that is common with Malayalees in UAE is that they all have amazing leadership skills. They always lead from the front and most importantly they value their employees. They believe in the philosophy that profit is not the ultimate reward for a businessman. As quoted by Varun Manian "Entrepreneurship is not only about making profits"