Made of Godrej mettle

PURVITA CHATTERJEE N.S. VAGEESH | Updated on March 12, 2018

Mr Adi Godrej

Godrej group chairman Adi Godrej brings his unique business acumen to his new role as CII chief.

The new President of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), Adi Godrej, is a fitness freak — walking, trekking, horse riding, jogging, swimming, sailing, waterskiing, racquet sports… he has done it all. In fact, at 70, the chairman of the Godrej group looks so fit and trim that he could easily be a dashing model for some of the products his group manufactures.

What is even more striking about the man on whom his net worth of $6.8 million sits lightly is the total absence of airs. And, the ability to speak straight … simple, direct answers, with no attempt to either window-dress or indulge in diplomatic talk.

The obvious first question is how he remains so trim, and where does he find the time for it. “I am fond of physical activity… it is my passion. I exercise 10 hours a week.  I am into walking, jogging, freestyle exercises… I've done a lot of trekking, I've gone trekking with the Ambanis,” he says. He hastens to add that he doesn't like going to gyms. “I don't like using machines.  I like to go for a long walk and swim. I swim in the sea.” 

Sundays are reserved for water sports with his grandchildren. These include sailing and waterskiing on a speedboat that is anchored on the Marine Drive outside his home on Malabar Hill, a tony neighbourhood in South Mumbai.

But steering the Rs 19,000-crore Godrej group comes with a fairly punishing schedule, though he makes little fuss about it. An average working day begins at 7.45 a.m. “to avoid the Mumbai traffic”. It normally tends to end late in the evenings, particularly when there are official engagements. The commute on his Audi is used to read official papers. The group's five-day week doesn't apply to its head honcho, and whenever he is in Mumbai, he can be found working on Saturdays “to catch up on pending work”.

The latest versions of the iPad and iPhone are part of his life and communicating needs, but by his own admission he is not enamoured of them. “I use them for their utility,” he says matter-of-factly.

We next ask about his favourite car. Once again, Godrej shrugs and says, “I am not a car fan either; but I currently use an Audi.”

Although a voracious reader with eclectic taste, he says he has not been particularly impressed with any book recently. “But I do read books on management, biographies, autobiographies and historical books.”

 This billionaire industrialist is a jet-setter in the true sense of the term. He has travelled to 87 countries across all continents. But Italy remains his favourite holiday destination.

Antarctica has escaped his radar until now, but he hopes to go there “soon on the next family holiday with my son.” The wallpaper adorning his spacious office features an ancient map used by Dutch travellers. An indication, perhaps, of his desire to explore new territories.

As CII President, he has an extensive travel itinerary lined up and expects to make several foreign trips in the coming year. At home he will visit major State capitals, meeting chief ministers, CII members and others. “I will be having a hectic schedule now and almost half my time will be taken up by the CII, with almost 15-20 trips this year,” he says.

Improved Indo-Pak co-ordination

Incidentally, his first trip outside the country as CII President was to Pakistan. Godrej is optimistic about improving bilateral relations between the two countries. “There should be much greater economic cooperation between India and Pakistan. We are neighbours and share a long land border. This is a good time to open up, as Pakistan has already granted India the most preferred nation (MFN) status. The small list of exported products from India has gone into a negative list. Now a lot more products can be exported to Pakistan. The current level of economic interaction and trade is far too low. Today the total trade between India and Pakistan is at $2.5 billion, but I expect it to go up to $10 billion by 2015,” he says.

Next on his calendar is a visit to Japan to find ways of improving business ties with that country.

Poised for growth

Alongside his CII work, his duties at Godrej will need attention too. After an extensive brand valuation exercise over the past two years, the group is poised for further growth. “We plan to grow 10 times in the next 10 years. We have valued the Godrej brand at under $3 billion, and have figured out where the brand stands today and how to take it forward,” he discloses. From locks, furniture, animal feed and soaps to real estate, his company sells a range of products. However, its biggest listed entity continues to be the FMCG-focused Godrej Consumer Products.

The rather conservative 114-year-old group is now poised to emerge among the top three real-estate companies in the country. Godrej Properties is developing projects across 12 cities in India, but the redevelopment of the family-owned Vikhroli land is one of its key concerns.

“We have 3,500 acres in Vikhroli and it is going to be an important part of our property development plans, as we want to turn it into an iconic, green industrial, commercial and residential township,” he says.

With nearly 500 million Indians using one or the other Godrej product, the brand enjoys considerable consumer goodwill; the group wants to build on that trust and double its customer base.

Weighing the key strengths and weaknesses of the group, Godrej says, “Our strength lies in being a consumer-oriented business group, but we still have to understand our consumers better, especially the younger ones. We also have to grow faster outside India and improve upon our talent pool.”

Godrej Consumer Products has already made 10 acquisitions since 2005 and wants to increase its presence in the developing markets.

So who are the people who have influenced him the most?

“I have been impressed by some characters in different eras … the historical Greek foursome — Socrates, who was Plato's teacher; Plato, who was Aristotle's teacher; and Aristotle, who was Alexander's teacher.  I am a great admirer of Nelson Mandela and Margaret Thatcher.  In India I have been a great admirer of Mahatma Gandhi.”

Admires Jack Welch

 What about businesspeople, we prod him.

“I am a great admirer of Jack Welch. Of course, I knew him well.  We had a joint venture.”

But didn't he want to buy Godrej out?

Godrej politely declines to comment, saying however, “Ultimately we bought GE out in our joint venture.”

When asked about the break-up of some joint ventures with MNCs such as GE and P&G, Godrej says, “Joint ventures are formed when there is need for a financial or technical collaboration. They are not meant to last forever.”

But, he adds, they do provide a valuable learning experience and, thanks to them, his group has benefited considerably and become more competitive globally. He also makes a strong case for family businesses, pointing out the inherent advantage — decisions can be made quickly.

For the immediate future, the group will focus on its core businesses. No major diversifications are planned for now, he says.

On changes in consumer behaviour, Godrej says, “Rural customers are now able to buy discretionary products; twenty years ago, they could barely keep body and soul together. Second, young people can afford to spend a lot more now than earlier. Young people, especially those who are educated, are doing well. That augurs well for our economy.”

Winding up the interview on an optimistic note, he adds: “I am personally convinced that we will be the largest economy in the world by 2050, overtaking both the US and China in the next three decades.”

Published on May 24, 2012

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