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Nusli Wadia’s Interview in Economic Times Today….Finding it difficult to let Go of the Past !

I have audited a Wadia Group Company and lived the 1980s and 1990s through the bitter rivalry between Nusli Wadia and Dhirubhai Ambani….so it was with some Interest that I read Nusli Wadia’s Article and Interview in today’s edition of the Economic Times…..Brought back some Memories

He has chosen to be interviewed and communicate now after so many years..and amusingly he has done so through the Times group despite being very close to the Express Group

I remember the 1980s when I had joined the prestigious CA Firm,S B Billimoria and Co ( Now part of one of the Big 4, Deloitte Group) to begin my articles….my first audit was BRT ( Bombay Ring Tools),a Wadia Group Company….What I remember was the condescending attitude of their Chief Accountant…he was a very emotional Parsi Gentleman ,who held a strong view that Statutory Auditors were merely like Employees of the Company and should therefore behave as such…they had no right to ask questions and Wadias were even their Boss !….This irked my seniors quite a bit…I was a total newcomer…so I just observed…..My Seniors used to take great pleasure in never missing an opportunity to argue and work up steam with this Accountant…he used to get red in the face and very angry and even complained to our Firm Partner that the Audit team was getting Personal !…while most Lunches during the Audit were at ‘Shere-e-Punjab’,a lane away from Wadia Group’s ‘Neville House’  at Ballard Estate ( near the Docks) in South Mumbai,we were treated to ‘Khyber’ when our Firm Partner too was present.It was my first audit and I learnt that Ethics in Business and Personal Ethics are two separate Issues 

Nusli Wadia’s wife Maureen Wadia (Gladrags fame) also used to get both their sons, Jeh and Ness, when they were kids, to play Badminton at the Willingdon Club…It was always in a Mercedes…..Never played with them,though spotted them very often as my friends and I alternated between Tennis and Badminton depending on court availability.  

Nusli Wadia talks in his Interview of many things…Upholding Value is one of them

  • How he respects those who have grown upholding Values…Tatas,Keshub Mahindra,Deepak Parekh… the Political System got ‘taken over’ by the strong nexus with Business….how the Mantra today is to scuttle Other’s Projects,preventing their approvals…fixing them,in simple terms….they never did this in their Generation,says Wadia…all business groups co-existed with each other and were happy to see each other Grow….What has grown since then is this business of ” I will Block you or I will Stop you” !…How Ratan Tata had a tough time breaking the strangleholds of Four or Five in the Tata Group….Nusli Wadia does not mention these men…but by implications they should be Russi Mody of Tata Steel,Darbari Seth and his Son of Tata Chemicals,Ajit Kelkar of Indian Hotels and Sumant Moolgaonkar of Telco…I remember,that Tata group had to prepare a criminal dossier on Ajit Kelkar to force him to resign     

My View of Nusli Wadia’s View on ‘Values’ is a bit mixed….Everybody Values those who upholds Values !But,in my view ,it was this very Monoply and Business Control of the Old Groups that new aggressive Businessmen attempted to break by aggressive means….other less aggressive means were easily thwarted…… Nusli Wadia knows that post Independence,Indian Business grew and was centered around Tatas,Wadias,Birlas and the Mafatlals….It was very difficult to break into the Business of this coterie….These Business groups controlled most Indian Business and thwarted anyone who wished to enter or scale up in their lines…Textiles,Steel,Cotton to name a few…..It is this barrier that newer and more aggressive businessman like Dhirubhai Ambani broke through and scaled up….It was a Catch 22 situation for these newcomers….They had to do what they had to do in order to do what they had to do ! ….So,in this context, to imply that many Newer Big Business has emerged without any Value base is not wholly correct…Old Houses also ‘managed’ the government and it’s bureacrats…but Newer Business ‘managed’ them bigger and therefore better !

New Sunrise and High Growth Industries of Private Banking,Insurance,Telecom and IT have all bypassed the Wadia Group…..though Nusli Wadia had applied in vain for a Telecom License and nearly took over banks…but government policy was amended,citing conflict of Interest, so that Industrial Groups were not allowed to do take over a Bank or set up a new one

There was clear ‘old world complacency’ in the Wadia Group….My growing sense is that Nusli Wadia by speaking of ‘Values’ and how he respects those who have have grown keeping the Value System rather than those who may have grown the Biggest or the Highest,is merely offering a justification for himself having not Grown !…He could have grown,upholding his Value System……and after having audited one of his companies in the 1980s and having come across some rather ‘Valueless’ Practices and in relatively recent times the rumours of the Wadia connection with the sordid Pillai episode involving Brittania leading to Pillai’s Death  ,I can only comment that Practice and Preaching always seem to be two seperate issues 

However,at the turn of this century I had liked two of the Wadia Group Listings…the flagship,Bombay Dyeing and a holding company,Bombay Burmah…the former for the great Real Estate story after DCO 2001 and the latter for the sum of the value of the several business holdings…Tea and Aviation to mention two…Got disillusioned a few years down the line as the values never really unfolded to potential

Jeh and Ness,both seem to have inherited the ‘old world charm’ of the Wadias…Having always lived ‘Upper Crust’,you can say that they held Pole Position when they started out,but lost it somewhere down the laps…. They yet they have to demonstrate that they have the killer instinct and aggression to create and run great businesses

For me,right now the Wadias Fortunes are resting solely on their Real Estate Inheritance…Probably this Great Wealth is the cause of the Complacency ! and,I daresay, the IPL Distraction too !….Wadias need to scale up Risk in the Right Areas…they will otherwise stagnate and  an emerging question mark on the continuation of the Wadia legacy and Business Empire will only grow bigger

To begin with,Nusli Wadia should see ‘Guru’ and even get hold of a copy of the banned book,Hamish Mcdonald’s ‘Prince of Polyester’….this may revive bitter memories but would help in brushing away any demons he may yet have on his rivalry with the Ambanis…he says he hasn’t any…but his very reference to these chronicles and his revelation that he has yet to see the Movie,  belies this….he needs to brush off and move ahead…he does,however, confess that he is finding it hard to ‘let go’ at this age,rivalries with different people at different levels,both outside and within his family

By Not Letting Go,the Wadias are Letting Up !   



