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A quiet billionaire

By Rajesh Kurup

Pallonji Shapoorji Mistry, 82, is the world's most reclusive billionaire. For a man with an estimated wealth of almost $10 billion (Rs 55,000 crore), he is surprisingly invisible, rarely seen or heard in the public space. One of India's most successful and powerful businessmen, he controls a construction empire that operates across India, West Asia and Africa. He, along with his sons, also controls an 18.5 per cent stake in Tata Sons, the holding company of the $100 billion (Rs 550,000 crore) Tata Group, making the Mistrys the largest individual shareholders in India's most diversified business conglomerate. He is called, with a mixture of awe and curiosity, the Phantom at Bombay House, the headquarters of the Tata Group, in Mumbai. His younger son, Cyrus Mistry, 43, will control the group when Chairman Ratan Tata exits in December.

Construction magnate Pallonji is an Irish citizen, by virtue of marriage to an Irish woman, but he lives mostly in India, in his sea-facing Walkeshwar bungalow in Mumbai. In 2012, Forbes estimated his wealth to be $9.7 billion (Rs 53,350 crore), making him the wealthiest person of Parsi descent as well as the richest Irishman in the world. Much of that wealth comes from his shareholding in the Tata Group, says Adi Godrej, chairman of the Godrej Group of Companies. Deepak Parekh, chairman of HDFC, recalls how the Mistrys first acquired shares in the Tata Group. "Pallonji's father built factories for Tata Motors and Tata Steel. The Tatas had no money to pay for them so they gave him shares instead," he says. Pallonji slowly consolidated his family's shareholding in subsequent years by buying out shares of Tata family members who wanted to exit the business.

For those close to him, Pallonji Shapoorji Mistry is not elusive. "To me, he is very approachable. I could reach him any time, either on phone or I could just walk into his home or office, that too without prior notice, and he has always received me with warmth. He is very nice, very friendly and also helpful," says eminent architect Hafeez Contractor, who has been associated with Pallonji since 1968. But Contractor is one of a fortunate few. Until recently, Pallonji was chairman of the $2.5-billion (Rs 13,750 crore) Shapoorji Pallonji Group (SPG); he handed the reins of his empire to his eldest son, Shapoor, 48, earlier this year. The group is involved in businesses from textiles to real estate, hospitality to business automation. The companies under SPG fold include Shapoorji Pallonji Engineering and Construction, Afcons Infrastructure, Forbes Textiles, Gokak Textiles, Eureka Forbes, Forbes and Co, SP Construction Materials Group, SP Real Estate and Next Gen among others. Pallonji was also the former chairman of Associated Cement Companies, now ACC Ltd, from September 24, 1977, to July 26, 1979, and later from September 4, 1997, to April 26, 2000, and had chaired the company's annual general meetings (AGMs). Such AGMs are among his rare appearances in public. Ashalata Maheshwari, an investor with shareholding in about 1,000 companies, including ACC and Tata Group firms, says: "I interacted with him at meetings of Associated Cement Companies, but that was a long time ago. I don't think I had ever sought a meeting with him."

Pallonji has an eye for detail and is a perfectionist to the core. He strives for perfection, even if that means costs ex-ceeding budget allocations. Contractor, who is currently doing eight projects for the group, says Pallonji has a simple philosophy: "'We should ensure that this is the best, because both our names are associated with it.' That's his standard statement before we start work on a project." Contractor has collaborated with SPG on several projects: The Sarala Birla Academy, a boarding school for boys, in Bangalore; a township project called 'Empress City' in Nagpur and the 60-storeyed Imperial Towers in Mumbai, India's tallest skyscraper.

SPG has built some of India's most iconic buildings-The Taj Mahal Palace and Towers and The Oberoi Hotel, both of which were attacked by terrorists in 2008 (26/11), the Mumbai-Pune Expressway, Brabourne Stadium, the World Trade Centre in Mumbai, as well as the Sultan's palace in Oman and the president's palace in Ghana.

