Profile: Learning from Tough Times
For Meher Pudumjee, Non-Executive Chairperson of energy major Thermax, success and failure go hand in hand
Meher Pudumjee, non-executive chairperson of energy and environment engineering major, Thermax, remembers her mid-thirties to be a most overwhelming phase. Meher, then mom to a 4-year-old son and a daughter who was barely a year old, had her hands full with raising them while still attending to her work at the family business.
While having her kids around was “pure joy,” what complicated things was the fact that it was a period when the company that her father built up as one of the most reputed in India, hit a rough patch, turning in operating losses for the first time in its history.
“It was a very difficult period. Because business was doing badly we had to let people go en masse and that was tough because the only reason we had ever done
so before was when there were integrity issues involved,” says Meher.
“Mum (Anu Aga) was helming the organisation but as members of the family and the board, my husband Pheroz and I were completely involved in trying to figure out what to do to control the problem.”
It was challenging times for the chemical engineering post-grad from the Imperial College, London, who had returned home to help her mother as she took over as Chairperson of the company after Rohinton Aga passed away.
“During 2000-01 we constantly had this debate about how dad would have handled the tough times had he been alive,” she says. “We were either shutting down or selling off some of the businesses that dad had incubated and it was difficult not to wonder what he would have done in our place. We could have dealt with the problem by saying it was too tough to handle and simply sold out entirely but, as a family, we decided to give it a go.”
The Learning Phase
The debate ended when her mother called in Boston Consulting Group which suggested major restructuring to turn the company’s fortunes around. As part of the exercise Anu, Meher and Pheroz gave up their executive powers and the entire board stepped down.
It was a period of much learning with the family coping with the parting of ways with a long-standing Managing Director and building a relationship with the new entrant. Over the years, she says, it has become a great relationship based on mutual respect and trust.
What was most challenging, however, was the evolution of her role from executive to non-executive, especially given that for an entire decade she had played a key role in the company. “I struggled to keep away from getting into the details of things because it was difficult for the new management when I would interfere in daily operations. Now my worry is that I stay away too much and that detachment makes me uncomfortable,” she says.
It was during this period, when she was busy with the company, that Meher says she learnt the fine art of delegating and let her in-laws help raise the children. “A happy outcome of my long absences from home was that my children have grown up to be fiercely independent people,” she says
Taking Up The Baton
Sometime in 2003, when the company was on the turnaround after the slump of the previous years, Meher remembers the chaotic time when her mother decided to retire to follow her passion for social change. “I was completely unprepared and remember telling her 62 was too early to retire. I was just 35 years old and wanted her to continue for a few more years so that I could prepare myself for what was to come.” Her mother refused to do so and told Meher she could either accept the responsibility now or she would bring in a professional to take charge. With the ultimatum her daughter retreated to a vipasana camp for 10 days of introspection from where she returned, ready to take over the baton from her mother.
“Looking back, I wish I had a bit more maturity to handle all we faced. Now I think my refusal to take over was a bit stupid and came from my fear of failure. I am a perfectionist and I didn’t want to risk failure. Today I would tell the younger me and other women like me that it is OK to fail. What matters is not the fall but how fast you get up and run.”
In 2004 Meher took on the mantle of non-executive chairperson of Thermax and in the years in between, she has taken the company to great heights, consolidating its business, leading it on a “green path” and establishing a global footprint.
“When I look back now I know that everything worked out because we had a fantastic team that worked together to get us out of a bad situation. We also had the blessing of a cohesive family that, despite each of us pulling in different directions, eventually arrived at the same conclusion: that we all wanted the best for the company. I also believe that there is an element of luck and destiny in everything that happens to us.”
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