29 Jul 2015 20:04 IST

Money spinners

An engaging study of India’s leading business community

When one sees a Marwari, one thinks money. As Gurcharan Das says in the foreword to Thomas Timberg’s The Marwaris: From Jagat Seth to the Birlas: “A successful merchant has always provoked envy and it is not surprising that the Marwaris have been at the receiving end of resentment and even loathing…”

Of the 46 Indians on the Forbes 2010 billionaire list, 12 are Marwaris. While it may seem that this wealth and prosperity is disproportionate, Das points out that Timberg’s work proves that much of their success comes from the “‘Protestant ethic of thrift, hard work and rationality”.

In The Marwaris, Timberg explains the business and social history of the Marwaris and their journey from Rajasthan to various corners of India, providing useful business gyaan along the way. The book evolved from Timberg’s PhD thesis, written in 1978 while he was at Harvard University, and examines, among other themes, movement, adaptation and succession.

Timberg starts from the 1600s, when the Marwaris moved to smaller kingdoms across India as traders, merchants, lenders and bankers. At a time when the British occupied a prominent role in the Indian economy, the Marwaris too were converting their monetary wealth into land by replacing aristocratic landlords.

But during the British Raj their roles changed. They formed the ‘great firms’ (precursors to modern companies, the great firms engaged in trade, state finance, banking, insurance, manufacture), became “Banians” or guaranteed brokers to British firms (Marwari firms had spread across the Gangetic region, Bengal, Assam and Mumbai, and proved suitable to be the intermediaries for the British), or became speculators and stockbrokers.

The Marwaris prospered through the 19th and 20th centuries and became successful in business post-Independence.

The author shows how success came because the Marwaris adapted to newer communication systems, possessed business intelligence, believed in diversification, granted operational autonomy to managers, had risk-taking capabilities and focused on accounts and management, among other things. What also helped was an extensive network of friends and relatives, and branches spread all over the country.

Their systems and processes supported and encouraged not only aspiring relatives, but also other members from the community. The theme of succession and partition reverberates through the book.

Some weak links

The Marwaris has a strong, research-driven first-half that not only provides detailed histories of successful families but offers insights into how smaller traders and businessmen went about their occupation.

But the second half, which focuses on the post-Independence period, licence raj and liberalisation seems hastily written. There are fewer examples and business lessons, and the focus is on the Birlas and Ruias. We never get a glimpse of what goes into the making of smaller Marwari business families in this period.

But if one is willing to forgive such shortcomings, Thomas Timberg’s The Marwari imparts useful business lessons and provides a succinct account of the community’s role in the Indian economy.

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