Podcast | The business of the family - The Wadias
Over the past few months, we have been revisiting the origins of some of the most illustrious empires in India and retracing their family trees.
Most of these families were intertwined with the struggle for independence and the idealistic fervour of nation-building. And today we will narrate the story of yet another empire with roots that run deep and can be traced all the way back to pre-independence India.
Yes, we are talking about the Wadia family.
But before we delve deep into that story, here is an interesting bit of trivia.
Neville Wadia, one of the Wadia scions married Dina Jinnah, the only daughter of Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Rattanbai Petit.
Nusli, the son of Neville and Dina, now helms the Wadia Group of companies. The Wadia family has traditionally had stakes in three main realms. Textiles, shipping, and jewelry. But the company has expanded to include a lot more and we will talk about all of it in a short while.
As we have been saying every week, in most of the companies founded before independence, the descendants contributed not just to business but to community building as well. The Wadias were no exception and many generations have gone on to play varied roles and made their contributions as entrepreneurs, doctors, scholars and more.
In popular culture, the Wadias are most remembered for creating the glamorous ad campaigns associated with their flagship brand Bombay Dyeing starring Karan Kapoor. And also with famous model turned actors like John Abraham, Dino Morea and Lara Dutta who won the famous model hunt organised by Gladrags, a magazine started by Nusli Wadia's wife Maureen. And of course who can forget the nostalgia associated with Brittania and Tiger biscuits. Britannia alone today has an estimated 38% market share of the biscuit market.
How the journey began
It is crucial to understand that the fight for freedom as well as the subsequent activities of nation building were spun out of the combined efforts of multiple communities in India. The Parsis in India were one such community who lent their entrepreneurship skills to the development of the country. Families like the Wadias, the Tatas, the Jeejeebhoys, and the Godrejs are some of the names that have crafted to a great extent the industrial and economic evolution of India. At the time of Indian independence in 1947, the Parsis dominated major industries like steel, aviation industry, textiles, cinema, medicine, science and even law. The Parsis continued the tradition of contribution through the 18th, 19th and right into the 20th century.
A family that has nourished various aspects of integrated Indian existence for over 250 years is that of the Wadias.
More than a hundred and thirty eight years ago, a certain Nowrosjee Wadia began dreaming of an empire that would become synonymous with national identity and global relevance. Bombay Dyeing has of course today realised that dream and is one of the most easily recognised brands in India. Bombay Dyeing also happens to be one of the earliest of the Wadia Group Companies to have been listed on the Bombay Stock Exchange.
The Company has expanded over the years beyond textiles to include Realty Sector, Aviation, Polyester Staple Fibre and Retail.
But even before Nowrosjee Wadia, was Lovji Nusserwanjee Wadia who initiated the Wadia shipbuilding dynasty in 1736. This was of course in congruence with British East India Company. He obtained a contract for building docks and ships in Bombay. While many of the Wadias became inextricable with the history of Mumbai, some family members remained in Surat, and established a ship breaking yard that went on to be a leader in its territory.
It would surprise you to know that the lyrics of The Star-Spangled Banner, the national anthem of the United States, were written in 1812 on board a Wadia-built British Navy ship, the HMS Minden. The Bombay dry-dock, the first dry-dock in Asia, was built by Lovji and his brother Sorabji in 1750. Lovji is now known to be the father of the shipping industry in Bombay and he passed away in 1774. His sons Maneckji and Bomanji continued the legacy of workmanship and professionalism. Seven generations of Wadias have been master-shipbuilders and made ships in Bombay that travelled to every corner of the world.
By the 1840s, the Wadias became a dominant name in the Indian shipbuilding industry and crafted over a hundred warships for Britain. They were also astute enough to build trading networks around the world.
Nowroji Nusserwanji Wadia was born in August 30, 1849 and was the next big game changer in the family.
Educated in England, he utilised his global exposure and engineering smarts by establishing Bombay Dying & Manufacturing Co. in 1879. His trusteeship was vast and expansive and he went on chair many government and educational bodies. To him is attributed the introduction of the kindergarten system of education in India and it is said that there were no charitable institutions in Bombay in his time that remained untouched by his generosity.
His sons Cusrow and Ness expanded the textile empire into the largest textile operation in India, and continued with the family tradition of philanthropy. In the 1920s, Ness established a wireless service, the India Radio and Communication Company, linking India and Britain for the first time.
After independence, the Wadias started exploring business opportunities with chemicals, engineering services, lamination and precision springs.
In 1952, Neville Wadia, the father of present-day chairman Nusli Wadia, joined the business after the demise of his father Ness Wadia. Twenty-five years later, in 1977, Nusli Wadia entered the business.
The Wadia women were no wall flowers either and their philanthropy was far reaching and multi-pronged.
Motlibai Maneckji as a young widow, not only managed the family estate but contributed to various charities. She established many dispensaries as well as the Bai Motlibai Obstetric Hospital.
