Harsh Mariwala, the chairman of consumer products company Marico Ltd, has a terrace garden and an exceptional view of Mumbai airport’s landing strip. He can see planes taking off and landing. But what really differentiates the eighth-floor office in Mumbai’s Kalina area is an increasingly rare set of objects in contemporary corporate offices: books. To be more specific, a library of books on business management and a stack of cloth-bound notebooks on a shelf above his desk.

While most chief executives have a handful of books in their office, very few have such an extensive collection that each book warrants a number-label (the highest count I saw was No.451). “I read one book a month, on average. I read on weekends, on flights, in the car, on my bike in my gym, or when waiting for someone. I always have a book in my bag," Mariwala says, adding, “I had to give away over 200 books when I moved into this office last year because I was told there wasn’t enough space."

Cloth-bound notebooks with quotes and typed-out summaries from Harsh Mariwala’s favourite business books

The office itself has a study-like feel to it, and was designed by his wife Archana and a team of architects when Marico decided to move its corporate headquarters from Bandra to Kalina.

With its white marble floors, contemporary artwork, a large writing desk, sofa and TV, the office is serene, comfortable and personalized, closer to a home office in look and feel. The writing table is placed against a wall, with a small meeting table next to it, a departure from a presidential-style desk. “I didn’t want any barriers between me and the other person," says Mariwala.

Competing on culture

The terrace garden attached to Mariwala’s office

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast," Mariwala believes, quoting management guru Peter Drucker. He applies this dictum through a business philosophy aimed at building an “empowered organization, with a high degree of trust and a defined set of values". This belief is expressed in several ways: Employee attendance is not recorded and they maintain their own leave cards. Training is important—for new recruits to learn company values, for senior leaders to become better coaches or for business associates, alongside company employees.

The approach is strongly rooted in business pragmatism. “We compete against multinationals and they have a lot of career options outside India. We have to do something unique and differentiated, and empowerment is part of that," explains Mariwala.

Posters of Mariwala’s history

The move also captures his ability to reinvent himself, from entrepreneur and founder to business head and now, a guide and mentor. “My objective is to go on adding value and influencing, rather than controlling. I read a lot, I interact a lot, I think a lot and I review everything with my team," he says, describing his new role.

It is important to be rational when handing over hands-on management control, he stresses. “You should not be emotional, you should not say what is good for the family first. What is good for the company is good for the family. As the largest shareholder, you get the financial benefit," he says. This is clear logic at a pivotal time for Marico as it transitions from a branded-oils company to a multi-brand, consumer product firm, operating in the highly competitive categories of beauty and wellness.

Catalyst for innovation

Some of the books in Mariwala’s office

Mariwala is changing his life from the “inside-out", taking on new roles, based on his personal beliefs, values, skills and experiences. Among the many projects he looks at closely at the Marico Innovation Foundation, social entrepreneurs are spurred to greater heights through the Social Innovation Acceleration Programme, where they are given “just 20 lakh a year", says Mariwala, and extensive hands-on support to help them scale up.

The books in his cabin, especially Firms of Endearment: How World-Class Companies Profit From Passion And Purpose by Sisodia, David B. Wolfe and Jagdish Sheth, serve as inspiration. “The purpose of life is a life of purpose," he says, citing one of his favourite quotes. “I want to have a catalytic role in innovation, to have greater impact, not by building infrastructure myself but by helping other innovators, especially social innovators, to scale up. "

Aparna Piramal Raje meets heads of organizations every month to investigate the connections between their workspace design and working styles.