By Suma Varughese
Hrishikesh Mafatlal, Vice Chairman & CEO, Arvind Mafatlal Group
The man is in full flow. ‘There’s only one God who is the Supreme Controller of Controllers. We are part and parcel of God, though the divinity within us is only in a minute quantity… He is the enjoyer. We are the enjoyed.’ This discourse, delivered in the pleasantly appointed conference room of Mafatlal Industries, would have seemed incongruous but for the fact that it represents the heart and soul of Hrishikesh Mafatlal. In his business avatar he controls the fortunes of the giant petrochemical company, NOCIL, as well as various mills in the country. In his spiritual mode, he is the ardent disciple of Srila Prabhupada, the founder of ISKCON.
‘Between ’82-84 my family went through a series of crushing problems. The textile strike called by Datta Samant had closed all our mills, and we found ourselves cheated by many trusted associates. Our relatives deserted us in droves, convinced that we were finished. At this juncture, I began frequenting the ISKCON discourses held at my brother-in-law’s place, a devotee. I found them all to be my sincere well wishers. They had no ulterior motive in associating with me. I may have come from an industrialist home but they treated everyone the same. After my recent experiences, this was a relief. I was also startled to find the devotees to be young, well educated and rational, unlike the elderly swamis I had been used to. It was possible to engage in a dialogue about the nature of God or death or the meaning of rituals.’
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.
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