Born into the bourgeois, you grow up idolising the greats of your time – the actors, the popstars, the tycoons and the world-leaders, not knowing that you also pedestalise them in the process, leaving you feeling inexplicably handicapped by the ordinariness of your roots. In your twenties, this false divide widens, as you start harbouring great ire at the predictable route your life is heading towards; and great fear that things may not change, but you tell yourself that you perhaps, never even had a shot. By the time you reach your thirties, you stop to rage and start to accept. You start to settle.
Anu Aga, ex-Chairperson of Thermax Ltd., and once India’s eighth richest woman, teaches me that our ideas surrounding greatness are grossly erroneous. No one is born great; greatness comes with the choices you make when your life takes you to moments of reckoning. The simplicity and modesty are your roots; they let you experience the world and its problems in a more uninhibited manner. The anger can be leveraged. Those fears can be faced and rubbished. That despair can turn to desperation, and hence, success. And as she related the memoirs from an incredible lifetime spent working for herself and others in equal parts with an endearing ardency and candour, her story slowly began to illustrate these achievable anomalies.
Anu Aga was born in circumstances just like yours and mine. She grew up in the Heart of Mumbai, in Matunga, with two older brothers. She studied Economics at St. Xavier’s, and always had an inclination to contribute to the greater good.
Anu brought this inclination to fruition at TISS for Medical and Psychiatric Social Work. “My degree here was prestigious enough to land me a scholarship in an American university. But the message was drummed in my mind that as a woman, I ought to marry and start a family first,” says Anu.
Fortunately, she met a lovely man, Rohinton Aga – her eldest brother’s best friend. Rohinton had studied at Cambridge and worked with great multinationals. “But he always felt that they had chained him in golden chains with the perks and the package, he had no real satisfaction. My brother coaxed him to join our company, which was a tricky decision for him as we were rather small and unknown at the time. My father (A S Bhathena, Founder of Thermax Ltd., an engineering solutions provider in the energy and environment sectors) couldn’t even afford to match the salary he was used to, but he took a chance,” says Anu. Today, Thermax is a Rs 4,935-crore entity.
The couple moved to Pune, where the Thermax empire came to thrive.
Meanwhile, Anu worked in Child Guidance Clinic, and started a family. Rohinton went on to succeed her father in taking over the company as chairperson.
But, their happy world was shaken when her husband, in his late 40s, suffered a massive attack. “This brilliant man had to learn the alphabet and the numbers all over again. During recovery, patients often slip into depression, but my husband had anger; he was angry at the world. And anger mobilises. It took a toll on him, but he got back on his feet and even wrote a book during his recovery.”
Around that time, Anu’s family insisted she take more interest in the workings of the company. She then joined the human resources department.
“When I joined the company, my key challenge was to not only retain the brand image we had built as an innovator, but to also capitalise on it and grow. And keeping our employees happy was at the heart of this. My personal challenge was how I should be accepted in my own right, rather than as an Aga, who owns the foundation,” Anu says.
Her daughter, a chemical engineer living in London, was about to have her first child, and Anu had promised her that she would be with her then. When Anu returned, Rohinton was very excited to see her after six months, and decided to drive down to Pune to receive her. “But before he could receive me, I received the news that he had suffered another heart attack, this one fatal, and did not make it,” Anu says.
This was when the tempest in her life began to set in. She had lost her best friend, but the company had lost their leader. Even before Anu could grieve a grave loss, the executives met on the second day and insisted that she assume the mantle. “I just wasn’t ready. I kept devaluing myself and thought that I was only being invited to take over because we as a family own this business. I really felt miserable, missing my husband, yet, having to assume his role,” she says.
Looking for answers, she found Vipassana, a Buddhist form of meditative penance, where you silently reflect for ten days. “I had the time to contemplate on the events and get some perspective. I was comparing myself to my charismatic husband, which was not a good game I was playing, and was also depleting my energy over it. All I was expected to do was my best, which may be different from my husband’s best.”
Vipassana came into her life at a serendipitous time. Fourteen months later, Anu’s 25-year-old son passed away in a car accident, an occurring that pained her very existence, but, she found a way to not suffer. “I realised that it was meant to be. Death isn’t a tragedy, because it is inevitable – like sunrise and sunset. Pain is inevitable, but suffering comes out of not accepting why something happened to you. Suffering can be controlled, if you accept.” Anu says.
She stepped up to anchor the ship, which had also begun to tremble. At that delicate time, Anu chose to shed all her self-doubt and dive into the challenge head-first. “I didn’t know hardcore business, and I was terrible at finance. Being at the helm of the capital goods industry, I had to know both. I surrounded myself with people who could guide me, and wasn’t afraid to show my vulnerability, and seek help without qualms. That helped tremendously,” she says.
Right around that time, the Indian economy went for a downturn. A year before Rohinton had died, Thermax had gone public, and now their share price had fallen from Rs. 400 shares to Rs 36.
Anu took some bold decisions that then resuscitated the company, although everyone was against her course of action. “I wanted to appoint the Boston Consultant Group to do some damage control, but our team insisted that we simply wait for the economy to stabilise,” she says.
“Until then, I thought the ones most affected by this would be me and my family, as we were the owners. But I received an anonymous note from a shareholder, saying we had let him down. For my husband and I, letting someone down was a dirty word. I couldn’t sleep for days.”
She decided to hire BCG anyway, and made some brave choices. They divested into non-core businesses and forayed into products like bottled water, which were all B2C, and not their strength. Anu explains,
This increased our turnovers but eroded our bottom line. We had to make some tricky decisions and divest. In a country where there is no safety net, we can afford to have certain non-performers, but that had to change.
Because of her HR background, her employees knew her, and connected to her. “My team wanted me and the company to succeed. There was great support all around. My daughter and son-in-law also moved back to India with their children.” The duo had been sent to London to revive a plant they had opened there that wasn’t performing. Meher and her husband had joined as trainee engineers, and within two years, they were granted the opportunity to escalate.
As a chemical engineer, she also has a great eye and sound know-how in finance. Anu handed over shop to Meher, and took a retirement.
Anu then wanted to give back in terms of time and money, and discovered Akansha, an NGO. “I got very involved in their activities, in a very hands-on manner. I brought them to Pune, and Thermax created space for them in our premises when we did up the office,” she explains.
Anu came to join the Board of Advisors for both Akaknksha as well as Teach For India, both grand organisations aiming to improve the quality of education. Anu marvels at the boom in the sector thanks to digitization and innovation. At Teach For India, they were able to create ‘Firki,’ an open source curriculum for teacher training.
” It is important to share your stories, so people can follow your example. Innovation right now in the sector is mind-boggling. As this sector does not get much recognition, award ceremonies like Marico’s Innovation for India Awards help people share their awe-inspiring initiatives.”
Under their wings, four students were selected for full scholarships at world colleges, and five also got selected to the Azim Premji University. Anu won the Padma Shri in 2010 for her contribution to the social sector.
“Don’t make me larger than life. I was and am, very ordinary,” she says. And after that heartwarming conversation, I think a new enlightened and empowered me might believe her.