Students recall his classes as “torture sessions,” and their hearts palpitated as he picked them for grilling on marketing fundamentals. Some planned their campus routes to avoid encountering him, because they feared being caught unprepared. Yet many are grateful to him for helping to shape them into successful businessmen or academic scholars.

On June 25, Mahasukhrai N. Vora, former professor of marketing at the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad (IIM-A), passed away at age 73. A Wharton alumnus, Vora — or “Vorasaab” as some referred to him — is credited as the pioneer of the case study approach in Indian management education. Students recall him as a tough but caring task master, one who blended a strong, sophisticated business approach with the realities of a developing economy. India Knowledge at Wharton interviewed Vora’s former colleagues and students about his contributions to marketing and to Indian business education.

A Pioneer of the Case Method

“He was a great case teacher, and had deep knowledge about marketing in India,” says Jagmohan Raju, Wharton professor of marketing who was Vora’s student at IIM-A in the class of 1982. “He made the subject come alive in a way where we all took up careers in marketing.” Many of the 70 to 75 cases Vora developed are taught to this day, says Abhinandan Jain, who was Vora’s student in the class of 1970 and is now a marketing professor at IIM-A.

Two cases Vora’s students will vividly remember are one on Modern Bakeries, a government-owned enterprise that Unilever India subsequently bought, and the other on “Vora & Company,” a fictional maker of quick-cooking oats. The Vora & Co. case and another he wrote about a manufacturer of herbal cigarettes continue to be the opening cases for Jain’s marketing course. Both are examples of Vora’s thorough methods “that leave very little to the imagination in terms of buyer behavior,” Jain says.

The Modern Bakeries case, for instance, required students to figure out the ideal door-to-door distribution system for bread in Ahmedabad. Jain recalls the numerous, minute details Vora threw in, including the carrying capacity of the deliveryman’s bicycle, the short time frames available to distribute the bread in the morning and evening, and the commissions needed to make it all feasible.

Jain says IIM-A plans to compile and publish Vora’s cases as a monograph. “His cases were contemporary — not dating back to the 1960s and the 1970s,” says Abraham Koshy, IIM-A professor of marketing who was Vora’s doctoral student in 1981. He recalls asking Vora about good illustrations for a marketing management book he co-authored with marketing guru Philip Kotler and Mithileshwar Jha, a professor at IIM-Bangalore. “His examples were extremely current, and I was surprised at how he kept in touch with what was happening.”

Vora was among the first Indians to receive an MBA from Wharton in 1961, wrapping up the two-year program in half the time by collecting credits during the summer breaks. Upon his return to India, he worked for a year at IIM-Kolkata (then named Calcutta) before joining IIM-A in 1963, where he worked the next 30 years. (He stayed on as visiting faculty during his retirement years.) He took a break to secure a doctorate in business administration from Harvard Business School (1969-74), an initial collaborator with the IIMs.

The Fine Art of Grilling

Vora passed on his wisdom to his students in grueling sessions both in and out of the classroom. “None of us wanted to be cross-examined by him in class because you knew you were going to be torn apart,” says Ajit Rangnekar, deputy dean of the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad who was Vora’s student in the class of 1970. “But it also forced you beyond your limits, and that’s what makes IIM-A students so successful.”

Prominent marketing consultant Rama Bijapurkar recalls Vora’s “torture sessions that passed for classes” during her time as an IIM-A student in the 1970s. She came to IIM with a physics background and had “never heard of the term ‘break-even,’ and had no idea what demand and supply actually meant.” But Vora, she says, “was never daunted by, or dismissive of, how little his students knew or studied” before coming to IIM.

Arvind Gupta, one of Vora’s early students and now professor of marketing at the Institute of Rural Management in Anand, Gujarat, says: “He cared so much about being a teacher that nothing, including slothful students, would stop him from his goal of making better people and better thinkers of all of us.” Gupta remembers Vora’s “legendary grilling technique,” and adds, “He invented the ‘endless why’ technique much before Toyota and ITC [a diversified Indian company] started using the famous four-level ‘why.’ He adds that one student, confronted by a barrage of why’s by the professor, gathered up courage and shot back a repartee: “But, may I ask, Prof. Vora, why not?”

Bharat Puri, the Asia-Pacific regional director of commercial strategy at Cadbury Schweppes in Singapore, is another Vora product (class of 1982) who remembers being asked to re-do questionnaires in a Vora-run course called Marketing Research and Information Systems. “The level of detail he went into and the learning you received were tremendous,” says Puri, who headed Cadbury’s operations in the Indian sub-continent before his current assignment. “He and Labdhi Bhandari (another well respected IIM-A professor who died in an airplane crash several years ago) were institutions.”

