Prabhat Bezboruah: Successful Tea Industry Veteran

Prabhat Bezboruah was born in Madras to Sharada Nair and Nil Kamal Bezboruah. While he spent his early childhood in Madras and Calcutta, he moved with his mother to Jorhat, Assam, where he went to school and college, topping his School Boards, and then the University in his Pre Degree and Chemistry Honours courses. After a short stint as a trainee in J Thomas, renowned tea brokers, he joined IIM Calcutta, and after the two-year course, joined Bank of America, where he worked in Bombay, Madras, Calcutta and Manila. He left the Bank to pursue a PhD in Finance at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, where he taught Options and Futures to BBA students for a while. Returning to India in 1988, he got caught up in his family’s tea business which he started managing from around 1990. Under his leadership, the business has grown from a base of 5 lakh kilos, both organically and through acquisitions, and today produces around 12 million kilos of black tea. During the course of his tea career, he has been Chairman of Assam Tea Planters’ Association for two terms, Director of Assam Tea Corporation Ltd., Economic Adviser to the Chief Minister, Assam, Member Board of Governors Indian Institute of Plantation Management for five terms, Member Tea Board for two terms, Member SN Menon Committee on Plantation Sector Reforms, Member Tea Advisory Committee under Commerce Ministry, Director Assam Power Distribution Company Ltd., Chairman Tea Research Association (Tocklai) for two terms, Chairman Tea Board India for two terms, and President National Tea Research Foundation. He is a member of several Clubs in Assam and Kolkata, and served as President of Jorhat Gymkhana Club. He is an avid reader, conservationist and animal lover, and also a golfer. Aloke Guin spoke to Mr Bezboruah for an exclusive interview in Connexion. Here we present the excerpt of it:

Q. Being chosen as the tea board chairman again for a second term reflects highly about your calibre and the expertise you hold in this domain, and the years of experience you hold definitely make you a veteran. In this context, as a veteran and as a tea board chairman, what do you think about the weight of responsibility you have, and how do you plan to deliver on that?

PB: I was a non-executive chairman of the board. My role was limited to advising the deputy chairman on various issues relating to the board and the industry. Since I had been on the board in the period 2000-2004, I had special insights into its working and had an important role in helping the commerce ministry revamp its plantation sector initiatives. My inputs were also sought for the proposed amendments to the tea act.

Q. Your company is also one of the biggest manufacturers of tea in Assam, so both as a member of the tea board and a manufacturer, what are a few recent trends you have witnessed in the tea industry, and what do you feel would be the way forward for the industry?

PB: I have found that the plantation sector, once an economic powerhouse, has been relegated to the ranks of the also-rans, due to erosion of monopoly power and the increasing political clout of one of its factors of production, its workers. Once, the production was strictly regulated by the requirement of planting permits to grow tea, now, it's a free for all. Tea workers and ex-tea workers make up 20% of Assam's electorate, making for a heady brew that puts the cup that cheers on the back burner. Buyers and packeters hold the trump card now, and it's the brand power that drives profits. I've also found a disconcerting disregard for quality on the part of the brand owners with all their focus being on today's profits rather than a longer term strategy.

Q. As someone with a lot of valuable experience, what suggestion would you have for today's youth, for the students of IIM Calcutta?

PB: Focus on areas where your strength lies. While you might think that corruption is all pervasive, it's a phase , and in the long run, as the cliche goes, honesty is the best policy. Be honest, and particularly to yourself. Choose a career which aligns with your interest and competence, and not the one which pays the best.

Q. As a veteran IIM Calcutta alumnus, tell us how your perception of life has changed?

PB: It's important to stop to smell the roses. You never know when some strange phenomenon that takes away your sense of smell may strike! More seriously, it's important to ensure your career serves your ecosystem as well as it serves you. Self aggrandizement at the cost of society and the environment is the sort of evil that lives on after your time is over.

Q. Any important takeaway from your MBA times?

PB: They also serve who only stand and wait. Hard work may get you grades, but grades do not necessarily make you successful. The system, even in the IIMs, rewards conformity more than innovation and originality.

Q. On a lighter note, when you were back at IIM Calcutta, what was your favourite beverage, Tea or coffee? Also, please share any interesting anecdotes you might have around the same.

PB: Tea of course, with a mind bending snack, at Kishan da's!!