Corporate File

The Shah of Mahindra

Thomas K Thomas |Vinay Kamath | | Updated on: Dec 05, 2021

Anish Shah, MD of Mahindra group, on his life and times and on enhancing empowerment and diversity in the group

Talk about following in your parents’ footsteps. Anish Shah, an MBA from the hallowed portals of IIMA, took it to heart quite literally. His father, Dilip Shah, was also from India’s top B-school, in its first batch, in 1966 (along with the late management guru CK Prahalad), while his mother, Smita, was from the second batch, one of two women in that cohort. “My cousin and her fiancé were on campus in 1985, five years before I went there, and on my visit, I fell in love with the campus. The fact that my parents were there too may have had some influence, though the driving force was the campus; it was a great place to be,” recalls Shah, Managing Director & CEO of Mahindra Group, the first non-family professional to head the auto to IT services conglomerate.

The Mumbai-born and bred Shah graduated from Sydenham college with a B.Com and cracked the CAT to join IIMA immediately after college. “Growing in Bombay was a lot of fun. I grew up in Bandra and Juhu. Both were wide open spaces, a lot less congested than the city is right now. And Bombay gave a lot of freedom, it was safe for a young child growing up,” he recalls.

Shah’s academic journey was seamless: from IIMA he went on to Carnegie Mellon, where he received a Master’s degree and later a PhD from the University’s Tepper School of Business, which leads us to the question if he was preparing for a career in academics.

Corporate all the way

He’s emphatic when he says, “I was very clear that I wanted to be in the corporate world. I knew an in-depth knowledge of finance was essential and would help my career. I was the youngest in my class, so I wanted to invest some time to gain a deeper knowledge of finance.” As it turned out, in addition to finance, one of Shah’s mentors, an ex-president of Carnegie Mellon, wanted him to focus on corporate governance – a useful piece of advice given its importance today. Shah secured his PhD in three years, keeping with his brilliant academic record, and helped him get to the corporate world faster.

We are having a virtual conversation with 51-year-old Shah on his life and times and the Mahindra group business; the pandemic impact having put paid to a luncheon meeting.

To Shah and his wife, it was clear that they wanted to return to India, which they did after 16 years in the US. He joined GE India to run GE Capital, which had gone through a tough time. A number of things had to be done to turn it around, including working with the SBI Card joint venture (in which SBI owned 60 pc and GE Capital rest. In 2015 GE exited financial services business) , and setting that on the right path. “It was a very fulfilling experience and that gave me the opportunity to come to Mumbai ,” he recalls. Shah returned to Mumbai, the city he loved, after 21 years, five of them in Gurugram.

Shah had spent a few years in Bain & Co in the US and his former boss and mentor, Ranjan Pant, had introduced him to Anand Mahindra. “In the first meeting itself I was very clear that this is a person I'd love to work with, and learn a lot from. I had till then always worked with US companies where people worked with a level of transparency and openness. What brought me to the Mahindra group is its culture, openness, the diversity, the transparency and learning from Anand,” he says.

Shah joined M&M (the group’s auto business) in August of 2014 as President, Group Special Projects, and was elevated as MD & CEO of M&M in April 2021. This November, he took over as the chief of the $22-billion Mahindra group.

The conversation steers to Mahindra’s sturdy SUV launches. Shah points out that in the last 18 months M&M has had four blockbuster launches, XUV 300, Bolero Neo, Thar and the XUV700. A fifth one – a new Scorpio – is coming up soon, which he says is getting great feedback from dealers. “So, if we can have five blockbuster launches in a row, that positions us extremely well in this space, and will allow us to regain our number one position.”

Ask Shah if he expected the insane booking for XUV700 – it clocked 25,000 bookings in 57 minutes when it opened – he says three months prior, it would have been a complete surprise. “But at the time of launch, which was on August 15, we had a session with dealers and auto journalists at a new test track near Chennai and the feedback from them was amazing. And at that point in time, we knew that we were on to a winner, which then played out as bookings came in,” elaborates Shah.

M&M leads

In the future, Shah says M&M is going to stick to its ‘core’ SUV strengths. Its compact SUV, nor the MPV, Marazzo, were as successful. “We have never had the differentiating factor, which we do have for our core SUVs. So, we have decided that is not the segment we are going to play in,” he says.

Shah is quite cognizant that EV will be the future and M&M has committed Rs 3,000 crore to develop a new platform. He spots three wheelers as a huge opportunity where M&M is the leader. “There are three things that drive adoption: cost of ownership, range anxiety and infrastructure. And all three have been met for three wheelers, so we will see that market take off in a big way for EVs. For four wheelers, it will take a little more time to play out. The analogy is that of a test match, where we have completed 5 or 10 overs,” he explains.

But, as Shah says, the potential differentiator is going to be the form factor, which is the authentic SUV. “So, we will focus on our core. Even in EV, it includes all aspects of the car, from performance to design. While we will develop EVs of a very high quality, it will have to be against the backdrop of the design and everything else that a Mahindra SUV can offer,” he elaborates. By 2027, he says M&M expects 20 per cent of its volumes to come from EV, and it will start exponentially peaking from there. “There is a plan to move a number of our models into the EV space and thereby continue our market leadership in core SUV, as we go to electric vehicles.”

Being a Mumbai boy, we ask Shah if cricket is his favourite. Of course, is his reply, and his second is American football, which he loved to watch in his years in the US. “It’s a very strategic sport, where teamwork is so essential. Any single player, however good they are, are not going to make that difference. It’s a very physical game,” he says.

Typically, in happier times, if we had to meet in a restaurant over lunch for this conversation in Mumbai, we ask Shah where it would be? “One of my favourites actually is vada pav, which would be on the street, but my favourite cuisine is South Indian, by far,” he says. Perhaps the restaurant chain Muthuswamy is where we may have met, he says.

We ask Shah how he would look back on his time at Mahindra group. “We would want people to look at the Mahindra group as a place for the best leaders around. I’d like to say that we’ve enhanced empowerment and diversity. Starting with the group, and going beyond we need to have many programmes, whether it’s education of the girl child, or skilling women or creating jobs for them, that’s something I think it’s very important in India today, and something you want to leave behind. So, it is living a purpose and rewarding investors significantly and doing both at the same time,” he sums up.

Published on December 05, 2021

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