Corporate Management - Mastering the art of living
by Suma Varughese
N.K.Somani, CMD, Shree Vindhya Paper Mills Ltd.
Mumbai's (India) interactive restaurant, Chetana, had organized one of its frequent lectures. Sadly, the takers were few. But that didn't stop the speaker from launching into a cogent and articulate exposition of Vedanta. With a spare frame and a calm, controlled visage, the fatherly N.K. Somani appears the quintessential Vedantin, unruffled in situations fair and foul, doing what he must in a spirit of nishkama karma.
At the photo-session later on, we had occasion to see Vedantic values in action. Somani allowed us to push and position the furniture in his elegant cabin and raised no objection when we asked him to accompany us to the nearest park. "Anything that can be done will be done," he assured us calmly but he was clear that the shoot must be accomplished within the allotted hour.
In between intervals to reposition lights, Somani applied himself methodically to his work, taking care to use every moment. This combination of flexibility and discipline, of co-operation and boundary setting, is an indication of mastery in living. "Vedanta is the science and art of living," he had told the audience that evening.
His attitude towards business, like everything else in life, is centered on the existence of God. "Each of us has a responsibility to God which is paramount. I have been born into the Mafatlal family for some reason and I must discharge my duty towards it. I will do my best for Mafatlal, but I will do it in a way that fulfills my responsibility to God as well.
"We may be from different backgrounds, rich-poor, ugly-beautiful, but no one is superior to the other. We are all equal… Whether I travel by a Mercedes or the second-class compartment of a local train makes no difference to that central fact."
This understanding of the essential equality of all beings has made him more tolerant. "Earlier I used to compartmentalize people as friends and enemies. Now I don't lose sleep over a difference of opinions or approaches.
"My needs have become highly simple. As an industrialist I have an obligation to increase my company's value, but the key question is, for whom am I generating the wealth? If it were for me alone, it would go into a Rs 50-lakh Mercedes, a 5-crore yacht and so on. But would I be happier? If the real pleasure of life is at the level of the spirit-soul, then our joy is rooted in selflessness, in making others happy, in performing devotional service. My business is centered around God."
Continues Mafatlal: "I see my employees as human beings… However, in a competitive business we must regulate certain norms such as excellence of performance. People have to perform, but even if I have to give them bad news I do it honestly and openly, and try to be as fair and gentle as possible. Right now, industry is going through a very bad phase. In the last two years, 200 to 300 mills have closed down. So we have had to make some hard choices...
"But I do try and promote a harmonious work culture… I discourage politicking. Team spirit is critical. And I ensure basic services such as cleanliness within the workplace as well as good and nutritious food in the canteen. I often have the same food just to keep a check on quality. I also try and be aware of victimization. In pleasing the boss, many are unfair on their subordinates. There have been times when we have let a senior man go."
Mafatlal is disturbed by liberalization. "It has made the situation very difficult. And I believe that we are not taking into account the fact that there are 700 million people living in the villages of India. What about their welfare? Our policies are urban oriented and controlled by the West."
Despite the turbulence, he considers himself a happy man. "I have lots of weaknesses but I find that I'm more honest and straightforward with people. Life is much less stressed. I've never had a problem with sleep. People ask why I don't react when things go wrong, but I don't have to demonstrate my feelings."
His family is a source of joy and support to him. "My wife is my greatest influence," he says. "In her conduct she is much more spiritual than I am. She speaks her mind out often and chides me when I expect her to be super-efficient. 'I'm not your secretary, I'm your wife,' she says. I appreciate such openness because it creates an authentic relationship, which is wonderful. I cannot imagine going home and experiencing tension. And my three children-they are wonderful human beings."
That, for this businessman, is the bottom line.