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…..how 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 !