For most people, business and poetry are parallel pursuits. But, for Nadir Godrej, managing director, Godrej Industries and chairman, Godrej Agrovet — part of the approximately $2 billion-dollar (Rs8,000 crore) Godrej Group of companies—both are in his blood, as inseparable from his everyday life as the Godrej lock and almirah are for middle-class India.
More than a century ago, Nadir’s great–uncle, Ardeshir Godrej, developed locks and vegetable–based soaps in British India, the first indigenously made products to displace entrenched foreign brands. In 1949, in occupied Berlin, his descendant Burjor Godrej completed his PhD thesis on making soap from fatty acids, returning to India to pioneer commercial fatty acids used in detergents. Burjor’s son, Nadir, went on to become the first to derive fatty alcohol from eco-friendly vegetable palm oil, rather than from petroleum.
The innovative streak wasn’t all that Nadir inherited; with it came a passion for linguistics and languages. He speaks six, including Russian, and can think in French, his favourite. His uncle Sohrab was fluent in the language, but Nadir learnt its grammar from his father. Childhood holidays with cousins in Geneva, and a summer in Saint Tropez as a 19-year-old chemical engineering student at MIT, converted him into a lifelong Francophile. Fittingly, when he first met his wife-to-be Rati, a medical doctor, he courted her with stories about his French friends, gifting her a French Michelin Guide to Paris!
In the 1930s, Nadir’s maternal grandmother, Serene Dastur, composed poems on Indian independence, which she later recited to her grandson. “That’s how the rhythms of poetry came into my life,” he recollects. In the 1980s, he read Vikram Seth’s Golden Gate. “You can use rhyming verse to say anything,” asserts Nadir. “Our culture used it to remember things long before writing”.
Influenced by all this, Nadir, too, began writing poetry in rhyming verse. In 1986, as his grandmother lay dying, he composed a poem on her in French; several others followed. These, and a host of English poems, came together in 1992 in a slim volume titled Life and other poems. But what makes Nadir extraordinary is the way he uses ordinary verses to make a comment—on business, on personal feelings, or even technical topics.
Poetry, for him, is to be seen, heard and read aloud, not to lie between the pages of a book. At an Indo-French photography exhibition on 5 March this year in Mumbai, the French ambassador to India, Jerome Bonnafont, eloquently described globalization as a cultural force beyond business. But, it was Nadir’s speech in verse as the president of Alliance Francaise, India, that “made the idea come alive,” says R.C. Mishra, joint secretary (culture), government of India.
This sentiment is reiterated by all who hear Nadir speak at business events. In January this year, he addressed the All India Liquid Bulk Importers and Exporters Association (Ailbiea), in an annual ritual. Crusty revenue officials, customs officials and bureaucrats listened as he pleaded: “The government should help the flow/Stamp duty and Cess must both go./ If authorities provide the tools/And traders follow the rules/Hand in hand we can all show/How to maintain a constant flow.” Ailbiea president Jayant Lapsia remarks, “My appealing to the authorities for 40 years couldn’t do what Nadir’s single poem did at this event.”
G. Chandrashekhar, associate editor, The Hindu Business Line, recollects that at a recent conference in Malaysia, Nadir spoke on the challenges of palm oil trade between Malaysia and India: “By using verse, he makes you look at familiar issues from unfamiliar angles, and creative solutions emerge.”
So, when his company took over Gulmohar Fruits and Feeds from what is now Hindustan Unilever Ltd, his tactful poem at the signing ceremony assured the acquisition was a success. Nadir says: “Poems make people listen. You can pack in a lot of information in verse, without being verbose. A light touch works well.”
In this approach, this modern-day Byron of business — the British poet who loved using playful allusions — is backed by solid research. “More than four decades of study confirms that humour, used wisely, greases the management wheels,” writes Fabio Sala in the Harvard Business Review. “It reduces hostility, deflects criticism, relieves tension, improves morale and helps communicate difficult messages.”
Playfulness is also a mark of creativity and intellect. A childhood friend who did not want to be named, reminisces about how Nadir could instantly solve math problems. “Once however, for a problem called ‘The Monkey and the Coconuts,’ he called back the next day with two different ways to solve it, which were not in the answer book!”
These days, Nadir is more likely to work on Ramanujan’s composite numbers with his son Hormazd, who shares his father’s love for mathematics.
Anand Mahindra, vice-chairman and managing director of Mahindra and Mahindra Ltd, says: “At Harvard Business School, the story was that Nadir would finish his preparation for the week’s case studies over the previous weekend so that, during the week, he could attend classical music concerts in Boston! Apart from his business knowledge, he is a renaissance man, with an abiding curiosity about people and the world.”
By now, Nadir has composed more than a hundred poems, on his laptop or on scraps of paper on a relaxed Sunday at the Breach Candy Club, Mumbai. They cover an eclectic range of topics, from the general to the intensely personal—on Zoroastrianism, on chemical formulae in soap-making or a tribute to a friend who died in a road accident. Always in rhyming verse, some can seem flippant: “A vote of thanks—that thankless task/ I don’t know why they always ask/ Some silly fool on to the stage/While all of you seethe and rage.”
But, often enough, Nadir’s audience walks away with a special insight—“We can’t retrace our early steps, when once the line is crossed/But in a flash we can relive/a love we thought was lost.”
Name: NADIR GODREJ
Title: Managing director,Godrej Industries Ltd; chairman,Godrej Agrovet Ltd
Education: BS, chemical engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. MS, chemical engineering, Stanford University; MBA, Harvard Business School
Pursuits: Science, linguistics, swimming and poetry
Claim to fame: First in India to derive fatty alcohol from palm oil, instead of petroleum