Saturday afternoon, 3pm. Juggling weighty PDAs, board meetings, even matters of state, four men leave work to make time for leisure. For 20 years now, their destination has been the same: a square table that seats four in a room with a view and a pack of cards.
For the next few hours, the silence in the room is broken only by staccato pronouncements: “One club. Two spades.” A fine painting of card players is a backdrop to this tableau, mirroring the concentration of this successful foursome. Suddenly, one of the players gets up and roars, another laughs aloud; then things settle down. We’re at Deepak Parekh’s weekend game of bridge at Hema and Murli Deora’s home.
That Parekh, chairman, HDFC, has played bridge for 40 years, and has transformed India’s first home loan institution into a powerhouse in his 30 years there, is not a coincidence. As art enhances life, so play hones work. Certainly, the bond between Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, the two richest and most philanthropic people in the United States, has been nurtured over 15 years as partners on the bridge table.
Jaggy Shivdasani, one of the world’s leading bridge players, has played with both Gates and Parekh, and rates their game as similar. Sharon Osberg, a two-time World Champion who plays with Buffett and Gates, says in a New York Times article: “... as Warren will tell you, playing bridge is like running a business. It’s about hunting, chasing, nuance, deception, reward, danger, cooperation, and on a good day, victory.”
And victory comes only by forging a win-win partnership for,aboveall,a successful bridge player must be a great partner. Shivdasani says, “True skill lies in evaluating your assets and those of your partner’s, and then your opponents’.” In this elegant balance of tactics, strategy and logic, the tipping point is intuition. Osberg explains that while computers can beat a Kasparov at chess, they can’t outplay the world’s best bridge players. That’s because machines can understand math but still can’t figure out people.
Parekh was first drawn to the warm camaraderie of the table as a 21-year-old chartered accountancy student in London in the mid-60s, living at the YMCA students’ hostel in Fitzroy Square. He reminisces, “It was freezing cold outside and we had no money to go out. We would play bridge all night. At one stage, I would have liked to play full time. But you know you can’t afford not to work.”
Nerio Vakil, a business consultant and a regular of the Saturday Gang of Four, says, “In 20 years, Deepak’s game has been consistent. That’s a real strength. You are rock solid if you don’t change that easily.” Another frequent participant, Sarthak Behuria, chairman, Indian Oil Corporation, says, “Deepak is the friendly player, while Murli is fun; he likes to let others win. The true character of a person comes out. It shows you how he wins or loses.”
What got them all hooked? “Bridge is much more than a card game. It’s a mental kick,” says Parekh. “You have to guess the other person’s holding, how to bid, how to play, how to read your partner to make the maximum tricks. It’s nice to play with the same people over the years, to understand them better.”
Parekh has excelled at understanding people—their aspirations and assets—in his long career. In 1978 when he joined HDFC, the organization of his visionary uncle, H.T. Parekh, he was just another deputy general manager. Today, he has implemented its founder’s dream by making it a development finance institution that is profit making and service-oriented. It has given three million lower middle-class Indian families the joy of home ownership, with a negligible default rate. Parekh says, “Our USP is our deep knowledge of the real estate market. At HDFC, we do only mortgages. At our branches, the manager will not only help fill up your loan form, but will advise you on the strengths of various builders.”
Is it a risk not to diversify? Parekh has evaluated this hand before and knows the right bid to make. He says, “I don’t think so. In the last decade, we’ve grown 30% year-on-year on a huge balance sheet. Because of the immense housing shortage in India, there’s still a need for a specialized institution. Keeping our core activity, we started a bank 11 years ago. Then, we moved on to insurance, asset management, back office and stock broking. We hold shares in every venture, but each is independent. This has given everyone a chance to come up.”
Empowering partnerships, the essence of a great bridge game, is what Parekh has played out with finesse at HDFC. Actively promoting new loan institutions, it has collaborated with its own competitors for the greater good. This consensual style has made Parekh a respected member on the boards of several leading companies, including GlaxoSmithKline, Hindustan Lever and Siemens. In 1998, when Unit Trust of India’s flagship US-64 scheme threatened the country’s financial system, the government brought in Parekh as crisis consultant. Today, visiting overseas investors make him their first port of call.
Deora too finds his bridge pal “a mellow fellow.” Asked about their Saturday bridge game, the usually pragmatic Union minister for petroleum and natural gas is unabashedly sentimental: “Do you remember the song from The Sound of Music? ‘When the dog barks, when the bee stings, when I’m feeling sad, I simply remember a few of my favourite things and then I don’t feel so bad …’ That’s the kind of relaxation I get from playing with friends of so many years. It’s addictive.”
Last year, one noteworthy Saturday, the bridge room was momentarily empty. On March 18, doffing a quickly-tailored sherwani, Parekh had excused himself from the game, to collect the Padma Bhushan, the country’s second highest civilian honour, from the President of India. In deference to these circumstances, his buddies abandoned their seats and switched on the television to watch him. But deed done, cheering over, they quickly returned to the table, for the call of the last rubber is irresistible.
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