Companies

I think the inclusion of women at all levels of management is critical: Valli Arunachalam

NARAYANAN V Chennai | Updated on January 17, 2020 Published on January 17, 2020

Valli Arunachalam, the eldest daughter of Murugappa Group patriarch late MV Murugappan   -  Prashant Nakwe.

‘I asked for the board seat based on our shareholding... not as a hereditary right’

“Each time a woman stands up for herself, she stands up for all women,” said a famous American poet. It cannot be more true than in the case of Valli Arunachalam, the eldest daughter of Murugappa Group patriarch late MV Murugappan, who is waging a lonely battle against the family and the group to get a board representation for the women in the family. MV Murugappan passed away in 2017 bequeathing his 8.15 per cent stake in the unlisted Ambadi Investments Ltd (AIL) to his wife and two daughters. However, even after two years, Valli Arunachalam says she is neither able to sell her stake to other family members nor get a board seat in the holding company. In an exclusive interaction with BusinessLine, Valli Arunachalam shares her journey so far, issues of gender discrimination in the group and the possible way to end the tussle. Excerpts:

What prompted you to rake up this issue suddenly?

I don't think the use of the word ‘suddenly’ is appropriate here. I have been going through this struggle for the past 2 years. Something that I view as very straightforward is that either the settlement of Ambadi shares at fair value, failing which I think it is a fair ask that we get a board seat because we are among the largest shareholders and every other branch of the family has a representation, except our branch.

So you were looking to sell your stake and exit for the last 2 years?

Yes. But Murugappa Group members said they don’t have the money to buy the shares and asked us to retain the stake and collect the dividend.

You may be aware that board positions are not inherited. Do you think you can enforce this legally?

I was not asking for it as a hereditary right. In my very first e-mail to the family in August 2019, I asked for the board seat based on our shareholding and not as a hereditary right. However, the response I got from them was as if I was demanding that as a succession right.

My first e-mail clearly stated that the request is based on shareholding. After that they said, ‘You don’t have the experience in the group companies to be inducted into the Ambadi Board’. I had responded, “that's because the female heirs have never been given the grooming or opportunity in the family business.”

So you think the situation could have been different if there was a male heir in your position?

Certainly.

In the absence of any direct communication from the group, what other options do you have?

Let's see. From the latest media communication, they have indicated that the issue will be resolved amicably. Given that they pride themselves about transparency, good governance and family values, they should actually show what they mean. Action speaks louder than words.

Do you think taking this issue to media will only worsen the situation?

I have been patient for 2 years. They had plenty of opportunity and time to resolve this matter internally given that I have been communicating directly with the family. It requires intent. We have been very proactive in trying to get them to the table to resolve it but that has not happened.

Do you expect any positive development in the next board meet?

The last board meeting happened in November. I came to know of it on December 10 when I received a letter from the Company Secretary stating that my request for a board position was considered. But they did not appoint me as an Additional Director which was well within the scope. Neither did they set a date for the next shareholder meeting.

You have opened a big debate on under-representation of women on boards and in top management...

I think we have to look at it from a broader perspective. Both male and female bring different perspectives which together can make the company stronger. I think diversity is a strength and we already have examples of women in the top echelons of corporate ladder doing extremely well. So I think the inclusion of women at all levels of management is critical.

If your grievances are not solved amicably, will you explore selling your stake to a third party?

Let’s take one step at a time. Now they have indicated this (amicable resolution). Let’s see whether they will actually act on what they have said in public. Of course, there are other options such as the one that you have just mentioned.

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Published on January 17, 2020
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