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Yogesh Chander Deveshwar, whose goal was creating "Indian brands", successfully transformed ITC Ltd from being predominantly a cigarette-maker into a diversified conglomerate.
Recognised around the world for creating an exemplary Indian enterprise, Deveshwar, as ITC Chairman for over two decades, led the company into a range of new businesses which took it to new highs. During his tenure as Executive Chairman, the company's revenues and profit before tax, along with returns to shareholders, rose manifold.
Today, ITC is not only known for its leading cigarette brands - Classic, India Kings, and Gold Flake - but also for its Sunfeast range of cookies and biscuits, the Bingo! snacks and Aashirvaad staples and ready meals.
Born in Lahore in February 1947, Deveshwar joined ITC in 1968 after studying at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, and the Harvard Business School, and had a meteoric rise that saw him being appointed as a Director on its Board in 1984. He rose to become the Chief Executive and Chairman of the Board in 1996.
While every ITC Chairman since the late 1960s had explored ways and means to diversify the company from its tobacco business portfolio, it was Deveshwar who ultimately made it happen.
Business rationalisation and the diversification into the non-cigarette FMCG sector as well as information technology was not without its share of problems and challenges. British American Tobacco or BAT, which had a substantial share-holding in ITC, wanted the Indian company to stick to the tobacco business and looked at taking over majority control in ITC to realise its vision.
Deveshwar was credited for successfully keeping British American Tobacco Company (BAT) from taking larger control of the company with the help of Life Insurance Corporation of India.
This was not the only challenge that ITC was battling with when Deveshwar took charge of the company. ITC was facing a probe for alleged foreign exchange violations.
The enforcement authorities used the powers vested under the FERA law to incarcerate 14 members of the then current and past management, including two past chairmen of the company, even before any substantial investigation had progressed.
In fact, a retrospective excise demand of Rs 803 crore, was raised on the very first day Deveshwar assumed charge as Chairman & CEO, amounting to three times the annual profit, imperilling the company's financial stability.
Deveshwar had a brief stint with Air India. He led the national carrier as its chairman and managing director between 1991 and 1994.
In its stellar journey under Deveshwar, ITC has today emerged as one of India's fastest growing FMCG companies, the country's largest paperboards and packaging business, a globally acknowledged agri-business, and a leading hotel chain in India.
The company's wholly-owned subsidiary, ITC Infotech India Ltd, is also a player of promise in the IT sector.
The company's trailblazing rural initiative, the ITC e-Choupal eco-system - that was kicked off during Deveshwar's tenure - is acknowledged globally for empowering over four million farmers and is a case study at the Harvard Business School besides receiving several international and national awards.
Deveshwar also worked out a succession plan in the organisation well before relinquishing his executive role. He shed his executive role in early 2017, handing over the reins of the company to Sanjiv Puri who became the managing director of ITC after taking over a board position in 2015. Puri is credited with building the FMCG business of ITC, a dream very close to Deveshwar that brings almost 60 per cent of revenue to the company now.
After stepping down from his executive role, Deveshwar continued as Chairman in a non-executive capacity and also played the role of mentor to the executive management.
ITC Managing Director Sanjiv Puri paid tribute to Deveshwar's visionary leadership and stress on inclusive growth.
"Deveshwar passionately championed the cause for sustainable and inclusive growth and the transformative role businesses could play in creating larger societal value. This vision drove ITC to pursue business models that today support over six million livelihoods," he said.
In a statement, industry chamber CII, where Deveshwar was president in 2005-06, said that he "leaves behind a notable legacy through his successful demonstration that sustainable business is indeed profitable and can maximise returns to all stakeholders.
"He was the first Indian business leader in the post-liberalisation era who successfully demonstrated that companies could grow and succeed by mainstreaming sustainability or triple bottomline in their business."
With his high stature in the corporate world, Deveshwar became a role model to many entrepreneurs and industrialists. Kolkata's business community, in particular, looked up to him, city-based Keventor Agro's CMD Mayank Jalan said.
"The demise of a business icon like Y.C. Deveshwar is a huge loss for the industry. He was an inspiration for me. Kolkata's business community had deep respect for him, as he was instrumental in putting the city on the global business map," he said.
Citing his relationship with ITC, Jalan said his company manufactures the 'Yippee' brand of noodles and confectionary items for them - in a partnership started and encouraged by Deveshwar himself.