Ajay Piramal | In good faith

Ajay Piramal | In good faith
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First Published: Fri, Feb 29 2008. 01 20 AM IST

Sangitaa Advani
Sangitaa Advani
Updated: Fri, Mar 21 2008. 12 25 AM IST
Sangitaa Advani
Monday through Friday, the elegant “Arjuna” boardroom at the Nicholas Piramal India Ltd (NPIL) corporate headquarters in Mumbai is the epicentre of decision-making for the Rs6,000 crore pharma group headed by Ajay Piramal. This is where important deals are inked; from 1988 to date, 13 strategic acquisitions in India and abroad have made the company one of the top five in the Indian pharma industry, by sales. Arjuna also hosts international dignitaries when they visit the company; a month ago, it was the premier of British Columbia, Canada; last week, the Sheikh of Oman stopped by.
But, over the last six years, on most Saturday mornings, the room gets a second life. Twenty people of varying ages gather around the table to study a chapter from the Bhagavad Gita, the ancient Hindu philosophical discourse on how to lead a meaningful life. The group includes housewives, a sprinkling of venture capitalists and private equity deal makers; a glass manufacturer, an art dealer, a classical musician and a gynaecologist couple, one of whom is a trained Zoroastrian priest. While the hosts are Ajay and his wife, Swati Piramal—a medical doctor who is director, Strategic Alliances and Communication, NPIL—it is the soft-spoken, 31-year-old Brahmachari Sattvika Chaitanya, of the Chinmaya Mission, Mumbai, who takes the session. He is a disciple of the late Swami Chinmayananda, one of India’s foremost Vedanta scholars.
Boardroom basics: Ajay and Swati Piramal with Brahmachari Sattvika Chaitanya. (Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint)
Such is the charisma of the teacher that these high achievers juggle everything else to get to class: Piramal, for instance, flies in directly from Canada on a particular Saturday morning. At 10am sharp, a crisp PowerPoint, “P2P—From Potential to Performance: How do we perform to our fullest potential in everything we do?”—appears on the large screen. Sattvikaji, as he is respectfully addressed, blends anecdotes from the Gita with those from different faiths, along with nuggets from a latest business book, presenting a convincing case for managing one’s life by managing the mind.
Catchy acronyms make his points easy to recall.
Adi Dastur, senior obstetrician and dean of Wadia Maternity Hospital, Mumbai, notes these down with a vintage fountain pen; Swati Piramal uses her laptop. After a lively Q&A and wrap-up, the group breaks up at lunchtime, with ample food for thought for the week ahead.
Can the principles of the Gita be used effectively to manage business life? The young veteran of Vedanta studies explains that the 55-year-old ChinmayaMission uses inputs by management professionals as well as spiritual teachers to refine its corporate seminars.
Its approach is rational and logical, allowing room for debate, so that “even non-believers will find a lot of value”. “You get tremendous results when you learn to live with a spiritual vision; your ability to work with others becomes enhanced,” he adds. So, more than plain faith or religion, this is about positive outcomes. Inspired by their Saturday study sessions, the Piramals put together a book on 18 stanzas of the Gita, with their relevance to corporate life; CDs of these, sung by Pandit Jasraj, accompany the volume. Granite sculptures carved by Adwaita Gadnayak, interpreting these verses, are displayed on the premises. In 2006, the company won the International Spirit at Work Award which honours organizations that have explicit spiritual policies or programmes.
The benefits can impact the bottom line. Piramal recollects how one Saturday morning, as Sattvikaji was explaining the 33rd verse from the 11th chapter, in which Krishna exhorts Arjun to fight as an instrument against injustice, the company was facing a false, criminal charge of misusing a narcotic in its 50-year-old cough syrup formulation. The verse’s explication inspired them to fight back through right action, and the company’s stand was vindicated.
For Sudhir Merchant, chairman, Encore Group, the Saturday class taught him how to manage his ego. In 2002, he allowed his joint venture partner to take over his company at a good valuation. “Since I created this relationship with them, the German parent began to buy products from our other companies, and it became a win-win situation,” he says. Vijay Shah, managing director, Gujarat Glass, says: “I am an atheist, but I don’t miss a class! Today, a crisis doesn’t ruffle me. Last October, we had a strike in our factory, where we have Rs500 crore invested. I weighed the situation dispassionately, choosing a long-term solution over a quick fix. It took three months, but we resolved it fairly.” Rajesh Khanna, managing director, Warburg Pincus India, sums its up, “It’s called a Gita class, but it’s really about a practical, values-based way to deal with life.”
Sattvikaji has been conducting a similar group class for Kumar Mangalam Birla, chairman, Aditya Birla Group, for some years. The teacher explains: “When we present spirituality in a logical and refined way, people are inspired by it. Then, it becomes applicable to one’s daily life, and we begin to live life deeper. If I keep shifting jobs for money, or relationships for pleasure, the result is a feeling of hollowness. This leads to stress and anxiety.”
These views are squarely backed by research done by Ian I. Mitroff, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business, and Elizabeth Denton, a consultant. In their book, A Spiritual Audit of Corporate America, after interviewing a hundred executives, the authors opine that many of the problems faced by business and society are the result of spiritual impoverishment in the workplace.
While employees yearn to bring their spiritual values to work—and thus their whole selves rather than a part—the corporate environment tends to keep these out. Companies that acknowledge such values and align them with their goals outperform those that do not.
A year and a half ago, when Nicholas Piramal acquired a major business from Pfizer, UK, its British employees were anxious about an Indian parent. Piramal says: “I told them that Indian culture has always beautifully assimilated diversity. When they were with Pfizer alone, they were like the river which gets lost in the ocean. But now we were a confluence of two rivers—much like Indian culture, with the new entity blending good things from both. Later on, people told me that the analogy touched their hearts; they felt charged.”
The ancient text’s optimistic message, says Sattvikaji, is that everyone can find a higher purpose, a deeper meaning, in life. NPIL’s Gita-inspired corporate credo declares, “You are what your deep, driving desire is”. Piramal dreams of his company discovering the first “Indian” antibiotic—and while it may take some years for the drug to come to fruition in the research lab, there’s no doubt it’s already germinating in the Saturday Gita sessions.
Name: Ajay G. Piramal
Title: Chairman, Piramal Enterprises Ltd
Age: 53
Education: BSc (Hons), Bombay University, 1975; Master’s in management studies, Jamnalal Bajaj Institute of Management Studies,1977; advanced management programme, Harvard, 1992
Pursuits: Photography, polo, Indian classical music, philosophy and travel
Claim to fame: Under his leadership, Nicholas Piramal has leapfrogged from the 48th rank in 1988 to 4th, in Indian pharma. With 13 acquisitions in India and abroad, the company has tied up with several global industry leaders
(Personal Space runs every alternate Friday and looks at the pursuits beyond work of some of India’s corporate leaders. Write to Sangitaa Advani at personalspace@livemint.com)
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First Published: Fri, Feb 29 2008. 01 20 AM IST