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The great Birla sale
Kausik Datta
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July 24, 2006

When HeidelbergCement acquired Mysore Cements [Get Quote] last week, the person who grabbed the headlines was the seller.

For a change, Sudarshan Kumar Birla attracted attention for all the right reasons: he managed to seal the country's second most expensive M&A deal in the cement sector for a company that was sick and was burdened with a huge accumulated loss.

How did he manage this? Neither Birla nor his comrades are talking, but analysts say it had more to do with Heidelberg's desperation to get a toehold in the world's largest cement market after China, than any great strategy on the part of the man who is known more for selling his companies than building an empire. Whatever be the reason, the 46,000-odd shareholders of Mysore Cements would thank Birla heartily for this.

The Mysore Cements deal came less than a year after S K Birla pulled out of two other companies - soda-ash maker Saurashtra Chemicals, and the Birla family's investment vehicle, Pilani Investment and Industries.

An old-timer at Birla Buildings, the headquarters of the group in Kolkata, says it would be unfair to brand S K babu (as his employees fondly call him) as somebody who hasn't done justice to his famous surname. "He has never got his due credit. Besides, S K babu was not as lucky as the other Birlas, " he says.

In fact, parting ways from companies he has been associated with is a tradition that began pretty early in his life. For instance, he had to leave Kesoram Industries [Get Quote] (where he had joined as a line manager at the age of 17) because the partition in the Birla family gave the company to his uncle Basant Kumar Birla. It's also no secret that S K Birla got far less than the other Birlas when the family's companies and assets were divided among the Birla family members after the death of Ghanshyam Das.

While bad luck did play a part, this grandson of the legendary G D Birla hasn't helped his cause by selling one company after another over the past two decades. The first blow came when he lost Exide Industries [Get Quote], the jewel in his crown, to media tycoon Rajan Raheja after his Malaysian oil trading company, Nalin Industries, which indirectly controlled Exide, went bankrupt in 1992.

His diversified group, which, two decades ago, was into eight businesses such as textiles, batteries, cement, heavy chemicals, capital goods, solvent extraction, electric meters and telecom equipment, has now shrunk considerably.

The group now consists of manufacturing companies like Birla VXL [Get Quote], Cimmco Birla and Siddharth Soya and some trading companies. Quite obviously, S K Birla is yet another instance of a lion in the license raj who could not survive liberalisation.

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