South Asia

Women's wealth raised to the power of 3
By Raju Bist

MUMBAI - This story - and it is not apocryphal - is often retold in Indian banking circles to illustrate Naina Lal Kidwai's dedication to work. When she was carrying her second child, investment banker Kidwai attended office at J M Morgan Stanley until the last of her pregnancy. She took only a day off for the delivery and was back at work the next day.

So, conclude her admirers, it is not surprising to find Kidwai's name regularly popping up on the lists of Indian women achievers. In September 2000, Fortune featured her among the "50 Most Powerful Women in Business". Two years later, she was back in Time magazine's "List of 2002 Global Influentials".

And now, Kidwai has made it to the "India's Top 20 Billionaires" list compiled by Eastern Eye of Britain. She rubs shoulders with other super rich, like IT tycoon Azim Premji of Wipro Ltd, actor Amitabh Bachchan and cricketer Sachin Tendulkar. Kidwai is among three women to be honored. This is the first time that any Indian woman has been featured in such a list.

Shahnaz Husain, chairwoman, Husain Herbals, who makes her moolah from the beauty business, has been valued at Rs 4 billion US$85 million). The net worth of Anu Aga, chairwoman of multidivisional engineering solutions company Thermax - active in energy, environment and chemical fields - is pegged at Rs 3 billion. Now the vice chairman and managing director at HSBC Securities and Capital Markets, Mumbai, Kidwai is worth Rs 1.7 billion.

The three women in the billionaire club stand out for their contribution to the business field in which they have excelled, the Eastern Eye report said. Husain is a first generation women entrepreneur in her family. She imbibed a love and knowledge of herbals and ayurvedic products from her grandfather. What was a humble beginning in Delhi now stretches all over the world.

Aga inherited an ailing, decaying business from her husband Rohinton. She not only got rid of the loss-making units but brought in professional managers to handle the show. In five short years, she turned Thermax around completely. Along with her business skills, Aga has stood out for her humane qualities. She was a rare business person to speak out against Indian business' apathy towards victims of the Gujarat communal riots in February 2002.

Investment banker Kidwai is the first Indian woman to graduate from the Harvard Business School (in 1982). Despite lucrative job offers from abroad, Kidwai, a devotee of Western and Indian classical music, says that she has no plans to leave India, the report said. "In the US, I may have brokered bigger deals, but here, it's much more at the cutting edge of reform, the ability to influence, to shape," she was quoted as saying.

Indian businesswomen have traditionally reached the top either through family connections or government service. But the new economy, with its flexible structures and ethos of meritocracy, is providing an important avenue of advancement for women of talent and determination. Reflecting the growing stature of the urban Indian woman, none of the Eastern Eye women billionaires is a "rich daddy's little girl". But each represents a new face of the modern Indian woman: Husain the entrepreneur, Aga the manager and Kidwai the professional.

Take Husain's entrepreneurial acumen, for example. Ayurveda is an ancient Indian system of herbal healing involving the use of herbs for medicinal as well as cosmetic use. It has always been used in a basic form in most Indian homes. But Husain was the first entrepreneur to spot a big business opportunity in it.

"I was only 15 when I was married and by the time I turned 16, I had become a mother," says Husain. "That's when the mental upheaval began and I began getting bored with the drudgery of endless routine." When her husband was posted to Teheran, she started keeping herself occupied by studying cosmetology. Later, for about a decade, she studied cosmetic therapy and cosmetic chemistry at leading institutions of the West, like Helena Rubinstein, Arnould Taylor, Christine Valmy and Lancome. Husain then returned to her roots and studied ayurveda.

She set up her first herbal clinic in her own home in Delhi, in a very small way rejecting the existing salon treatment methods and devised her own herbal treatments. Husain, who is partial to yogurt, salads and sprouts, also began to formulate her own ayurvedic products.

In 1980 she entered the international market for the first time by participating in the Festival of India in Britain. Husain Herbals was given a counter in the perfumery section of Selfridges, the departmental store in London. Her entire consignment sold out in three days. The result: Husain Herbals was offered a permanent counter at Selfridges.

Today, the company also has sales shops within other prestigious stores like Harrods in London, Galleries Lafayette in Paris, Bloomindales in New York, the Seibu chain in Japan and the Sultan stores in Kuwait. In addition, it has exclusive outlets in Europe, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Africa and Australia.

Husain now heads a chain of over 400 franchises in India and abroad. Her franchise-based enterprise has helped in the worldwide extension of the Shahnaz Herbal clinics, popularizing her formidable range of nearly 350 products.

Keats-spouting Husain realized early on the power of branding a persona, in this case, her own. India's leading manufacturer of ayurvedic potions has named her company as well as each of her products after herself. Unlike many other celebrities, she's always game for a photo session. Her company's press releases always refer to her in the third person - "Shahnaz loves beauty and fragrance and loves to surround herself with beautiful things" or "Shahnaz believes that a beautiful woman is one who values herself physically, mentally, emotionally and even spiritually". Numerous Indian magazines carry a Shahnaz Husain column where the self-styled "beauty czarina" consoles teenagers worried about pimples and facial hair and recommends, understandably, products from the Shahnaz Husain basket.