IIM-A’s Koshy recalls that when he was a doctoral student, he often checked before leaving his campus apartment to see if Vora was in the vicinity, only leaving when the coast was clear. Whenever he handed in written material, Vora would say he needed three days to get back — but the professor would return the same evening with detailed comments and demand a revision the following day. His genuine concern for his students showed, though, when he would sometimes go from dorm to dorm, asking students if they needed help or clarifications or to discuss their performance, Koshy adds.

On one particular occasion, Vora took up the defense of a student whose sub-par performance came up for a faculty review. “Professor Vora had collected a lot of information about the student’s background, his family situation,” recalls Koshy. Vora made the case that the Institute needs to look beyond mere performance and try to understand the surrounding circumstances. “That has since become the norm here, where we look at the students’ circumstances,” says Koshy. “If there is a family problem, we make allowances for that.”

“What I remember above all about him is the commitment to his students’ intellectual growth,” says Anjani Jain, a professor of operations and information management at Wharton who was Vora’s student in the class of 1979. “He insisted that students engage deeply with what they were learning, inspired them with his own passion for the subject matter, and held a very high and exacting standard for their learning.”

A Merchant’s View

At the same time, Vora was “an out-and-out capitalist with a tinge of socialism,” says Koshy. Vora believed businesses are right to profit from whatever value they provide their customers, and there was no place for charity there. Says Koshy: “He once told me, ‘Look, I’m a bania (from a merchant community); we look at business that way.'”

Vora’s earthy brand of logic also had no room for jargon, and he preferred logical approaches over the theoretical, says Koshy. Rangnekar notes that in the 1960s and 1970s, “there was such a complete paucity of authentic, reliable data that [drawing conclusions in classroom cases] was a challenge.” While Vora instilled in his students the rigor of using data, he also taught them “to make reasonable and sensible assumptions when you don’t have data.”

It was that innate understanding of market behavior that prompted Rajesh Gandhi, the managing director of Ahmedabad-based ice creams and foods maker Vadilal Industries to ask Vora to join his board some 15 years ago. “We used to have strong debates and heated discussions.” says Gandhi. Vora once resigned his Vadilal board seat over a record-keeping issue. Gandhi says Vora returned only after the company got its books in order to his satisfaction.

Vora’s counsel proved valuable when Vadilal faced a threat to its very survival seven years ago. The 101-year-old company had been used to market shares of up to 80% in its home markets of Gujarat and neighboring states. But in 2000, Amul, a major national milk products brand based in Gujarat, launched its ice cream line, priced some 40% lower than Vadilal’s.

Vora strongly advised Vadilal to resist the temptation to lower its prices to meet the Amul challenge, and urged it to focus instead on upgrading product quality and packaging to command premium pricing. Vadilal, however, chose to lower prices somewhat and also launched a relatively cheaper line of frozen desserts.

Vadilal survived the Amul challenge, but lost market share. Gandhi says his company’s share is currently about 18%, while Amul has about 23%. “I believe we could have acted more maturely and worked more on product development and a premium pricing strategy, which we unfortunately did not do.”

Big Heart for Small Business

Abhinandan Jain and Koshy also recall Vora’s strong affinity for small-scale enterprises. For a few years, he ran something akin to a hospital’s out-patient department for small enterprises under the aegis of the Ahmedabad Management Association. “He used to call it a ‘diagnostic center,’ and would get three or four specialists who would give a sort-of health check to small-scale firms,” says Jain.

Vora’s soft spot for small business was rooted in “a strong streak of CSR (corporate social responsibility) when it was not yet a buzzword,” says Atanu Ghosh, professor at the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai who was his student in the early 1980s. “His first responsibility was towards his students and academics, but beyond that he felt he should give small enterprises whatever help he could. If some small company turned out successful, that would give him a lot of satisfaction.”

Vora’s connection with small businesses may have roots in his early, humble days. In his birthplace of Serthali village in India’s Gujarat state, his father was a shopkeeper of modest means who couldn’t easily afford his son’s college education. Instead, an industrious young Vora paid his way with support from village elders and by delivering newspapers and milk, and providing tutoring to students. Abhinandan Jain recalls him saying that his best investment in his struggling student years was in the bicycle he used for his delivery rounds. All that paid off when he secured first-place in Gujarat University’s commerce bachelor degree course.

Steadfast perseverance was dear to Vora, who sometimes found it difficult to relate to newer generations of business school students. In one recent conversation, he shared with Koshy his disappointment with the pursuit of “instant gratification” by current-day students. “He felt he was becoming irrelevant,” says Koshy. “He said, ‘I look more at the training of the mind rather than giving answers to questions. But the new generation doesn’t want that.'”

Puri, who often finds himself drawing on Vora’s teachings in one business situation or another, doesn’t agree. “His biggest contribution was really to organize common sense,” he says. “And common sense never goes out of fashion.”