Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Anu Aga: A life shaped by tragedy

Mrs. Anu Aga, Ex Chairperson, Thermax Ltd,  8th richest Indian woman once
  • Anu Aga, ex-Chairperson of Thermax Ltd., and once India’s eighth richest woman.
  • Her net worth is estimated at $1.16 billion (2017) by Forbes.
  • Thermax was set up by her father AS Bhathena in 1966 as Wanson (India) to provide a range of engineering solutions. The company was renamed Thermax in 1980 after her father retired. Her husband, Rohinton Aga, headed it till 1996, when he died of a massive stroke. 
  • While Ms Aga was still finding her feet as the head of Thermax, she suffered a second tragedy - her 25 year old son Kurush died in a road accident. 
  • In the late 1990s, Thermax had got used to "satisfactory underperformance". Thermax's growth had nose-dived at the time, with share prices plummeting from Rs. 400 to Rs. 36 because of the market downturn. 
  • Ms Aga has said that an anonymous letter from a shareholder accusing her of letting him down forced her to take stock of the situation. It dawned upon her that as the largest shareholder of a public limited company, it was her responsibility to turn the company around even if she personally felt she didn't deserve to be its chairperson.
  • She was convinced that management was out of its depth and needed outside help. Her senior executives resisted the idea. Most men find it difficult to seek help because it comes in the way of their 'macho image'. The board decided to hire a consulting company.
  • The board was reconstituted to bring in more independent directors. The promoter members stepped down from executive positions, and operational aspects were left to a non family professional team led by the managing director.
  • The full-scale reform, with help from the Boston Consulting Group between February 1996, when she took over as chairperson of Thermax and 2004, when she stepped down, Ms Aga transformed the company into a global turnkey player in energy and environment projects. Thermax shares were trading on the Bombay Stock Exchange at Rs. 447.15. 
  • Eight years after Ms Aga took the top post, her daughter Ms. Meher Pudumjee replaced her as head of the company in 2004. However, she continues to be on the company's Board of Directors.
  • What is non-negotiable, she pointed out, is her time with her grandchildren Zahaan, 9, and Lea, 6.  
  • Mrs. Aga is keenly involved in the causes of communal harmony and human rights, especially of women and children. Since retiring, she is closely involved with Akanksha, an NGO which supplements the educational needs of the slum children. In partnership with Pune Municipal Corporation and Akanksha, Thermax Foundation has adopted three municipal schools in Pune. She is on the Board of Teach for India, an initiative that attempts to bridge the inequity gap in education.
  • In 2010, Mrs. Aga was awarded the Padmashri for her work in the social sector.
  • In 2012, Mrs. Aga is a Nominated Member of the Rajya Sabha in 2012. 
Gujarat Riots 2002: Nov 18, 2002: Her protests against "insufficient" State Government measures in Gujarat to rehabilitate victims of the post-Godhra communal clashes invited media attention, as she was the first person from the corporate sector to visit Gujarat and voice concern at the raging violence. "Out of several camps that I visited, the Shah-e-Alam camp had 1,950 families living in the open with practically no shelter, except a few bamboo poles with torn clothes hanging over them. Almost all the relief camps I visited bore ample testimony to the Government's apathy. I was pained at the injustice meted out, or rather complete callousness showed by the Government and fellow Indians. When the Gujarat earthquake, a natural calamity could garner so much in terms of mobilising funds and support, how could they just turn a blind eye to the riot-hit victims - a disaster that could very well have been avoided?" she asks.

"If the reason for this is because the victims belong to a minority, then I will say the time-honoured Indian value system is a miserable failure," she says. Aga spoke at a function organised by the Coalition for Peace and Harmony at the Administrative Staff College of India (ASCI) auditorium here recently. "If there was governance, would the violence have continued for two months? While the official toll of the number of Muslims killed is 900, the unofficial death toll stands at 3,000 as against the 60 Hindus having lost their lives. The figures are self-explanatory," the social activist pointed out. "I am not debating on the number of persons killed from the two faiths, the talking point is how educated people could fall prey to narrow communal feelings and either perpetrate or condone violence that resulted in the loss of over a thousand lives. Is it not a degradation of our basic humanness?" she asked. 

She warns that as a fallout of the Government's "lackadaisical attitude" towards minority victims, mistrust and hatred may brew all the more and "a second Godhra" may not be very far away. "The authorities should rectify their mistakes when there is time at hand," she suggests. Condemning fundamentalism in every religion, she took a dig at the business world too. "To me, Godhra or the subsequent events are not a spontaneous one-time occurrence. It is a symptom of a society that is callous, indifferent, and is only concerned about individual selfishness, amassing wealth and acquiring positions." 

Business today represents a powerful force as it has the best human talent, leadership skills, technical know-how and large capital at its command. It can be the most potent agent of social change provided we businessmen, choose to define human well being as the `business' of Business. Only then would the purpose of business be served," said the successful businesswoman wrapping up the talk. 

Earlier at a CII national meeting in April 2002, the chairwoman of the energy major Thermax, Anu Aga, received a standing ovation after delivering an impassioned speech about the suffering of Muslims in Gujarat.

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