Jerbai Nusserwanji Wadia was a pioneer of low-cost housing complexes that went on become a symbol of Zarathushti existence. In 1917 she established the Naoroji N. Wadia Building Trust Fund. After she passed, her sons built the Bai Jerbai Wadia Hospital for Children in her memory.
Lady Hirabai Cowasji Jehangir opened nursery schools, the Wadia-Vatcha School and the Sir Cowasji Jehangir School in Bombay. She set up the Sir Cowasji Jehangir Rural Home for boys and also for girls. She also established the Cowasji Jehangir Nursing Home in Poona. She promoted the arts and sciences extensively and set up the Sir Cowasji Jehangir Institute for Science as well as the iconic Jehangir Art Gallery which today is a historical and cultural landmark in Mumbai and has hosted artists from all over the world.
Dina however remains one of the most memorable figures among the Wadia women. It was in the 1930s that Dina, the only daughter of Mohammed Ali Jinnah confided in him that she was in love with and wanted to marry Neville Wadia. The heir of a well-known, affluent Parsi family from Bombay. Yes, the same one that had built famous landmarks like Cusrow Baug in Colaba and Jer Baug and Rustom Baug in Byculla.
The father in question was not at all happy about his daughter's decision and when he suggested to her the possibility of a marriage within the community, she reminded him that he too had married for love. Like his daughter, Jinnah too had chosen a mate from the Parsi community and married Rattanbai "Ruttie" Petit.
The marriage did not last but he had set a precedence and his daughter was not about to let him forget it.
She went on to marry Neville Wadia and did not follow her father to Pakistan post Partition.
She had seen how hasty marriages can crumble and also never forgotten the severe isolation and heartbreak suffered by her mother post the end of her marriage with Jinnah. It is said that as a child Dina was neglected to such an extent in the messy marriage between her parents that nobody remembered to give her a proper name for years! She was finally named after her maternal grandmother, writes author Sheela Reddy in her book 'Mr And Mrs Jinnah: The Marriage That Shook India'.
By marrying Neville on November 16, 1938, who was the only son of Sir Ness and Lady Wadia, Dina claimed love, a family and a name that nobody would ever forget. Unfortunately, her parents' story was repeated with her and despite the birth of two children, the couple separated.
She visited Pakistan only after Jinnah's death in September 1948. In 2004, Dina visited Jinnah's tomb in Karachi, along with son Nusli and two grandchildren. And went on to mentor and support Nusli through a turf battle he fought with his own father Neville. She knew what it was like to stand for what is right even if the adversary was her own father or the father of her son.
More Wadia trivia
Here are some more interesting bits of trivia about the Wadias, their trusteeship and their influence on academia, cinema and more.
Among their many activities of trusteeship, the Wadias founded the Nowrosjee Wadia College in Pune.
Lovji Nusserwanjee Wadia's great grandsons, JBH Wadia and Homi Wadia founded Wadia Movietone in 1933. The company had a ship as its logo, honouring their family legacy.
Homi Wadia born in 1911 went on to become film director, screenwriter and producer and married the superstar actress who came to be known as Fearless Nadia.
Some of the other interesting members of the family were
Bahman Pestonji Wadia , a theosophist and labour activist.
Darashaw Nosherwan Wadia, a geologist.
In 1834, there was another pioneering member of the illustrious family. A man named Ardeshir Cursetji Wadia who was the first to introduce gas to Bombay. He also became the first Indian Fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1841.
Some of the other significant institutions of research and learning are the Ness Wadia College and the College of Technology in Pune, Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, Neville Wadia Institute of Management Studies and Research (1991) and counting.
Current chairman Nusli Wadia is on the Managing Committee of the Nehru Centre, Mumbai and funds many charitable endeavours.
The Wadia group has at the moment four independently listed companies on the Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE). These include:
The Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation (BBTC) .
Bombay Dyeing - Textile company.
Bombay Realty - That handles the land management and development of Wadia Group land ownings.
Go Air – A low cost airline operating from Bombay.
National Peroxide Limited, a hydrogen peroxide manufacturer in India.
We have of course already mentioned the fashion magazine Gladrags and the annual Gladrags Megamodel hunt.
Two of the group’s four publicly traded companies have been listed for over a a century. Bombay Dyeing and Manufacturing Co. Ltd, incidentally has consistently declared a dividend for more than 125 year.
In 2005, the Wadias ventured into the aviation business and launched GoAir, a low-fare airline. The airline today commands a market share of about 10% and operates over 19 aircrafts.
In 2011, the family decided to make use of their 10,000 acres of land and initiated Bombay Realty, a real estate business to develop office spaces, hotels, residences, serviced apartments and public spaces.
