scorecardKeshub Mahindra: The man who thought impossible is possible
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Keshub Mahindra: The man who thought impossible is possible

Keshub Mahindra: The man who thought impossible is possible
LifeThelife4 min read
  • Keshub Mahindra, the former chairman of Mahindra and Mahindra group was amongst the world’s oldest billionaires.
  • The Wharton University graduate had dreamt of becoming either a soldier or a farmer as a young boy.
  • Keshub Mahindra, who had seen licence raj and many other government controls in the 50s and 60s, believed that the pressures helped the Indian auto industry become cost competitive.
The patriarch of the Mahindra group, Keshub Mahindra died on Wednesday, at the age of 99.

“The industrial world has lost one of the tallest personalities today. Shri Keshub Mahindra had no match; the nicest person I had the privilege of knowing. I always looked forward to meetings with him and was inspired by how he connected business, economics and social matters. Om Shanti,” said Pawan Goenka in a tweet.

The former chairman of Mahindra and Mahindra group who had retired in 2012, was amongst the world’s oldest billionaires as per a recent Forbes report. He had just re-entered the coveted billionaire list in 2023.

The businessman turned philanthropist, however, leaves a larger and wider legacy — he was instrumental in helping build India’s indigenous auto industry into a force to be reckoned with.

‘We don’t know a damn thing about the auto industry’

Keshub Mahindra’s story is intertwined with the history of the auto industry in India. The Mahindra and Mahindra group had started two generations before Anand Mahindra, the nephew of Keshub Mahindra and chairman emeritus of the group.

The company was founded by two brothers Kailash Chandra Mahindra and Jagdish Chandra Mahindra in 1945, as a steel trader. Kailash Chandra Mahindra, the father of Keshub Mahindra had met the inventor of Jeep, Barney Roos in Washington. That’s how the company became an assembler of Willys jeep in India.

A young Keshub, freshly graduated from Wharton University and grown up beyond his boyhood dreams of becoming either a soldier or a farmer, was called into a meeting with the defence minister. This was in 1947 when India had just won its freedom but was finding it tough to find spare parts for their tanks from Britain and other countries.

At the meeting, the government said that it was planning to develop its own automotive industry. “We don’t know a damn thing about the auto industry,” Keshub Mahindra told the defence minister. That, however, did not stop neither Mahindra nor the only other auto companies existing back then — Premier Automobiles and Hindustan Motors – from building indigenous vehicles.

M&M started manufacturing jeeps in a full do-it-yourself (DIY) mode — when there were no suppliers or vendors. They had to make engines, transmissions, axles, stampings, the body – everything to produce 2,000 Jeeps a year, Keshub Mahindra said in an interview with Autocar.

Licences, price controls and capacity caps

For another 30 years, the group had fought many battles both from the supply chain ecosystem angle as well as the many rules and regulations back in the day. It was the age of licence raj and M&M was not given a licence to make cars, no matter how many times they applied. In fact they were rejected a dozen times – as they tried to manufacture cars in partnership with various multinationals.

Moreover, companies could not increase prices without government nod, and added to that even their capacities were limited by rules. Once, the group was sent a letter by the government asking them why they should not prosecute them for exceeding capacity. “Prosecute us,” Keshub responded to the letter.

Forced to do things he described as ‘crazy’, Keshub also admits that it has made Indian manufacturers control costs with frugal engineering and much more —- a move that has made them competitive. It was a good thing in the long run, he admitted in the Autocar interview.

The courage of change

His can-do attitude is also one of his guiding principles as he shared in a Wharton page, “Dream about achieving the impossible — because impossible things do happen. Only the brave have the courage to transform their lives,” he shared.

He served as the chairman of M&M for 48 years and ably steered the group through winds of change. The group now has interests across software, financial services and more. In FY22, the group’s revenue stood at ₹90,170 crore as against ₹74,277.78 crore in FY21.

The auto business too grew exponentially both organically and inorganically under Keshub Mahindra’s leadership and expanded into light commercial vehicles, tractors and even farm equipment. It acquired companies like Punjab Tractors and Gujarat Tractors and also acquired companies in South Korea like SsangYong Motor, entered the two-wheeler market and also made early strides into the electric vehicle (EV) market by purchasing REVA.

Years later, Anand Mahindra and his father Harish Mahindra also started another unique partnership when they lent ₹1 lakh to Uday Kotak for a business that went on to become the Kotak Mahindra Bank.

Not just business

Even before he retired in 2012, Keshub did not dedicate all his time to business itself — and made space and time for philanthropy. Keshub also founded Housing and Urban Development Corporation (HUDCO), and ran it for many years.

“During this time, I visited some of the most deplorable slums in India. I would come home and wonder how people could live like this. That had a huge influence on my life,” he told Wharton.

Educating girls and housing for the cancer afflicted are some of the many charity projects he supported with the help of his family.