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The frugal evangelist

The frugal evangelist
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First Published: Sun, Jan 16 2011. 07 44 PM IST
Updated: Sun, Jan 16 2011. 07 44 PM IST
This column begins with a query, and a confession. First, the query. What does the office of someone whose company advocates sustainability as a corporate mission look like? I’ve been speculating about this, as I’ve been keen to understand how environmental concerns reflect in workstyles and workspaces. Meher Pudumjee, chairperson of Thermax Ltd, seems the ideal candidate. Her Pune-based engineering company professes to offer “sustainable solutions for the energy and environment sectors”. The lesser-known fact, that this strategy seems to have worked—business revenues have tripled and profits nearly quintupled during her six-year tenure as chairperson—is an equally compelling reason.
I must confess, however, that I can only offer a partial description, and that this is a “virtual” Head Office piece, unlike its predecessors. After two failed attempts to visit Pune, and with a new family member on the way, I had to settle for a vicarious walk-through of photographs of the Thermax corporate office, over a conversation with Pudumjee in Mumbai, rather than an interview in her domain.
As Pudumjee and I dissect her workspace, and Thermax’s “clean and green” initiatives, a common vocabulary emerges, binding her approach to the work environment and to saving the planet—frugality. The word summarizes three aspects: a physical state, a mindset, and a way of working.
Frugality and company chairmanship are unlikely companions, particularly in a family-driven business. Pudumjee’s ample, 400 sq. ft office certainly appears luxurious in scale, if not form. It is located on the fifth floor of the corporate office, adjoining the offices of the two other family members involved in Thermax—husband and director Pheroze, and mother and former chairperson Anu Aga. Pudumjee concedes that “the openness sometimes feels over the top”, explaining that the head office, completed in July 2008, was a long-awaited departure from the past—Thermax had previously always rented its facilities.
Although the office offers substantially more breathing room than most urban CEO suites, it is a forgivable offence, given Pune’s relatively lower real estate costs, and the company’s egalitarian space allocation.
The educational NGO Akanksha, which is supported by Thermax in a number of ways, occupies 1,771 sq. ft for its children’s centre and office, situated on the ground floor of the same facility. The square foot to headcount ratio for employees is also higher than most office buildings.
If anything, the office’s abundant square footage serves to highlight the rather unassuming collection of furniture and objects within Pudumjee’s workspace. Collated for their personal appeal, rather than monetary worth, the possessions reflect their occupant’s thrift. Pudumjee’s desk belonged to her late father, Thermax chairman and company icon Rohinton Aga (“it has great sentimental value for me”). The walls are either bare (“I’m still looking for a painting to put up”) or decorated with paintings by amateur artists, including early works by her two adolescent children, Zahaan and Lea. A print of two folded hands, sent by a family friend, sits behind her desk, a symbol “welcoming visitors to my office” and “almost a thing of gratitude”. The only flourish appears to be a “beautiful” Florentine mask, acquired during a recent Italian sojourn.
The understated décor echoes Pudumjee’s approach to building a green consciousness in her company, which she says requires “a mindset of frugality, not wanting to waste and also looking at it as an opportunity—any form of waste, how we can make something out of it”.
Converting waste to energy is a key thrust area for Thermax, alongside its established line of boilers and chillers, and a cause championed personally by Pudumjee. As an example, she describes the detailed process by which Thermax converts putrid municipal sludge to energy, having devised a “spent-wash boiler, which not only destroys the odour and the waste, but makes something useful”.
Attention to detail appears to be a key element in Pudumjee’s approach. The Thermax corporate office is a silver LEED-rated (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) building—an increasingly popular standard for new corporate buildings. Unlike most chairpersons with similar green assets, she is familiar with the rating’s fine print. I am told that the building is constructed from fly-ash bricks, which is derived from “waste from coal-fired power plants”, and that 8,000 litres of water is recycled every day, of the 12,000 litres consumed in its washrooms and kitchens. Although there is an automated building management system to conserve power, she has noticed a flaw, complaining “that the lifts have not been synchronized to save energy” and that when she presses the button for the lift, the one which is furthest away from her floor opens up before the lift which is closest.
Her fastidious observations remind me of a comment by legendary Indian architect B.V. Doshi, the founder-director of some of India’s best-known design schools. Doshi emphasized that energy was historically considered sacred in India, and that architecture and planning in olden times were based on conserving energy of any kind—human, natural or artificial.
In a related sphere, maximizing existing resources is a theme that reappears in Pudumjee’s day-to-day management style too, especially as a time-starved working mother. “Managing my time more effectively is something I’ve learnt hugely with the children being around,” she affirms, recalling how she learnt to accomplish as much “from 9am to 3pm” (when she had to get out of the office and collect her first child from the babysitter) as she used to do “from 9am to 9pm, before he was born”.
I wonder whether Pudumjee’s almost strategic vision of frugality in corporate life can be acquired. The office’s quiet confidence, her zest for spotting opportunities in waste products, and her precise time-management skills seem to be qualities carefully inculcated over time. Subscribers of the “less is more” philosophy will certainly find it appealing.
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 us at businessoflife@livemint.com
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First Published: Sun, Jan 16 2011. 07 44 PM IST