The Boss

Adi Godrej

The Godrej group chairman is a wizened stalwart who judges his children and professionals equally

Photographs by Soumik Kar

Education: Completed his Bachelors and Masters degrees in management from the Sloan School, MIT, in 1963

Career: Joined the family business in 1963 when the group had two companies and a turnover of Rs.10 crore. Today, the Godrej Group has revenue of $4.1 billion

If you live and work in Mumbai, you probably set your watch to the Mumbai local train network time, but if you work at Godrej, you can probably set your watch to the time Adi Godrej arrives for a meeting or an appointment. This trait is something he is universally admired for by everyone. On the rare occasion that he is not able to reach on time, he will get his secretary to postpone the appointment and be the first one to apologise. In the late 1970s, Kersi Dastur was the manager of Godrej’s London office. The company was importing vegetable oil from Europe and America and Adi Godrej would often travel to London to meet the brokers and exporters.

The now 74-year-old Dastur, a classmate of Godrej’s who has spent over three decades with the group, recollects, “When Adi came to London, he wanted his day to be packed with meetings from 9 am to 5 pm, with probably a half-hour break for lunch somewhere in between. So, I would fix around six meetings a day on an average when he was here.” The company’s office was near the Tower Bridge in London and the meetings would be held in the city of London, where the brokers and bankers had their offices. 

“Since the meetings were back-to-back, if we got delayed at one meeting, it would have a cascading effect on the others, and Godrej is a stickler for time,” recollects Dastur. “During one such meeting-filled day, we were trying to catch a cab to the next appointment. Despite several tries, we were unable to flag down a cab. So, Godrej turns to me and says, ‘Do you mind running to the next meeting?’ I said I don’t. He says, ‘Okay, let’s run.’ So, we ran for about 10 minutes, reaching the next meeting on time.”

Hoshedar Press, GCPLHoshedar Press, who spent 38 years with the group before retiring in 2010, thinks Godrej gets his obsession of being on time from his father. It is said that his father used to call for a meeting at a time like 3.47 pm and one was expected to be there on time. That was his father’s level of exactness. “Adi is the only guy I know who can reach the US in the morning, leave the same day, travel through the night and come to office the next day. There was a time when he had an operation, but that didn’t stop him from coming to office. He continued to hold meetings while lying on the sofa in his office,” he adds. 

A stickler for most things

When you have a boss who is so passionate about his work, his infectious enthusiasm is bound to rub off on the rest of the team as well. A day after riots broke out in the city in 1993, Mumbai had come to a standstill. “We were negotiating with Procter & Gamble (P&G) for our joint venture and it was the day after the riots broke out. For Adi, nothing ever came in the way of work, so we made our way to the Vikhroli office, as the team from P&G was supposed to meet us there. Finally, we reached the office only to find out that the P&G team hadn’t turned up,” says a rather amused Press. “If we were driving to the airport in any Indian city and we had 15 minutes to spare, he would say, ‘Let’s go to the market.’ He would walk into different outlets and say that he was from Godrej, chatting with the people there, asking how efficient Godrej’s salesmen were, whether they were okay with distribution and how the competition was doing.”

Though there is never a dull moment when you travel with Godrej, Press says it can be quite a challenge, too. “He is extremely fit, so he is always dashing around. He is always in such a hurry to get from point A to point B that you are huffing and puffing just to keep up with him.” His son, Pirojsha Godrej, who joined the company 10 years ago as a management trainee and now heads the real estate business, says, “He leads by example with his own actions, personal drive and commitment. He is 73 and is the first one to reach office and still comes in on Saturdays,” he says.

Pirojsha Godrej, Godrej PropertiesThe journey for Adi Burjorji Godrej started in 1963, when he joined the family business at the age of 21, at a time when the group was at a modest Rs.10 crore. Five decades down, the group controls 20 companies and earns revenue of $4.1 billion. “When I started working more than 20 years ago, he was extremely autocratic,” says Tanya Dubash, his daughter and executive director, Godrej Industries, who is in charge of driving the Godrej brand. “He knew the business better than anyone and was quite controlling; he would micro-manage. That was his leadership style. But that has changed now, as he delegates a lot more, gives advice only when asked for and is more of a mentor,” she adds. 

