Home/ Companies / People/  The reclusive tycoon who built city skylines

Pallonji Mistry, who passed away early on Tuesday at the age of 93, wasn’t the founder of the 157-year-old Shapoorji Pallonji Group. That credit belongs to his father Pallonji Shapoorji Mistry Senior, a man of soaring ambition and drive. But without his son’s worldview, the group may never have reached the scale and size it did.

Much like the first few residential apartment complexes that his father built in Mumbai of the 1940s, aptly given names like Acropolis and Heliopolis, it was Pallonji’s visionary zeal and aesthetic sensibilities led to the group’s rapid rise.

Over the decades many of the landmark buildings that dot the Mumbai skyline of today, including the Reserve Bank of India, Brabourne Stadium, Taj Mahal Hotel, Mumbai Central Station and HSBC Bank, were built by the Shapoorji Pallonji Construction Pvt. Ltd. But when in 1971 the group won the contract to build the massive stone palace for the Sultan of Oman, it marked the start of its global recognition which eventually spread to countries such as Mauritius, Guyana and Dubai. The young scion was beginning to stamp his authority on the group and soon diversification into other businesses followed, including a timely and strategic investment in Nowrosjee Wadia and Sons, the managing agents for Bombay Dyeing.

A recluse who rarely appeared in public or even issued a comment, Pallonji Mistry was considered one of the world’s most secretive billionaires, and was worth over $10 billion in 2012. Having taken up Irish citizenship through marriage in 2003, he also became that country’s richest citizen. Despite these achievements, Pallonji chose to live a quiet and unheralded life having set up his two sons, Shapoor and Cyrus to take over from him.

Much of what little we know about the man is from Coomi Kapoor’s wonderful book The Tatas, Freddie Mercury & Other Bawas. He was no socialite and made few friends even in the close-knit Parsi community. Relations between Pallonji and Ratan Tata, too, were cordial but formal. This may have worked against the group in its later battle with Tata when only a few of the other Parsi groups supported Cyrus.

For a man who built some of the most iconic buildings in India, his legacy is now sullied by the recent tussle over the group’s 18.37% stake in Tata Sons which led to a boardroom battle and an eventual ouster of Cyrus as chairman of that group.

While the battle over the shareholding remains unresolved, the sad irony is that much of the SP group’s early success came from bagging and executing projects from Tata companies and relations between the two Parsi groups were mutually beneficial for most of the 50 years that Pallonji was at the helm. Despite its large shareholding in Tata Sons -- it became a significant shareholder in the 1960s -- Pallonji came on to the board of the holding company of India’s largest conglomerate only in 1980 and spent the next 26 years as a silent supporter, rarely heard in meetings. Indeed in 2006, when Cyrus Mistry, his younger son was appointed to the board of Tata Sons, there were no signs of the future friction. At 38, Cyrus became one of the youngest directors on the board of the storied holding company and when in 2012 he was named to replace Ratan Tata as its chairman, it seemed like a marriage made in heaven.

Instead, within four years, the two were engaged in a fierce court battle for control.

Today, the Shapoorji Pallonji group, laden with debt and marked by underperforming businesses, faces a challenging future. Pallonji, who hadn’t played an active role for some years because of his advancing years and ill health, would have been saddened to have left behind an issue unresolved.

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Updated: 28 Jun 2022, 01:17 PM IST
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