I have a hypothesis about Rajshree Pathy, but let’s get back to that in a bit.
Meanwhile, the first inkling that Pathy isn’t your typical CEO comes when an emailed request for a Business Lounge comes back via a quick SMS that simply says, “I would love to”.
And, a few weeks later, at Blu, the rooftop bar in downtown Singapore’s Shangri-La Hotel, I am starting to realize just how different.
“Do we really need that?” says Pathy. “Imagine people carrying it around in their pocket all the time.”
That happens to be my sliver of a digital recorder and typically, it is very rare for a business head to agree to a one-on-one without worrying about being misquoted. We are perched comfortably on bar stools after both of us decide we are not all that hungry any more and skip the hard-to-get table I had reserved in Blu’s dining room for a 9pm dinner. We happen to be in town for the World Economic Forum’s East Asia summit, but a long day, filled with big meetings and small talk, isn’t showing on Pathy, a picture of casually put together elegance.
“People don’t really walk around with this in their pocket, do they?” I ask, quietly worried that I might have to resort to taking hurried notes on bar napkins.
Not so sweet: The government’s insensitivity to environmental needs upsets Pathy
“Where do you think Tehelka gets all its stories?” Pathy quips.
“But Tehelka is not a bad newspaper. They do some very good stories,” I respond.
“I like it. I like Tarun (Tejpal, the CEO and editor-in-chief). I like what he has done. He has courage. He is a friend,” declares Pathy.
Friends. One more reason why Pathy isn’t your average Rolodex-filled executive not willing to name names. Throughout the evening, it would be clear that Pathy, who collects art, has also acquired a rather vast network of friends in high and low places, thanks to an effervescent personality, a love for travel and eclectic interests ranging from being a qualified deep-sea scuba diver with a passion for architecture, to being a single mother of two twentysomethings who, on the side, funds a free private school for 500 rural children.
The names come easily, be it Vijay (Mallya of Kingfisher) or Richard (Branson of Virgin) or Shekhar (Gupta of The Indian Express) and, unlike conventional namedropping, the context here has often very little to do with business, which adds a down-to-earth tinge to the conversation.
“If we are sitting here talking about balance sheets, I wouldn’t talk to you,” says Pathy, as she passes on an Australian Shiraz (too heavy for muggy Singapore) and settles for a French Merlot. I stick to my usual Glenlivet on the rocks.
“What about ethanol?” I ask, despite the embargo on pure business questions. After all, Pathy is chairman and managing director of Rajshree Sugars and Chemicals Ltd (she controls about 45% of the publicly traded company) and, some three years ago, served as the first—and since then only—woman president of the Indian Sugar Mills Association.
I clearly strike a chord. For the next 15 minutes, Pathy offers a passionate account of what it has taken India, the world’s second-largest producer of sugar cane and the world’s largest consumer of sugar, to take baby steps in getting the government to mandate the use of ethanol in fuel and how, because of reluctant local governments, including her home state Tamil Nadu, a programme that is beneficial for the ailing sugar industry, for sugar cane farmers, for oil companies and for India’s environment, isn’t really going anywhere.
“What angers me is that our government, a big part of bureaucracy and most people are not particularly sensitive to environmental needs,” she says. “Why is it not on any government department’s agenda?
Pathy reels off statistics to back up her claim that the sugar industry’s current troubles stem from bad politics and policies, especially price controls, rather than just a demand and supply imbalance (India produces around 29 million tonnes of sugar and consumes only around 20, with 67% going to companies for production of soft drinks, candy, ice cream and the like.)
“We are in a situation of having a Boston Sugar Party,” she says, referring to the dumping of tea in the Boston harbour. “Why do I have to sell sugar in Tamil Nadu for Rs12 a kilo if I have to sell to Coke and Pepsi? It is highly unfair.”