“Earlier, when he was angry, he would almost yell at someone and get things done. Now, he is calmer and understands the situation if something goes wrong,” says Dubash, who says her father has grown to become a better listener as well. His advice to his daughter Tanya when she joined the company was simple — to be the person you want everyone to be.

 Tanya Dubash, Godrej IndustriesMost people who work with him say that Godrej can be a demanding boss but not an unreasonable one. “In all these years, I haven’t seen him make unreasonable demands or get upset without a reason,” says Nitin Nabar, who heads the chemical business and has been with the group for 26 years. “In 2014-15, the chemical business didn’t do well due to various reasons — commodity prices had softened and there was a delay in the commencement of our new factory.

Nitin Nabar, Godrej IndustriesSo, there was a huge gap between our target and the actual PBT. Mr Godrej was rightfully disappointed with our performance,” he says. “We told him that exports were down due to the sluggish Chinese economy. But he didn’t quite buy the argument, saying, ‘What sluggish Chinese market? It is not as if we don’t sell in the local markets.’ Mr Godrej strongly believes in the India story and his logic was that with a growing domestic market, sluggish overseas markets shouldn’t really impact our performance,” says Nabar, whose business has a 60:40 revenue split between domestic sales and exports. 

Calming down, slowly

But, to his credit, Godrej doesn’t make it personal and accuse people of underperforming. “If he is not happy about something, he will state that upfront, and give some insights on how we can improve our performance and move on,” says Nabar. He adds that the chemicals business hopes to bounce back in the current year, with a strong performance and a PBT target many times higher than 2014-15.
P Ganesh, the CFO of Godrej industries, who has been with the group since 1995, remembers what his seniors told him when he had joined the group. “They told me that ABG was a terror 20 years ago, that the ABG I was seeing then had mellowed quite a lot.” But the image of him being a terror stuck on in Ganesh’s mind. “I always used to accompany my boss whenever he met ABG, but even then I would break into a bit of cold sweat,” he says. 

But one incident that changed Ganesh’s perception forever. “I was a management trainee those days and since my boss was not around on one particular day, I had to send out an MIS report. After sending out the report, I discovered that there was a mistake, so I corrected the number. In those days, we did not have emails, so I had sent out a fresh set of printouts saying that there was a revision. Soon enough, I got a call from Mr Godrej’s office, and you can imagine my plight as I made my way into his office without my boss. What happened next was nothing like I imagined it to be. He very calmly told me, ‘The next time you make a correction, please make sure you highlight the change, so that I don’t have to read the entire report again.’ It was put across quite simply, almost like a father advising his son. I still get emotional when I think about it,” says the group CFO. Clearly, even as Godrej doesn’t suffer fools gladly, he is a lot more empathetic and patient with people who are only just starting out.

Like every good boss, Godrej also backs his team without second-guessing their every move. Balram Yadav, who heads Godrej Agrovet, had taken over as MD in 2007. The business was in bad shape and they were looking to sell off some of the non-profitable businesses. Negotiations were on for one such loss-making business. Yadav wanted a valuation higher than what was being offered by the buyer. “The banker who was advising the company on the deal went straight to Adi Godrej and told him that it was getting a good price for a loss-making business and that the company should try and close the deal instead of holding out for a higher valuation and run the risk of the buyer walking away,” he says.

Balram was with his managers in Lonavala in a bid to boost their morale when he got a call from Godrej. “He called to tell me that the banker had got in touch with him to express his concern. He said, ‘Balram you know how things are. We shouldn’t lose out on the deal because of wanting a little more.’ I told him, ‘Sir, I am confident that the buyer will be interested in buying the business at the price we are quoting.’ He never called again to check up on the deal. It was his way of saying that he had full confidence in me and that was one of the finest moments of my career,” says Yadav. He does admit though that he went through several sleepless nights till the deal came through two weeks later at the price that he wanted. 

Emphasis on freedom

A Mahendran joined the Godrej group in 1994 when the group bought his company Transelektra — which owned the mosquito repellent brand Good Knight — and stayed on for another 19 years, driving its JVs and acquisitions before leaving the company in 2013 to start his own company. “It was a conditional acquisition, which required me to stay on as the MD of the company. I am an entrepreneur at heart, so I initially wanted to move on after a year or so,” he says. 

