It is 11 on a weekday morning and the durbar of Deepak Parekh is in full swing. Parekh is the chairman, Housing Development Finance Corp. (HDFC), and a veteran of the banking community; he is also an adviser and active committee member of various public, private and non-profit organizations.
His modest suite of rooms consists of cabins for him and his senior colleagues, workstations for supporting staff members, a waiting area and a boardroom, all with their doors left wide open. It is a textbook open office, not an intimidating “corridor of power”. Located in HDFC’s corporate office in Mumbai’s downtown Churchgate, Parekh says his preferred format of a basic corner office “hasn’t changed in 33 years”.
Transparency rules: Deepak Parekh’s cabin overflows with literature of all kinds. (Photographs by Hemant Mishra/Mint)
He moves from his personal cabin to the conference room, via a colleague’s empty office, meeting visitors and responding to calls—assiduously, efficiently, continually. A trio of assistants, seated outside his cabin, reply to a battery of requests to meet or speak with him—approximately 300 people, I am told, reach out to him daily. His work philosophy is as straightforward and unassuming as the workplace’s wooden furniture: “Meet anyone who wants to meet you.” Colleagues confirm that “not a single mail, letter or call to him goes unanswered”.
Parekh, now in his late 60s, is an old family friend, but this is our first meeting in a professional context. The encounter is enlightening—his workspace offers insight into the personality of a man often termed “Mr Fixit” by the media for his troubleshooting abilities. The office reflects HDFC’s spartan approach to spaces; functional, well-maintained furniture, limited artwork, some greenery. Apart from its simplicity, there are four pieces of office paraphernalia, in particular, which catch my attention.
The corridor and waiting area outside his office
Creating personal currency
First, a miniature yellow “signboard”, the kind one sees at accident sites, with the word “compliance” and a sketch of a slippery slope, sits on his desk. It is a witty visual illustration of “clean business”; a reminder of the importance of integrity in everyday life, and a metaphor for Parekh’s personal currency of sound values. Parekh makes it a point to give it to executives of companies he is associated with as non-executive chairman, such as Siemens India.
“We were set up in an age when things were different. There was more governance; the atmosphere in the outside world also was cleaner. Frugality was a virtue. Consumption was not at the centre,” explains Parekh, underlining the role of integrity in a financial institution with cash as its raw material. He adds: “You can’t manufacture culture. Culture builds in an organization over a period of time. And the tone at the top must be integrity, value systems.”
Parekh says he does not rely on books for information
Second, the office books and papers dominate every possible surface, some neatly arranged in a circular-shaped formation on a coffee table. Much of this literature is complimentary (this includes the Kingfisher annual calendar).
The profusion of books, brochures and documents on a variety of subjects captures another vital ingredient of Parekh’s professional success: his ability to engage with, absorb, retain and assimilate vast amounts of information, whether the subject matter is infrastructure, real estate, financial services or education.
Parekh says he gleans a lot of information from “newspapers, television, magazines”, and is categorical that he does not rely on books. “Honestly you need a separate life to read all the books you have,” he says. “Meeting people,” he adds, “gives you more information than anything else.”
His three assistants manage multiple requests to meet him
The third notable item is an outdated Nokia mobile phone, one of the oldest models possibly available, which Parekh likes for its “familiarity”. He recently started using an iPad, but in general eschews most modern computing equipment, relying instead on his memory to process information. “You need to have an active mind,” he reiterates. The card game Bridge is a favourite pursuit to improve retention skills, as is discipline: I learn that he makes it a point to “do one 5 star Sudoku every night, even if it is 12 at night, without writing, rubbing and erasing”, to preserve mental agility.
Finally, there is a black Ganesha statue, prominently placed on a cabinet behind his desk, given by wife Smita on his first day at HDFC. Thirty-three years later, it bears testimony to his institutional loyalty. Ask him what advice he would give a youngster, and his answer is unequivocal: “patience”. Accumulated wisdom and consistent hard work deliver greater long-term benefits, he believes, than rapid job-hopping.
The black Ganesha gifted by his wife 33 years ago when he joined HDFC
Parekh’s workstyle—with its emphasis on old-fashioned virtues such as loyalty, credibility, transparency, willingness to aid and listen, reliance on one’s memory over technology, the power of enduring relationships—might seem incongruous in the new century’s frenzied workplace. Yet his unique position in India’s business landscape underlines their relevance.
I’d like to describe him as a “friendly statesman”, because I believe “Mr Fixit” undermines his abilities: In my view, Parekh ranks as high as any of the country’s longest-serving politicians. His constituency is vast, his stakeholders unlimited. Unlike most politicians, he’s stayed in office for consecutive decades, and his sphere of influence has grown. It will be interesting to see who inherits his mantle—but hopefully, that day is a long way away.
Aparna Piramal Raje, a director of BP Ergo, meets heads of organizations every month to investigate the connections between their workspaces and working styles.
Write to Aparna at firstname.lastname@example.org