A Guru in Life – Dr. Kurien

I met my guru Dr. Kurien in 1969 at an annual-day function for my engineering college, where he was the chief guest. He was wearing his trademark cream colored suit and next to him was his wife Mrs Molly Kurien. He was well built, handsome and delivered his speech humorously & confidently. There was not a single soul in the function who wouldn’t have enjoyed his speech.

Later, after about a year, I happened to visit Amul Dairy and was impressed with beautiful layout, neat, clean house keeping, big fountains and green lawns. It was almost surreal in those days when rest of the town was quite a dust bowl.

I joined Amul at the age of 20 in 1971, and retired as the Managing Director of GCMMF (Amul) at 60. During this time, I had the opportunity to work with him closely as General Manager first and later as managing Director when he was the chairman at GCMMF.

The fact remains that every moment I spent with him were of great learning.

One of the most important thing I learnt from him is the power of humor! He was able to use his wit & humour most effectively. Be it in speeches or in meetings with dignitaries. You may remember that Dr Kurien’s biography was being unveiled at Rashtrapati Bhavan by the then president Dr Kalaam. Dr Kurien was 86 then, and someone said “Dr Kurien at 86 you’re very handsome compared to BM!” (People mostly referred to me as BM). He replied instantly “yes, except for the height!”. While many would have missed the point, I was taller than him but only physically!

He was also one of the greatest story teller. He would narrate his stories to visitors for hours, make them laugh, yet have them appreciate the achievements, and leave behind deep sense of warmth in visitor’s mind and heart. It was impossible not to become his friend once you spend more then 30 min with him. He was bound to win you over hands down! He would narrate how he was required to come and work in remote town called Anand, due to his bond that he had signed. And how no one would give him a house to rent, as he was unmarried, young, used to eat meat & consumed alcohol. He would tell me, he used to sleep on coat under a tree and everyday a dog would run away with his slippers, which was the first thing he would look for as soon as he would get up. How he made his own bathroom with 3 corrugated sheets and cut out a ventilation window himself!

How he then converted a garage, into his quarter and there he met his guru Tribhovandas Patel, who changed his destiny.

He was tickler of time. In my entire carrier I never saw him reaching a second late to any of his appointments. And he would expect his counterparts to practice the same. If the person he was supposed to meet was not there at the appointed time he would wait for a minute or two, and simply walk back & leave the venue, irrespective of who he was to meet! This also made us time conscious and extremely particular practicing timeliness. He always wanted each and everything in place, neat and clean, working, functioning smoothly. He wanted excellence in everything that came in his purview.

Be it a communication, hosting a lunch or be it ensuring that all toilets in buildings or sound systems, even a noisy fan or flickering tube light was fixed. If he happened to encounter any of this he would immediately stop and convey his unhappiness. He will insist and ensure it is restored and system refined to ensure it did not happen again. If he finds that the other person maintains such high standards, he would publicly acknowledge the same.

One thing he would never compromise irrespective of your education, qualification or performance was integrity. He would say integrity is like virginity! Once gone, always gone. He had zero tolerance to lack of integrity. This made our life very easy. He would simply dismiss such person in minutes, irrespective of his background. He was the most fearless person I have met and would stick to his point of view especially when related to core values and the mission. He would never buckle under pressure. In every crisis, he will think deeply, debate, discuss various implications and develop strategies to convert the crisis into an opportunity. He would say ‘there is always something good in everything that comes your way, in all crisis or problems, find out what is good and work on it’!

The other important trait was consistency. His stand on core issues and practices would not change. If he took a stand and if you referred same issue a month later or even a year later, he will respond in split second and his decision would not have swayed. Now this does not mean he was rigid – he was just extremely objective in his decision making. His decision making was directly founded on his core values & mission, and as long as actions lead to serve this purpose, he would arrive at decisions in minutes. He would never demand report after report. He would instead, expect a crystal clear thought and its relevance to our mission. Consistency of thought and action were his greatest traits. In fact, I used to deliberately raise the same issue at different time & place, just to check his response. The moment I would complete my sentence, he would say ‘you’ve told me this before’. This used to surprise me, as I would have underplayed the issue deliberately when mentioned for the first time. But he would listen so intently and with cent per cent attention, that even the smallest matter raised will be registered by him.

Let me narrate you an instance. I was traveling with to Gandhinagar from Anand with him, a drive of about 2 hours by road. I was very young when I lost my father, and then due to familial circumstances, I traveled and gained education living away from my family. My mother & my uncle endured a lot of hardships over a period of about 12 years, when I had to live away to go to school & then college. But in a long time, I had never realized how it would be to spend time with someone you look up to, almost like your father. Such travels with Dr. Kurien were rare, and for me it was like going out with my father. These were the most important time for me to speak to him and learn. We would discuss about the most important institution he built over time, among several he created. He invariably answered “Amul”. I replied “I think it is not Amul, but it is Irma”. He asked me “why do you think so?” and I said “IRMA would produce a new school of management which is more just, fair, value based, and accountable to society – not to the stock exchange. IRMA is ahead of its time. People noticed AMUL in 1964, after about two decades of its success! Give IRMA about 50 years and the world will see what you have done”. I continued, “In building IRMA you are catapulting the country ahead of this world by century or more. People will realize what you have done much after you and even I are gone.”

The real fruit of Kurien’s work will be understood after another 50 to 100 years. It has inspired a generation and given their next generation – the opportunities, ideals, morals and values which build a society.

I am of the firm belief that after Mahatma Gandhi if there was next great person who worked for Rural India and with stupendous success – it was Verghese Kurien. His contribution is much bigger than a developing a missile, performing in a theater or playing sitar or shehnai. Great people are like Sarabhai – they build India and build the institutions that take India to the next level.

For our politicians, bureaucrats and even masses – appreciating sitar, shehnai or stage play is perhaps easier than seeing reason & rationale of the work done by Kurien, whose real impact will be felt several decades later. Bharat-Ratna, is too small for Dr. Kurien and our CMs, PMs or other politicians – them put together, are too small to understand what Kurien has built and what he sacrificed for it.

Dr. Kurien was my guru in life, whom I saw in the same light as my father. I would pray to god that he makes Dr Kurien, my guru in the next hundred lives.

Mr. BM Vyas took-over as Managing Director of AMUL Co-Op. during expansion and opening up of the Indian economy & globalization in the 90s. In order to take on the competition, he championed Total Quality Management across the dairy value chain in Gujarat. Within a span of 16 years at helm of AMUL, he increased sales of AMUL to eight-folds (from Rs. 9.8 billion to Rs. 80 billion). He steered AMUL to be Asia’s largest fresh Milk processor or No. 1 Dairy Brand in India as well as in Asia Pacific, as per Media Magazine Survey, 2009. Under his leadership; AMUL launched innovative and special Dietary products like Probiotic & Sugar Free Ice Cream, Probiotic buttermilk for the first time in India.