In Kidwai's case, self-promotion is more subtle and takes the form of never turning down an opportunity to talk at colleges and business forums. This serves two purposes: it helps plug the financial institution she is working for and also helps spread the legend of "finance superwoman" Kidwai. "I like to be a very cool person. I don't get stressed out easily," she recently told a gathering of wide-eyed management graduates. "I'm not into yoga, but I do have the ability to switch off completely. If there is a problem, I don't go on and on worrying. I find work very therapeutic."
Her brilliance at work was first noticed in the merchant banking division of ANZ Grindlays Bank (now Standard Chartered Bank). In 1994, she switched over to J M Morgan Stanley and rose to the level of vice chairman. India's best-known dealmaker aggressively pursued opportunities in technology, nabbing the accounts of Wipro Ltd and Infosys Technologies, among others. In addition, she brokered a joint venture between AT&T and two conglomerates, owned by the Birla and Tata families, to create Idea, a telecom company offering cellular service throughout India.

During her tenure, word leaked out in the mid-1990s that she was taking home around Rs 7.5 million every year. She instantly became the envy of many a professional in India, men included. Her husband was overheard joking at a business party: "Now I can retire and sit at home." When HSBC decided to expand its investment banking presence in India two years ago, it chose Kidwai. By then, she had established herself as one of India's best bankers and a shrewd negotiator with a talent for anticipating new sectors of growth.

More recently, when aggressive TV journalist Tim Sebastian of BBC World interviewed a spectrum of Indian business personalities for his "Hard Talk" program, he chose Kidwai from the banking world. Sebastian often gets away by asking tough questions and making his subjects squirm in their seats. But when he asked Kidwai, "India has a fast developing business community. However, it also has 430 million people living on a dollar a day or less. Do you rich bankers care and will you help?" the Indian media collectively lashed out at him. "Naina's job is to facilitate business deals and she is not responsible for the poverty in this country," wrote Malavika Sanghvi, editor of the Bombay Times, a supplement distributed with the Times of India, one of the leading dailies of the country.

The Indian media are not known to be overly fond of the business community, but there was another occasion when they rose to the defense of a business person. In February last year, Gujarat, one of the most industrialized states in India, was rocked by a communal carnage as rampaging Hindu mobs killed over 2,000 Muslims. No business group protested against the perceived complicity of the right wing Bhartiya Janata Party party that was in power in the state (and still is). That was mainly because the Gujarat government has always had a soft corner for the business community and has doled out various incentives and tax concessions to it over the years.

Once the flames of the riots had been doused, the Indian media noted that only three Indian business people had protested against the inaction of the Gujarat government in controlling the riots: Rahul Bajaj, chairman of two-wheeler giant Bajaj Auto; Deepak Parekh, chief of housing finance company HDFC, who, incidentally, hails from Gujarat, and Aga.

"As Indians we have condoned through our passive stance rape, murder and slaughter of innocent victims in Gujarat," she declared at the annual conference session of leading trade body Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) on April 27, 2002. "When we see violence in Gujarat we either justify it or smugly tell ourselves that things like that could never happen in our part of the country. Are we being ostriches and burying our heads in sand and not confronting the growing prejudices that are very pronounced in our society? We need to be aware that today we may justify the violence in Gujarat, but tomorrow it would spread to our state, our city, our locality and kill someone we love very dearly."

An economics graduate with a masters in medical and psychiatric social work, Aga started working in 1985 at Thermax, set up by her husband Rohinton as a small boiler company in the 1980s. She began as an executive in the human resources department and later took over the functioning of this department. In the wee hours of the morning of February 16, 1996, Rohinton Aga succumbed to a massive heart attack at the Thermax guest house in Mumbai. Anu Aga was catapulted to the post of chairperson of the company. In April the following year, tragedy struck once again when her 25-year-old son was killed in a car accident.

The picture was not rosy on the business front either. Aga took over at a difficult time, just as an economic slowdown was beginning to set in. Sales as well as profits started dipping at Thermax. This meant taking tough decisions. Thermax exited non-core businesses like bottled water, transmitters, painting systems, electronic components, fans, software and lease financing. Simultaneously, it started laying off employees - something unheard of during Rohinton Aga's paternalistic days. The initiatives slowly started paying off pay off and by September 2001, Thermax had turned around.

Ever self-effacing, Aga attributes the successful turnaround at Thermax to "team work" and the "unstinted support I received from all levels of staff at Thermax". Kidwai does not admit it, but her success has often been credited to her skills at networking with the Indian bureaucracy and the corporate world.

Husain, true to style, is more forthcoming. "One should be innovative, dynamic and willing to try every avenue towards success. Above all, the desire to excel, sheer hard work and relentless determination matter," she says. "I never give up and never stop trying. If you never stop trying, you cannot fail. I always feel I have another mountain to climb and another frontier to cross. I never rest on my laurels."

"Give everything you do your best. Even if you face a disappointment, you know you gave it your best; so losing is easier," is Kidwai's philosophy of success.

The other two billionaires will agree with her.

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May 13, 2003


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