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Sunday, August 01, 2010

A 250-years old legacy sails into the modern era

They are heirs to a 250-years old legacy. The family started in shipbuilding and, one of the ships that they built has history written all over it because on this ship, the American national anthem was written and the Treaty of Nanking was signed. Since then, the Wadia family have diversified into various businesses. Today, they have got about four businesses, which are listed public companies and which are governed professionally, in terms of transparent corporate governance.

Nusli Wadia and Maureen Wadia's two sons are sure making them proud. Jeh Wadia's plunged into the airline industry with his GoAir and is looking to scale up operations. While Ness Wadia is looking to move the family business into uncharted waters - of retail and real estate. He assures that their plans in these areas would takeoff anytime soon and his objective "is to provide an international mix."

Ness Wadia told CNBC-TV18, "We want to give something different to the Indian consumer. Why does one person always need to be in the office building and why can't one enjoy other things? So we are sort of sensitizing businesses toward customers in small things, like providing a concierge service in a building. So any tenant can go there and get flowers, or dinner reservations etc, we'll provide that assistance. So, again it is moving forward into customization and ensuring that we enthuse and delight customers, which we believe has not happened in India and definitely not in Indian real estate or in Indian retail."

Jeh Wadia adds, "We started as management trainees in our businesses. So we started basically from a very young age. From there, we moved on to say that, maybe we should not be too hands-on - to be less operational driven and more financial driven. Hence the restructuring and the need to look at new sunrise businesses like real estate and retail and the airlines." So, 2004-05 has been when the media really got to know, that the Wadia boys are more than just goodlooking faces with money and a famous surname to their credit. But Jeh explains, "Those (earlier) businesses were not linked to a national presence. For example, GoAir requires a national presence, it needs to be splashed all over the place. So, that the company gets more visibility with people."

"Financially, we came up with the executive summary in 2001. I used to go to Chitrakoot every once in a while, using a private jet. Eventually the person I represent and who is my mentor, Shri Nanaji Deshmukh, said to me, "Don't you think you should come like the common man comes?" and I did go by train many times. I found out that basically going from one village to another - for example going from Bombay to Chitrakoot took 22 hours. This took a lot of our time. So, where is the easiest opportunity today - from putting capacity into connectivity? That is air travel. Is there demand? There are fifteen million people who go by train in a single day. In 2004-05, six-seven million people bought 17 million (GoAir) seats."

With Jeh Wadia looking to snap up and convert the price-sensitive railway travellers to using his airline, he's also looking to move on once a stable team is in place at GoAir. He's going to move into cargo, engineering and all other areas of the aviation industry.

So for these young 'uns, apart from having enterpreneurial blood running through their veins, were there other people, whom they looked up to? Ness Wadia says, "I have always been influenced by people. I believe people are the success to any endeavor. I struggled to find leaders I could look up to in today's world, who are ethical, who support teams and who build from the bottom up. JRD Tata was one good example. Today we have people like Narayan Murthy and Ratan Tata. But more Narayan Murthy because he says very clearly, that 'my goal is to ensure that I can help people to dream and then help them to cross that water'."

Ness's way of helping people achieve their goals and live their dreams may just revolutionise how work gets done in his offices. He explains, "In Bombay Dyeing, we have flexi-time. We did that because we wanted to provide freedom to people. My dream is to have a situation where I can empower people - they can work from where they want. Today we have laptops, connectivity and telephones. Why does a person need to come to an office?"

He adds, "We as managers and leaders are insecure and we want to see people. I do not subscribe to this. Every human being has similar aspirations, to spend time with their children and their family. In Bombay Dyeing, we are looking to start paternal leave. So we are changing with the times."

Written for www.moneycontrol.com

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