And now it seems there will be a change of guard. Murmurs of a new order grew louder after Pallonji relinquished board positions at some of the companies early in 2012. Citing old age and health issues, the 82-yearold stepped down from boards of Forbes & Company and Afcons Infrastructure in March. Earlier, he had resigned as chairman of United Motors (India), a company promoted by the group. In early June, he officially bequeathed the chairman's title of flagship SPG to eldest son Shapoor. There was no pomp, no ceremony, and the media got wind of the news only a month later. Shapoor's crowning came almost six months after younger brother Cyrus was appointed the deputy chairman and chairmandesignate of Tata Sons.

Pallonji now dons the mantle of chairman emeritus and continues to advise the group. "Pallonji has instilled his unshakeable values in his two sons, who have carried the baton forward," says HDFC's Parekh. When Shapoor was appointed SPG chairman, Cyrus reportedly told him that the future of his children was in his hands.

Shapoor's quiet appointment was very much in line with Cyrus's appointment as the successor to Ratan Tata in November 2011, which the media got to know about only when a formal statement was issued by the Tata Group. The group, which gets twothirds of its $83 billion (Rs 456,500 crore) in revenue from overseas operations, had named Cyrus after a global hunt that ended at home. Cyrus's sister, Aloo, is married to Ratan Tata's halfbrother Noel, and Cyrus has been a director of Tata Sons since 2006. The future chairman's shareholding in the Tata Group has been moved into a trust as part of an agreement between SPG and the Tata Group.

Not everyone was convinced about Cyrus's elevation. Says Ashalata Maheshwari, "I was sceptical at first as people told me that Cyrus was just a boy, how would he run such a big empire? But then Mr Tata (Ratan Tata) also did not have much experience when he took over the reins." The 75-year-old shareholder had earlier said she would stop attending AGMs when Ratan Tata retired. She has now changed her mind. "The family (Mistrys) is not money-minded. They are very simple. Cyrus is young and intelligent, and I think Tata saheb has taken the right decision. I will continue to attend AGMs," she says.

There is a difference in working styles between Pallonji and his elder son Shapoor. Says a businessman who is associated with the group of the elder Mistry, "Pallonji Mistry's policy is to solve every single problem immediately and stop it from aggravating... At the group, the contracts undertaken are executed with a personal touch, and that makes the group different." Shapoor has a different focus. He is a 'strategist', says a company insider, adding that Shapoor had already begun the process of revamping the group for a global role. This would see various group firms-like Afcons Infrastructure, acquired in 2000, and Forbes India, bought in 2002, being re-branded. There will be a new logo, and the tagline will be 'Built to Last', say sources. "Earlier there were two managing directors looking after the entire operation. After Cyrus moved away, there is just one person, Shapoor. Things have to be brought under a single fold. Moreover, there is a move to further strengthen the group's activities, focus on core competencies and bring in professionals from the industry," says a senior company official. Shapoor has already roped in Jai Mavani, who was a director with PricewaterhouseCoopers.

"Yes, I have joined the group as an executive director and I would be looking after mergers and acquisitions and family practice business," Mavani confirmed, declining to provide further details. There are "strict instructions" against speaking to the media, officials at Bombay House and SPG say, declining to go on record. Pallonji Mistry, Shapoor Mistry and Cyrus Mistry did not answer detailed questionnaires sent to each of them for this story.

Very little is known about the private lives of the Mistrys. Shapoor is married to Behroze Sethna, daughter of lawyer Rusi Sethna. He is the most flamboyant member of the family and loves race horses-the family owns a huge stud farm in Pune. Cyrus is married to Rohika Chagla, daughter of lawyer Iqbal Chagla. Of the two daughters of Pallonji, Laila is married to Rustom Jehangir, and Aloo is married to Noel Tata, considered a contender for chairmanship of the Tata Group. "The family is down-toearth, and when you meet them you don't feel that they are so rich and famous," says Contractor.

The two sons need these simple values in abundance as they steer the fortunes of two of India's biggest conglomerates.

-With Shravya Jain.

Reproduced From India Today. © 2012. LMIL. All rights reserved.