Nusli Wadia is still at the helm of the group and a Ness Wadia and Jehangir Wadia (Jeh), Wadia’s sons, are now actively involved in the business though the succession plans are a bit hazy.
The man in charge
Nusli Wadia, has been called many names by the media. A cookies and airline tycoon. A corporate samurai. And has inspired some unauthorised versions of himself in popular cinema as well. He is of course known for his grit and gumption in boardrooms and beyond and for good reason.
Not for him the genteel politeness of keeping family business within family because when challenged, he has fought turf wars with his nearest and dearest ones as well. Including his father Neville Wadia in 1971 when the latter decided unilaterally that he would sell Bombay Dyeing to Kolkata-based industrialist R P Goenka. It was a simplistic plan. Not in keeping with the illustrious legacy of the Wadias. The senior Wadia wanted to make a lot of money easily and and settle abroad.
Nusli was just 26-year-old and his mother's son as far as acting single-mindedly on the promptings of conviction went. Just as Dina had defied a man of Jinnah's stature to choose her path in life, Nusli stood up to his father and refused to buy into this tepid dream of living a cushy live in Switzerland without any further advancement of the Wadia empire .
For moral support, Nusli fell back on the insight of his feisty as well as the wisdom of his mentor J R D Tata. To ward off the imminent sale of the flagship company, Nusli painstakingly cornered 11 per cent of the shares and convinced the employees to buy even more shares if they wanted to save a brand they all felt was their own! The ploy worked and Neville found himself alone with his pipe dream. The Goenkas of course had to be informed that the big sale could not be pulled off! A moment of vindication came a few years later when Nusli succeeded his father as the chairman of Bombay Dyeing.
The second big war of his life came in the late 1970s. Bombay Dyeing was still ruling the roost as the biggest textile company in India but another big brand was finding its feet. And it had its origins in what came to be known as the great big 'Polyester War’ of the eighties.
There are reports that multiple politicians and media houses took sides and Wadia faced many challenges including multiple court cases, the confiscation of his passport and even a deportation order. Regardless of all of this though, he has managed to survive and is still right in the fray, doing things his way.
Today Bombay Dyeing though not as invincible as a brand as it once was, continues to grow and the acquisition of Brittania in the nineties proved to be a triumph as well.
Britannia was once controlled by British biscuit giant Huntley and Palmer but then big American cookie conglomerate Nabisco took over. During negotiations for a buy out, they edged out Nusli and instead installed Rajan Pillai as the chairman of Britannia.
A bloodbath followed between Pillai and his French partners Danone and subsequently, Nusli joined hands with Danone as its Indian partner and became the Non-Executive Chairman of the Board of Britannia Industries Limited. Since then the company has thrived and according to a report, and we quote, "it has a market capitalization of around Rs 2,000 crore and a profitability of Rs 175 crore. It is doing even better than Bombay Dyeing." So yes, like his forefathers, Nusli has foresight and he has also acquired an edge that is required to survive in an environment rife with conflict.
When not waging and winning corporate battles, Wadia enjoys cooking up a storm, takes restful breaks in London and Goa and follows cricket avidly. His son Ness Wadia is also the managing director of Bombay Dyeing and the co-owner of Kings XI Punjab team in the IPL. Jeh, has taken a leaf out of his father's book and heads Go Air and has managed to keep it afloat when bigger brands have been grounded. One of the things Nusli is most proud of is the organic synergy between his sons.
More than just a business
In a 2012 interview, Nusli Wadia had said that age was not relevant because he still was relevant . He also defended his image as a bruising corporate samurai, saying that he never sought conflict but also did not retreat when his company's best interests were attacked.
He also expressed no regret that his empire did not have multiple companies in the billion dollar club.
Like the founding fathers of the Wadia empire, he chose to not play dirty, to use the system or be used by it and said that for him, having clean hands and a peaceful conscience were more important. He has never had the ambition to be the richest among his peers because the values he has inherited matter more.
The manipulations that went with the license raj and duty structure were not his cup of tea.
One of his most memorable quotes being, " If somebody challenges me and attempts to decide my destiny, it is something which I cannot and will not accept."
Among the business houses he admires the most are the Tatas and the Mahindras because of their ethical core.
Among his wider concerns has been the lack of cold-storage facilities and an efficient supply chain, which can help farmers. It bothers him that India destroys a big quantity of the food it produces while millions of Indians lack adequate nutrition.
One of the most important things he said in an interview can today guide the current generation of wealth creators. Said he and we quote, "The barometer of India’s success should not come from the stock market or the wealth of a section of Indians. The real barometer for success is having access to quality food, education, health care, affordable housing and even something as essential as drinking water. Inclusive growth in reality, not in concept, is the key success factor (in the development of a nation). "
This ability to think beyond personal profit is what separates nation builders from profiteers and the Wadias have always nurtured more than just the roots of their own family tree. They have made their millions in India but also given everything they had back to the country and its citizens.