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India: doing it for themselves… and the family business

Meher Pudumjee, chairperson of Thermax Limited, the family business set up by her maternal grandfather some 40 years ago, is testimony to just how quickly the role of women in family businesses is changing in India.

She joined the board of Thermax, which produces energy and environmental systems for industrial customers around the world, in 1996 after the sudden death of her father, becoming non-executive chairman four years later. She had first joined the company aged 21, straight after a degree in chemical engineering at Imperial College, London.

"My brother and I were both given the opportunity to go abroad to be educated, and to join the business if we had the interest and ability to do so, and our parents always treated us both exactly the same in that regard," recalls Meher. "A generation earlier, my mother had a very different experience. She had two brothers, neither as academically brilliant as she was, but they were groomed for the family business whereas it was never even considered that she would join."

Her mother, Anu Aga, not only joined the business, but ended up running it. She took over as executive chairperson when her husband died, handing over the baton to her daughter four years ago. At the age of 66, she still sits on the board.

"My mother is a very strong role model, both personally and professionally, for me and for other Indian business women," says Meher, explaining that Anu is a regular and outspoken commentator on issues such as corporate governance, social responsibility and value-based management – as well as women in business.

Meher explains that her mother wasn't frustrated by not being involved in the family business in the early days."It was just the way it was. But she did her own thing. She did social work, got a Masters degree in it, worked as a freelancer and did training in psychology. My father – who was by then running the family business – supported her in that."

Her father Rohinton Aga was a visionary too. An economist by training, he ran the family business on very progressive lines, embedding strong values early on, and fostering an entrepreneurial spirit that gave people a large degree of responsibility and accountability.

"This was a very professionally-run company from the outset," recalls Meher, who explains that when her father had a heart attack in 1982, recognising the vulnerability of the business – there were no other family members involved at that point – he asked Anu to play a much more active role. Anu joined the HR department, which she subsequently ran. When Rohinton died, she stepped into the breach – but the role she performed as chairman was not a holding one.

The company made its first-ever loss in 2000 when the technology bubble burst, and Anu brought in an outside consultant to help her and the other executives turn the business around. They shed non-core activities, "right-sized" others and reconstituted the board, making the family members non-executives and bringing in new non-family professional executives to run the business day to day. They renewed their focus on customers and instituted a high-performance culture, especially at senior levels.

But unwilling to see any repetition of the problems that arose because of the sudden loss of her husband, Anu decided to relinquish her role as chairman to her daughter in 2004. "That's very unusual for a family business in India," says Meher. "Men, in particular, are reluctant to step down."

But then, as she says, women bring a different approach. "For example, neither my mother nor I have ever been shy of asking for help, nor of being honest about our vulnerability and admitting we don't know the answers to everything. As a result of that we have been very active networkers in order to bring in the best possible help for the organisation."

She thinks that women are more thorough too, and pay greater attention to detail than men, who tend to be more broad brush. "We also have more concern and care and sensitivity for our fellow human beings as well as for the environment, so we are intuitively more in tune, perhaps, with the concept of sustainability."

Bhairavi Jani (pictured), the 29-year-old executive director of family-owned logistics and supply chain group SCA, agrees and says that being a woman in a male-dominated society can be a positive advantage. "People under-estimate me sometimes, which means I can surprise them," says Bhairavi, who joined the family business three years ago as director of new projects and ventures.

What's more, being a woman means she tries harder in order to prove herself. "Some of the truck drivers went on strike, and I was at the warehouse every day talking to them. A man wouldn't have done that, but if I hadn't done it, they would have said it was because I was a woman."

While youth can be more of a barrier to progression than gender in a country that tends to judge experience by age, she says her age can be an advantage. "I have longer time horizons than some of my peers. I can see another 25 years of involvement with this business, which gives me a very good perspective on where I think it should be going. Good strategic long-term horizons are really valuable, particularly in a developing economy like India," she says.

The hands-on, grass-roots experience she gained running her own logistics business gave her real credibility among her professional non-family colleagues. "They had more respect for me because I had proved myself rather than coming into this business just because of my name," she says.

Gaining experience elsewhere has been a condition of family members joining SCA since Bhairavi's great grandfather set the company up in 1896. "He, like my grandfather and father after him, believed that it is important to learn how to be entrepreneurial because it is easy to get lost in the 'comfortable' success of a family business," she says. "I needed to learn how to create and sustain success, to understand the importance of things like setting up an office properly, or hiring the right people and taking risks."

But Bhairavi's mother was keen for her to be an entrepreneur for a while for more personal reasons. "She thought it would show me whether I was prepared to fight stereotypes all my life and whether I would be happy being in business. I could have closed my own business if it hadn't worked out, but I couldn't close the family business. So it was a kind of soft landing."

Bhairavi laughs off the constant attempts by her colleagues to marry her off. "I think they think it would make me more 'respectable'," she says. "But it is actually quite a serious issue for them because of the influence any future husband might have on the business. But my father, who chairs the board, gives me unconditional support and says that my personal life is personal and separate from the business. In any case, the constitution of our business is such that my children can inherit, but not my husband."

A married woman needs a great amount of support from her husband if she is to be successful in business, says Meher. Her own husband, Pheroz, is also a non-executive director of Thermax, and oversees the company's international operations. "I have a lot of respect from him, both personally and professionally, but, like all Indian men, he expects me to run the home too," she laughs.

Being non-executive helps her manage her time better, she admits, and her parents-in-law live in the same house, helping to look after her two young children.

Ironically, the success of Meher and Bhairavi owes much to the enlightened approach of their fathers – both in terms of acknowledging the equality of women and giving them the same opportunities as men, and in running their businesses along progressive lines.

"When my father joined the company in 1983 he institutionalised paternity and maternity leave," recalls Bhairavi. "Male and female employees can now put their children in our day-care centres. We believe the responsibility for looking after them lies with both parents."

She is continuing the tradition of helping to create a culture of equality. For example, when recruiting for a very "labour-driven" position, she will balance the need for a man to do the job by including women on the interview panel. The company has special interest groups that discuss issues such as sexual harassment and safety, which are run by women, but to which men are invited.

Bhairavi and Meher's success is all the more remarkable given the traditional male-dominated industries they work in. Nevertheless, Meher believes it is easier for women to be successful in family businesses than in non-family businesses.

"We are still the privileged few," she says. "It can be very tough for a woman in a non-family business to be taken as seriously as their male counterparts and reach the top."

But given that 80–90% of Indian businesses are family businesses, the outlook for women business leaders in India could be better than it is for women in economies that are dominated by private-sector companies.

"Things are changing," says Meher. "Increasingly women are being educated abroad and want to come home and make a difference. Women are also getting married later, which gives them more time and space to make a mark."

But the thing that will make the biggest difference of all, she concludes, is society's recognition of the growing numbers of capable women running successful businesses. And given the particular strengths that women business leaders bring, that shift will benefit not just women, but business and society too.

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