The downturn in the sugar business has created problems for Pathy, who had been preparing for a public offering of shares to raise capital for a significant expansion in Tamil Nadu and Bihar. With shares of Rajshree Sugars trading near their 52-week low of Rs51.25 and sugar companies out of favour with investors, she has scrapped plans for Bihar but is going ahead with internal funding for the other projects.
Despite the tough times, with about Rs445 crore in annual sales, Rajshree Sugars remains healthy and profitable. And Pathy is used to tough times.
One of two daughters of entrepreneur and Rajya Sabha member G. Varadaraj (she is named after her father and mother Shree), Pathy had to take over and manage the business when he died during a meal in Amsterdam. And, initially, it was touch and go.
She vividly recalls turning down the advice of many to sell her family’s stake for Rs50 lakh and the phone call from Narayanan Vaghul, then head of ICICI Bank.
“Young lady, I don’t want to be arrogant, but you don’t know how to run this company,” she recalls Vaghul saying.
“I will show you, just trust me,” she responded.
“Okay. I will give you 12 months,” said Vaghul. “When the first balance sheet comes out, I want you to show that the moving is moving forward or I will convert my debt into equity.”
Today, Pathy sees Vaghul as a mentor (she does, however, bank with State Bank of India now) and that whole period as a turning point in her inner confidence.
“Can we switch off that thing now?” she says, as we discover we are hungry after all and order cheese. “Something tangy like a Roquefort for me,” Pathy says.
“I am glad you haven’t asked me ‘how does it feel to be a woman in business’,” she says. “Everybody asks me that. I would be very upset.”
That may be, but there aren’t too many woman CEOs of publicly owned companies—even ones they own. And Pathy has received her share of ‘woman in business’ awards from outfits such as the FICCI Ladies Organisation. So, is there a difference between men and women CEOs?
“Women who are not working are not as direct in putting a point across,” she says. “What does happen is that externally, over a period of time, you react as a man would. Aggression is not a bad thing. But, a lot of times, women do not say it loud and clear.”
“Can you put that away now please,” she says, coming back to my recorder.
It is time to test my original hypothesis.
“Are there two very distinct Rajshree Pathys?” I wonder aloud.
After all, there is the Pathy who agreed to study commerce when her mom refused to let her pursue architecture in Mumbai; the one who had an arranged marriage at 16, lives in a house on a 25-acre coconut plantation in conservative Coimbatore and spends a good bit of time managing sugar cane politics in Tamil Nadu’s hinterland. There, a hint of the other Pathy comes from what she is comfortable wearing—jeans—and what she drives around—a Sunbeam Alpine 1963 convertible.
Then there is the Pathy who is a fixture of sorts in World Economic Forum global soirees, diving in the waters off Maldives or hanging out in her 3,000sq ft urban home away from home in Lutyens’ Delhi, equally at ease talking about—and buying—a Rameshwar Broota or a Jehangir Jani piece of art, or being invited to speak in Paris by Comite Colbert on ‘India and Luxury’. A hint of the other Pathy comes here, too, in the wheels she uses in New Delhi (a Ford Ikon) or in the fact that she would rather try and find a hotel desktop computer to check email at 12.30am than get used to a BlackBerry’s Qwerty keyboard.
“If I enjoy wearing a business suit and being serious, doesn’t mean I can’t let my hair down and dance all night,” she says. “It doesn’t make Rajshree two different people. I don’t think a damn what people think of me. I want to be remembered as a good person who did what she wanted to do in her own way. I don’t want to be defined just by my company’s balance sheet.”
Blu is now deserted but we order another round of drinks and, this time, I do switch off my recorder.
Name: Rajshree Pathy
Born: 15 April 1956
Education: Degree in Commerce; Owner-President Management Program at Harvard University; Eisenhower Fellow
Work Profile:Controlling owner, chairman and managing director of Rajshree Sugars & Chemicals Ltd
Favourite Escape: Maldives; apartment on New Delhi’s Aurangzeb Road.
Passions: Children Aishwarya (25) and Aditya (20); travel; scuba-diving and motor racing