So, what made him change his plan and stick on for nearly two decades? “You are given the freedom to run the business in the manner that you want to. I wanted to enter a joint venture with Sara Lee and was encouraged to go ahead,” he says. In 1994, American consumer goods company Sara Lee formed a joint venture with Godrej, as part of which it had a 51% stake in the company. Godrej insisted that Mahendran continue to run the business and made him the MD of the business. 

A Mahendran, Global Consumer ProductsRecognising his entrepreneurial streak, the group also offered to buy Mahendran a 5% stake in the venture and lent the money for him to buy it. In fact, Mahendran has always held a minority stake in all the businesses he has established in the group, be it Godrej Hicare, Godrej Hershey or Godrej Aadhaar. Godrej was quick to recognise the entrepreneurial fire in Mahendran and gave him opportunities that would fuel that drive further. Similarly, Godrej has been able to identify what drives the individuals in his team and give them suitable opportunities. “One of the things I really liked about working with the group is that the management is ready to give me roles in which I have no prior experience,” says Yadav. 

Even though Godrej can be tough as nails most times, he wears a different hat during challenging times. As vice-president at Godrej Agrovet, Yadav was running the poultry business for five-six years, a loss-making business that he tried turning around but decided it was time to throw in the towel. “I made the presentation pretty much saying that I cannot run the business anymore due to structural issues. But both the brothers were in no mood to listen. They kept asking me, ‘How can we help you? Does the business need more investments?’ Finally, I told them that we should get a partner, since the business was technology-driven. I told them I can spend another Rs.100 crore trying to learn the technology or we can go for a joint venture partner and gain the knowledge instantly. So, we decided to go in for a JV for the business,” says Yadav.

Almost everyone who works with Godrej calls him a number wizard. “You can give him a presentation with over a 100 numbers and he will pick out the wrong number within seconds. His eye for detail and financial understanding is the best I have seen. When you go to him with a project proposal, he is real quick to size up the entire thing since he understands the business really well and always seems like he is a step ahead of you,” says Yadav.

Balram Yadav, Godrej AgrovetGanesh recalls a presentation that his team was making on the quarterly numbers. While making the presentation, the financial estimates of a business had changed, but they forgot to change the summary since they were in a hurry. “The presentation began soon enough and nearly half an hour into it, the slide with the revised numbers came up. Mr Godrej was quick to point out that going by these numbers, the numbers in the first slide were wrong,” says Ganesh. 

According to him, working with a boss who understands numbers keeps him on his toes, but he wouldn’t have it any other way. As a boss, Godrej sets high standards for himself. He is quick with his decisions, very prompt in responding to emails, and is extremely organised. He expects his team to follow suit. Yadav recalls an incident soon after he took over as MD, when a member of the senior management team told Godrej that he had asked Yadav for a report that he hadn’t sent yet. “After the board meeting, he called me aside and told me always respond to emails and requests. I immediately knew what he was referring to, but the message was conveyed quite beautifully,” says Yadav. 

That is the way Godrej settles any differences between his team members — without taking sides and by doing the right thing. “He is impartial. For him, there are no favourites, and that includes his children. He is always rational in his decisions, never emotional,” says Mahendran. In fact, the message to all his senior members when his children joined was to treat them like any other employee. His team agrees that Adi Godrej is most talkative when he talks about business. “He has a sense of humour which he hides quite well,” says Press who says Godrej prefers to reserve his jokes for the lunch room rather than the boardroom. 

P Ganesh, Godrej Industries“He may not always wear his emotion on his sleeve but there is genuine concern for his people,” says Ganesh. His strong work ethic, sense of fairness and personal integrity not only inspires the people who work with him but also serves as a benchmark for them to aspire to. “The best part about him is that these qualities have remained constant over the years,” says Dubash. Only his anger has mellowed down. “I am sure I am going to tell the next management trainee who walks in, ‘Do you know ABG was a terror 20 years ago? The ABG you are seeing today is not the ABG of 20 years ago,’” says Ganesh with a smile.