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A half-baked book on family-owned businesses in India

A primer on the survival guide for family businesses is an interesting premise but too much of Priyanka Gupta Zelinski's new book reads like a PR exercise

Family businesses are the backbone of the economy, they are good for employability, for gender equality and a good fallback option for the second generation, writes Priyanka Gupta Zelinski
Family businesses are the backbone of the economy, they are good for employability, for gender equality and a good fallback option for the second generation, writes Priyanka Gupta Zelinski (Unsplash)

If you are young, with a prestigious college degree, and working for your family’s drainpipe development, plumbing or polymers business feels infra dig to you, this book may change your mind.

Family businesses are the backbone of the economy, they are good for employability, for gender equality and a good fallback option for the second generation, writes Priyanka Gupta Zelinski in The Ultimate Family Business Survival Guide. So desist from doling out derogatory terms like “lala companies” or “baniye ki dukaan”. Such labels lead to mental roadblocks for the young, deterring them from joining their family businesses, she adds.

Also read: A very Indian business

Gupta Zielenski herself was subject to misgivings when she was summoned home to Mumbai by her father in 2007. At the time she was living in New York, completing her master’s degree at the New York University, but felt compelled to return almost immediately to Mumbai to work with her father in the family business, MPIL Steel Structures Ltd, a steel building manufacturing company. “Would I be allowed any independence? Would I be able to take decisions on my own? Would I be allowed to return to the US if I felt dissatisfied in Mumbai?” she wondered.

The Ultimate Family Business Survival Guide: By Priyanka Gupta Zielinski, Pan Macmillan, 256 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>399.
The Ultimate Family Business Survival Guide: By Priyanka Gupta Zielinski, Pan Macmillan, 256 pages, 399. (Courtesy Pan Macmillan)

Happily, the partnership turned out to be fruitful. Gupta Zielenski learnt to subsume her ego to the demands of the business. Once, for instance, she gave a verbal commitment to a supplier for a certain price. Later, her father pointed out the deal would lose them money, she shouldn’t let her ego get in the way of cancelling the verbal contract—after all no monies had been paid thus far. The other big learning was jugaad, the adaptable Indian way of doing business, low-cost and flexible. Gupta Zilenski was also able to contribute to the family business in a unique way: she gave away steel scrap to famous installation artists, and worked with them to create sculptures, adding aesthetic value and also getting great publicity for this patronage of the arts.

A primer on the survival guide for family businesses is an interesting premise but too much of this book reads like a PR exercise. Crucial bits feel left out. We are told, for instance, that “two years after my return, in 2010, my brother, an Ivy League-educated lawyer, joined the business and brought with him a set of complementary skills that made the three of us a formidable team”. All of which seems picture perfect. Yet the public record on MPIL Steel Structures states that Gupta Zielenski’s brother, Alok Gupta, was appointed a director of the company from its incorporation in 2001, whereas she was appointed director some years later.

Currently, Gupta Zielinksi lives in Dubai with her husband and children, is no longer active in the company or even on the board of directors. After championing the cause of family businesses, why did she choose to leave hers so completely? Nowhere in the book does she explain these turns of events. This is a glaring omission. Because if you want credibility for your primer on family business, you owe your readers more candour on your personal story.

For the rest, there are chapters full of feel-good generalities such as, “Family businesses are frugal, creative, resourceful, innovative, adaptable, malleable, and resilient.” And chapters full of vague, though well-meaning, advice like, “While every sales pitch is not a sham, do your due diligence nonetheless. Try not to take any claim at face value. As a Russian proverb advises, always verify.” And then, a section full of gimmicky, catchy titles like “The superhero cape” and “The Swiss army knife”—none of which contains any startling insights.

If the book does a good job of explaining the advantages and importance of family businesses, unfortunately it reads completely one-sided, seeming to paper over the problems and conflicts that might be inherent in these structures. Family businesses are undoubtedly important for the Indian economy and there is a need for an insightful book on them. Sadly, this is not that book.

  • FIRST PUBLISHED
    14.06.2021 | 07:15 AM IST

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