Interview with Prof. Kavil Ramachandran, Executive Director of the Centre

Kavil Ramachandran was training for his dream job years before it had even been created. Today he is supporting family businesses throughout India in his role as Professor and Executive Director at the Thomas Schmidheiny Centre for Family Enterprise at the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad, India. But long before he took this position, he worked as a business consultant for Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) throughout the country. Because the majority of these businesses were family owned, he received a real-world crash course on the unique dynamics involved in managing a family business.

Ramachandran has taken these experiences along with an academic focus to share information, wisdom, and consultation through the Thomas Schmidheiny Centre for Family Enterprise. Launched in 2015, the Centre has been bringing together faculty and practitioners from India and abroad with the goal of combining theory and practice to enhance research and innovation in the field. It’s stated aim is to “advance real-world and academic knowledge of the family business.”

It is this combination of real-world experience and academics that makes the Centre such a valuable resource for family businesses across the country. As the head of the Centre, Ramachandran regularly holds conferences, workshops and forums, all with a specific focus on issues central to family businesses such as family and business governance, succession, professionalization and conflict resolution.

Tharawat Magazine had the pleasure of sitting down with Professor Ramachandran to discuss the Centre’s evolution, it’s plans, and the ever-shifting Indian family business landscape.

The Winding Road of Indian Family Businesses: Contributions of the Thomas Schmidheiny Centre for Family Enterprise
Prof. Kavil Ramachandran

Tell us more about your career before your involvement with the Thomas Schmidheiny Centre for Family Enterprise.

I should probably start with my philosophy. Since childhood, I’ve believed that I should contribute to society. This may have come from growing up being influenced by Mahatma Gandhi. There is a passage in the Bhagavad Gita that roughly translates as “Do your duty without expecting rewards.” I always found that to be very profound and it stuck with me my whole life.

After I completed my PhD in entrepreneurship at Cranfield University, U.K., I came back to India. I started focusing on SMEs, and right away I took to it. So when I was on the faculty at the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad (IIMA), I would run training programs and do research on them. In India, most SMEs are family businesses.

At what point did you connect with the Indian School of Business?

I was part of the faculty at the IIMA for about 15 years before joining the Indian School of Business (ISB) as a founding faculty member. We started in 2001 with a lofty goal of becoming one of the top business schools in the emerging world and soon realised that historically, the family business is a huge factor in the Indian economy whether it’s pre-independence, post-independence but pre-economic liberalization era or now.

By 2003, we started initiatives involving family businesses because there wasn’t much done either on research or education for the development of family business despite its contribution to the economy and the society. So we started with a training program, and as I started working more and more with family businesses, we realised that focusing on this sector would give us tremendous potential to be relevant to the broader Indian economy.

I also started working closely with Professor John Ward of Kellogg School of Management, USA, who is a pioneer and world-renowned expert on family business. He was instrumental in guiding and shaping many of the initiatives taken by us in later years.

Tell us about how the Centre itself came to be

We started ramping up activities and were soon contacted by Dr Thomas Schmidheiny, a well known philanthropist and Chairman and Founder of Spectrum Value Management, Switzerland. Coming from a business family with significant stake in Lafarge Holcim Ltd, he funded the Thomas Schmidheiny Chair of Family Business and Wealth Management in 2006. In 2015, he made a generous contribution to upgrade the Chair to a full fledged research Centre by the name Thomas Schmidheiny Centre for Family Enterprise. We were the pioneers in many ways in India and hence had to work on multiple fronts simultaneously. To start with, I wanted to focus on two things: first, we wanted to expand academically in terms of research; offering programs, training opportunities and learning opportunities for MBA students; second, we wanted to be relevant to the society, and that meant being connected to the family business community directly. Publishing in academic journals is certainly an important function of a Centre such as this, but we knew that if we wanted to have a real impact on society, we had to be in constant dialogue with business families directly.

The Winding Road of Indian Family Businesses: Contributions of the Thomas Schmidheiny Centre for Family Enterprise
The team at Thomas Schmidheiny Centre for Family Enterprise

How did that connection to family business manifest itself? What did you do to become relevant to them outside of an academic setting?

In 2008, I organised the first Asian Invitational Conference on Family Business, which has grown to be accepted as one of the best conferences for business families in Asia. It was a great success that also confirmed the need to organise such learning events regularly; we have been organising this conference every two years since then with participants coming from India and neighbouring countries. One of the positive outcomes of this effort has been that we have been able to raise awareness within the family business community on the common challenges and obstacles they face, such as family governance and succession, and the possible solutions. The underlying message to them has been that family businesses are unique and managing a family business is not always easy. There are also several advantages and if you are aware and prepared for what is to come, you can successfully address many of these issues.

Outside of the conference, we always strive to make academic knowledge relevant to those working in family businesses, not just scholars. Take our bimonthly “Newsletter” that goes to over 6,000 readers across the world, for example. What we do is to summarise select scholarly articles and discuss their practical implications for family businesses and share the implications and action points that families can take away from them.