Think Beyond, Stay Ahead

"CEOs, Don't Be Shy Of Seeking Help"

Anu Aga delves into the importance of self-critical leadership and how it changed the fortune of Thermax

Anu Aga became a businesswoman by default. Nevertheless, she managed the turnaround of the country’s largest capital-goods company, which we now know as Thermax — and that too, after being catapulted to the helm in the most trying personal circumstances. Her lack of business acumen did not lessen her vision for the company, though: Aga was ahead of her time in bringing in professional managers and separating ownership from operations. Aga shares her insights gained over an tough, yet fulfilling journey.

I was never groomed to take over the business. As I was growing up, while my parents told my brothers they would have to take over the business, the message given to me was that eventually I had to marry and have children. In those days, women were mostly teachers, doctors and nurses – there were none in business. Since I was good with people skills, it was suggested that I opt for a post-graduate programme in social work, which I then pursued. 

Back then, my father, A S Bhathena, owned a small business that manufactured sterilisers and hospital equipment. However, getting payments was a nightmare as most hospitals were owned by governments. My father and Rohinton, my husband, who had newly joined the company, decided to enter the boilers business under a new venture – today known as Thermax – since it primarily catered to the private sector. Eventually, one of my brothers moved to the US, while the other stuck to the old family business. 

After my father retired, Rohinton became chairman and managing director of Thermax. He was a charismatic leader who created an enviable work culture and, in spite of our small size, he was able to build the company into a strong brand. In 1982, Rohinton underwent a bypass surgery following a massive heart attack. As we were a private limited company and vulnerable, friends and well-wishers suggested I take interest in the business.

My two children were young, so it was decided that I would join the company’s HR division. I worked in this field under a dynamic head, Prasad Kumar, and when he retired, he suggested my name as head of the division. Though I personally did not take the initiative to learn about our business, my husband was willing to sit with me and discuss any company-related issues. He was keen about the company going public for two reasons: first, to ensure enough capital for the business to grow and secondly, to secure the family and business by creating a market for it.

In 1995, we went public and in a depressed market, our stock was oversubscribed seven times. A year later, Rohinton died suddenly. By then, Thermax had diversified into so many unrelated activities as well. Rohinton was a brilliant man and he always had a plan to make even diverse elements converge, but did everyone else in the company have the same charisma? To allay this fear, within the third day of his death, the board met and appointed me executive chairperson.

But all through, I was troubled by feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy. I felt that I had become the CEO by default since my family was the largest stakeholder with 62% share. My sense of well-being was also undermined because Thermax’s performance started deteriorating following a downturn in the Indian economy. Our share price tanked from ₹400 to ₹37. 

A little over a year after my husband’s death, my 25-year-old son died in a car accident. It was a difficult time but, as I struggled with the turmoil, I realised that I had the choice of either wallowing in self-pity or taking charge of my life. In retrospect, I believe a CEO turns into a leader if he or she is able to lead his or her own life with a sense of well-being before attempting to lead others. Life will present all kinds of hurdles and challenges. Hence, it is an important attribute of a leader to face the world with equanimity.

The Buddhist way of meditation known as Vipassana helped me discover my inner strength . It taught me that unless we tap the personal power within each one of us, we cannot lead from positional power — the one that comes from our office and title. While you can allow others to be in charge, you cannot abdicate your accountability and responsibility to the organisation. 

As I mentioned earlier, the performance of our company, Thermax, was rapidly slipping. From being a very profitable company, we ended up with operational losses. Around this time, I got an anonymous letter from a shareholder that said: “Mrs Aga, I don’t know about your financial condition but you have let me down as a shareholder”. In my vocabulary, ‘letting down’ is a dirty word. Someone had told my husband that now that you have gone public, you can be a little more relaxed because this is public money. But my husband and I abhored such sentiment. I could not sleep for days after receiving the letter. That is when I asked my friend Arun Maira, who was the head of Boston Consulting Group (BCG), for help. I told the board that I wanted to bring in BCG.

The board memebers argued that our performance was affected by the downturn in the environment and that as soon as the economic situation improved, we would be on the path to success. They also felt that, at a time when our profits were low, it would not be prudent to give hefty fees to a consulting firm. My reaction to that was, “We cannot afford not to pay them because things will only get worse. We are out of our depth.” I always felt that men find it difficult to accept that they are out of depth, while women find it easier to do so. I stuck to my guns and the board agreed and we brought in BCG. It was a challenging period as the then MD had resigned even while an audit of senior people was underway to see what they felt about the management.

We had to take many tough and uncomfortable decisions. I also took a decision that was way ahead of its time: conscious of my lack of business acumen, I stepped down in July 1999 to be a non-executive chairperson and handed over charge to our new managing director. The entire board was revamped with professionals such Vallabh Bhanshali (Enam), Tapan Mitra (Indal) and Ravi Venkatesan (KPIT Cummins), who helped oversee the transition. We brought in a rigorous performance culture by introducing variable pay. Innovation and customer focus, the traditional strengths of Thermax, had taken a back seat during our difficult days, but now they were once again given their due importance.

This is another lesson that a leader should know: when an organisation is out of its depth and needs help, keep your ego aside and do not feel ashamed to ask for help. Since it is lonely at the top, a leader has to balance the contradiction of being caring and yet not seek popularity by shunning unpopular and tough decisions. Though we were ahead of Infosys and Wipro in terms of entering the software business, we did not manage that business well and we moved out of it. Having said that, without tolerance for genuine mistakes, a leader cannot lead a vibrant organisation, which is why we are once again re-creating our innovative and entrepreneurial spirit.

While Thermax has come a long way from its turbulent past, I believe I can never take the credit for it by myself, nor can anyone else – it is a collective effort. Do not think that you are the greatest person on earth and that without you the world will collapse. I really feel that if we internalise these lines we would all be better off. Our stay on Earth is short, our role dispensable and our impact inconsequential. That does not mean that we do not do our best. We must do our damnedest, but in the end do not forget that we are all dispensable.