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Valli Arunachalam, daughter of Murugappa Group’s former executive chairman M.V. Murugappan.
Valli Arunachalam, daughter of Murugappa Group’s former executive chairman M.V. Murugappan.

‘Murugappa Group has been shut to diversity and inclusion’

The fight may be long, but it will all be worth it. I would urge women in similar situations to speak up and continue to push for equality, says Valli Arunachalam

A day after 91.36% Murugappa Group shareholders voted against Valli Arunachalam, denying her a seat on the board of the family-run business, the 59-year-old is considering a range of options as a recourse. The eldest daughter of former executive chairman M.V. Murugappan, Arunachalam has held that her gender is what is stopping the family from inducting her into the board. She has been engaged in a battle with the Chennai-based, 119-year-old family business since the demise of Murugappan, former executive chairman of Ambadi Investments Ltd (AIL), in 2017. AIL is the holding company of the 37,000-crore family-run conglomerate in which Arunachalam’s father held an 8.15% stake which he left to his wife and two daughters. Undeterred, she says the fight for female heirs may be long, but it will all be worth it.

Edited excerpts from an interview:

What would be your next course of action?

Obviously, we are shocked by the actions of the majority shareholders, which is the family in this case. We are considering a range of options at this stage and will take the next steps as advised by our advisors in this regard.

Would you take the legal route?

It was always our wish that the family issues remain within and are settled at the family level and we have made consistent efforts over the past two years to arrive at a consensus with the family, including asking for mediation. Sadly, the family has at no point reciprocated our interest in an amicable settlement. Instead, the family is more concerned about protecting its hopelessly outdated perspectives and practices, even if it means forcing us to take the battle to courts. If there is no other way to resolve this issue, we would be constrained to taking the legal route. We have full faith in the Indian judicial system, and the only reason for holding back has been that we wished to resolve this issue amicably.

Would you really prefer a seat on a board that is hostile? Or would you actually prefer to exit by selling shares to the family?

It is not an either-or scenario. Our family branch has always been part of the board, and I was keen on joining the board and contributing to my maximum potential.

At the end of the day, AIL is a holding company for numerous listed entities as well, and the duty as a director and a shareholder would have been to the company and its best interests, irrespective of the hostility. But more than that, it would have been a watershed moment, and an opportunity for the family to right a historical wrong of not allowing women family members on the Board.

Of course, we are willing to exit by selling the shares which we have offered the family right from the beginning, but they want to have the cake and eat it too.

Would you look at selling your stake/investments in the firm to a third party?

Historically, AIL has been a family-held company, and my father’s wish in his will was for us to sell it to the family members. There is no bar on us selling our stake/ investment to a third party, but we would have preferred it to remain within the family to the extent possible. The family is also aware that they are in the majority and are hence acting in such a high-handed manner against us.

What message do you think the board’s stance sends out to female heirs?

It is extremely unfortunate that in the year that the US Supreme Court lost a luminary, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who championed women’s rights, that a huge conglomerate, the Murugappa Group, is refusing to right a historical wrong to women.

They have had no mindset upgrade even after all these years, and are completely ignorant of the positive impact and contributions that a qualified and experienced woman can make to their business. Also, this is not in the best interests of their shareholders. The group has always been shut to the ideal of diversity and inclusion, even when it comes to female members of their own family.

Be that as it may, I do hope that women, daughters, female heirs will not in any way get deterred or demotivated by the family’s decision and will continue to fight for their rights.

Female heirs need to be aware of their legal rights and remedies and with the help of sound advice from their advisors, they too can battle against the shackles of patriarchy. The fight may be long, but it will all be worth it. I would urge other women in similar situations to speak up and continue to push for equality.


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