4 thoughts on “Nusli Wadia’s Interview in Economic Times Today….Finding it difficult to let Go of the Past !”

  1. Bharatt Desai

    Dear Gaurav,

    You seem to be justifying Dhiru Ambani and his actions. Borther a wrong is a wrong is a wrong. I was working with Orkay’s from 1983-86 and was there during the 3 raids. I would rather salute a Karsanbhai Patel for locking horns with HLL and fight a battle in the market place purely on positioning, and other marketing skills, and respect HLL more for not trying to eliminate Nirma. Belive you me, the likes of Tata’s, Birla’s have become and will remain Institutions not the other infamous ones. In underworld, two cannot co-exist, one eliminates the other, should not be in business. We should not make unscrupulous ones the hero. Unfortunately the world wants to imbibe the tactics on unscrupulous.

    Wishing you all the might to someday fight the monster’s we want to create.

  2. Gaurav Parikh

    Hi Bharatt,

    Really appreciate your response

    Respect your sentiments and actually echo the one on Nirma’s Karsanbhai Patel

    That you too have lived,that to first hand, the Mehras and Ambanis Tussle, adds a lot of depth and weight to what you say

    I hold no Brief for late Dhirubhai Ambani or his Sons,for that matter for anybody really…In fact turned down their offer in the 1980s to make a film on their group,when they were battling V P Singh….They wanted to convey a certain positive bias for them….I had told them that while I would highlight the positives,I would not be biased

    As you say,a wrong is a wrong is a wrong…..and two wrongs don’t make a right!

    If you use the Search Engine on my blog,typing ” RPL Insider Trading” and even “Prince of Polyester”,you’ll find my views on these matters

    This Blog on Nusli Wadia’s Interview was merely to highlight that while he speaks of ‘Values’,his group too has ‘managed’ politicians and bureaucrats,but they have not scaled up well in business and a host of new industries has by passed them

    Here’s an extract from my July 20,2008 Blog on Hamish Mcdonald’s ‘Prince of Polyester’

    “The sad fact is that you either hated or loved the late Dhirubhai Ambani but you could not ignore him! the debate will rage on whether in India a budding entrepreneur can achieve his vision on a big scale without compromising on principles and values and without successfully lobbying the Government…… the happy fact is that the success of the late Dhirubhai Ambani has spawned atleast a million Indians to Dream Big and endeavour to act out their Dreams

    Can we ever have Moral Leadership and Clean Business ever again in India ?

    My Heart says “Yes”… my Head says “No” ”

    The rampant Criminalisation in Business and Politics is sad and scary reflection of the society we live in today and I’m truly worried for the ‘Sort of Values’ our Children could imbibe….a sense fortified by the ‘so what’ response I get from the youth at some of Mumbai’s premium Colleges during my sessions on Ethics, Insider Trading and the like

    Thanks again for your Response, Bharatt…Much Appreciated

    Cheers !

  3. Hi Gaurav,
    This is an interesting read. I am reminded of an interview of JRD in the Illustrated Weekly some time in the 1980’s, in which the celebrated industrialist who was also the most respected for upholding values and corporate social responsibility in more ways than one(the only one to receive the nation’s highest order), shared his thoughts on this issue of value. Here are some points that are fresh in my mind( I was a starry eyed economics student then!):-
    1. Corruption did exist in the 1950’s but the scale was miniscule compared to the later decades(…if a cop stopped you for speeding, you handed over a currency note, and if a wagon was to be put on a goods train you tipped the clerk a 100 rupees etc.).
    2. About the Ambani-Wadia rivalry, he said something like,”Nusli is like a son or a nephew to me and he has told me that Reliance had got undue help from the centre.”
    3. This is the most memorable-when asked about the Tatas not growing like other new business houses, he says,” We would rather not grow like the way these others have been doing!
    My take on this post is that it may not be so much about individuals as about the attitudes of the whole new generation that is in power both in politics and business and in every domain of public life including unfortunately education!

  4. Gaurav Parikh

    Hi Shyam,

    I had the great fortune to meet ‘Jeh’ as JRD Tata was fondly called during my Investment journalism days in the 1980s

    I share your sentiment that this generation are ‘go getters’..where End justifies the Means

    But just care to reflect a while….Don’t you think the genesis of this business aggression is in the tremendous big ticket and big scale opportunities that opened out due to Opening out of our Economy in the early 1990s !?…I call it the LPG Era..Liberalisation,Privatisation and Globalisation…The Explosion in Telecom,IT,Media and Private Banking and Insurance has taken place right before our Eyes…and we’ve seen some first generation entrepreneurs tasting huge success…and excitingly we’re still a very young Nation !…so expect the future too to be even more dynamic


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