In the space of 14 months, starting early 1996, Anu Aga, former chairperson and current director of Thermax, India’s leading energy and environment management company, lost much that was precious—her 60-year-old husband Rohinton, the company’s founder and chairman, her only son, 25-year-old Kurush, her 97-year-old mother-in-law and even her pet dog.
What she found, however, was her die-hard spirit in the face of such challenges. Twenty-four hours after her husband’s fatal heart attack, she accepted her nomination by the board as executive chairperson; Thermax had recently gone public, and Aga did not want to let shareholders down. Later, she enrolled in a 10-day, live-in course at Igatpuri, near Mumbai, to study Vipassana, an ancient Buddhist meditation technique that she has since practised unfailingly for an hour every day—“like brushing your teeth,” she says, laughing aloud. From that time, the equanimity, humour and focused perspective that this has brought her—she has completed three courses in 10 years—has influenced every aspect of her life.
How did Vipassana help her? “Although I had a Master’s degree in social work from The Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, and had worked in the human resources department of Thermax for five years, I felt I was selected because of our shareholding, not because of my competence. I came to realize that there is no point comparing myself with my husband, because each person is unique. Professionals who come up the corporate ladder have battles with other professionals. I had to fight my own internal battles, of self-doubt, of legitimizing my own inheritance. I had to be proud of it, not ashamed,” she explains.
Aga came back to work with greater vitality and a discovery of her inner strengths. She dealt not only with the subsequent tragic loss of her son in a road accident, but also with the downturn that by now threatened the Indian economy and Thermax. The company’s performance slid from a net profit of Rs45 crore in 1997-98 to an operating loss of Rs13 crore in 2000-01.
An anonymous letter by an irate shareholder, accusing Aga of being a rich and uncaring owner, gave her sleepless nights and spurred her into action.
Ravi Venkatesan, chairman, Microsoft India, who joined the Thermax board at this tipping point, calls the turnaround that Aga effected “phenomenal”. On the advice of Boston Consulting Group, a global consulting company, Aga reconstituted the entire board, with a new managing director. She got out of non-core businesses, bringing in a performance-oriented culture focused on the customer. In 2001-02, the company posted a net profit of Rs24 crore, and from then on, there was no looking back. In 2004, in a well-planned succession move, Aga stepped down, with the board appointing her daughter Meher Pudumjee as non-executive chairperson. Today, with a market cap of Rs5,000 crore and a net profit of Rs123 crore, Thermax’s bad times may have never been.
ICICI Bank chairman N. Vaghul, who knows Aga as a business client and as a governing board member of the Give India foundation, elaborates on a key learning from his 20-year practice of Vipassana. “There’s no separateness between business and life: all life is meditation. In a literal sense, the technique is about focusing on your breath for one hour every morning and evening. From there on, you try to become mindful in everything you do, walking, eating, meditating, doing business.”
For Aga, too, Vipassana has effected a transformation, washing away barriers and making her life more inclusive. In a Thermax newsletter, she wrote: “Some of you may ask how something like death has any relevance to an organization. To me, an organization is made up of people, and what has to be faced by each and every individual is relevant… the way to come to terms with the inevitability of life and death is by struggl(ing) with new meanings. We have a choice of including much more in our lives... by limiting our intense emotions to only a few called ‘family’, we are the losers.”
As a young social work student, Aga recollects her professor Dr Banerjee’s advice: “What is the worst thing that could happen to you? You could lose your life. Once you accept that eventuality, you will learn not to stop doing things.”
Years later, during the Gujarat riots of 2002, Harsh Mander got to see first-hand how Aga had internalized fearlessness. An Indian Administrative Service officer who quit to found Aman Biradari, a non-governmental organization (NGO) for communal harmony, Mander wrote an essay in The Times of India, called Cry My Beloved Country. Aga read it, and sought him out. He says: “I was struck by her courage to speak the truth. As the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) chairperson for the affected region, she was one of the few in the corporate world who spoke out at a time when India’s secular democracy was at stake.” He adds: “While she speaks the truth, she is never strident. She always presses me about reconciliation, of narrowing the divide, and cites Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu’s book, No Future without Forgiveness.”
Chanda Kochhar, deputy managing director, ICICI Bank, who helped Aga on women’s issues for CII, says: “Anu always brought us squarely to the ground. If we veered towards urban women, she made sure to include rural sarpanches on the same platform.”
Shaheen Mistry, founder of Akanksha, a non-profit organization that educates over 4,000 underprivileged children in Mumbai and Pune, knows Aga’s hands-on approach well. As a board member of the NGO, Aga has helped set up four centres in Pune. Akanksha children frequently holiday in Aga’s home, play with her grandchildren and enjoy the brownies that she bakes.
For Aga, the practice of Vipassana is also about freedom of choice. She says, “It gave me the awareness to define my role as a chairperson and businesswoman the way I wanted, and to enjoy life on my terms.” In a move towards integrating her corporate persona and societal obligation, she has set up the Thermax Social Initiative Foundation.
Under its umbrella, in June, Aga will draw upon Akanksha’s expertise to run a municipal school in Somwarpeth, Pune. Here, the municipality provides the infrastructure and student pool; Thermax, the staff and curriculum.
As a tribute to the sustainable development and conservation model that has reaped Thermax great profits, Aga hopes to persuade the board to allow a part of the spanking new corporate headquarters in Pune, which will open in July, to be used as a shelter for the homeless at night. Meanwhile, by day, as the Akanksha centres shift to share the innovatively designed building with Thermax’s top management, the laughter of children will enliven the boardroom.
Name: Arnavaz (Anu) Aga
Occupation: Industrialist and social worker
Title: Director, Thermax (formerly chairperson)
Home: Pune, India
Pursuits: Vipassana meditation; education of underprivileged children; promoting communal harmony and women’s empowerment.
Claim to fame: Leading the turnaround of Thermax; speaking up for the victims of the Gujarat riots as chairperson of CII, western region; hands-on role in educating street children through the NGO, Akanksha.
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