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Jayati Godhawat

JWB Blogger

Here’s Some Inspiring Lessons From The Eight Richest Woman Of India, Anu Aga

  • JWB Post
  •  March 26, 2016


Anu Aga, ex-Chairperson of Thermax Ltd., and once India’s eighth richest woman, explains why our ideas, surrounding greatness, are grossly erroneous. It is a clichéd that No one is born great; greatness comes with the choices you make when your life takes you to moments of doubts.

In an interview, she related the memoirs from an incredible lifetime spent working for her and others with an endearing ardency and honesty; her story slowly became an example of path-breaking achievements.

Simple lifestyle

Anu Aga was born in a conventional middle-class family. She grew up in Mumbai, in Matunga, with two elder brothers. She took up Economics at St. Xavier’s, and was always inclined to contribute to the greater good of the country.

She went to TISS for Medical and Psychiatric Social Work.

She shared, “My degree here was prestigious enough to land me a scholarship in an American university. But the message was drummed in my mind that as a woman, I ought to marry and start a family first.”

Fortunately enough, she met a wonderful man, Rohinton Aga – her eldest brother’s best friend. Rohinton had studied at Cambridge and worked with great multinationals.

“But he always felt that they had chained him in golden chains with the perks and the package, he had no real satisfaction. My brother coaxed him to join our company, which was a tricky decision for him as we were rather small and unknown at the time. My father (A S Bhathena, Founder of Thermax Ltd., an engineering solutions provider in the energy and environment sectors) couldn’t even afford to match the salary he was used to, but he took a chance.” Now, Thermax is a Rs 4,935-crore entity.

The couple moved to Pune, where the Thermax empire thrived.

Meanwhile, Anu worked in Child Guidance Clinic and started a family. Rohinton went on to succeed her father & took over the company as the Chairperson.

Phase of Anger

But, their happy world came crumbling down when Rohinton, in his late 40s, suffered a massive attack.

“This brilliant man had to learn the alphabet and the numbers all over again. During recovery, patients often slip into depression, but my husband had anger; he was angry at the world. And anger mobilises. It took a toll on him, but he got back on his feet and even wrote a book during his recovery.”

Then came Fear

Around that time, Anu, on her family’s emphasis, overlooked the company’s work and joined the HR department.

“When I joined the company, my key challenge was to not only retain the brand image we had built as an innovator, but to also capitalise on it and grow. And keeping our employees happy was at the heart of this. My personal challenge was how I should be accepted in my own right, rather than as an Aga, who owns the foundation,” Anu says.

When Grief & Despair Gripped her

Anu was in London, with their daughter, who was pregnant with her first child. Rohinton decided to drive to Pune to receive Anu on her arrival.

“But before he could receive me, I received the news that he had suffered another heart attack, this one fatal, and did not make it.”

Even before Anu could grieve for her husband’s loss, the executives of their company met on the second day and insisted that she assume the position.

“I just wasn’t ready. I kept devaluing myself and thought that I was only being invited to take over because we as a family own this business. I really felt miserable, missing my husband, yet, having to assume his role.”

To seek answers, she found solace in Vipassana, a Buddhist form of meditative penance, where you adhere silence for ten days and meditate.  She said, “I had the time to contemplate on the events and get some perspective. I was comparing myself to my charismatic husband, which was not a good game I was playing, and was also depleting my energy over it. All I was expected to do was my best, which may be different from my husband’s best.”

But fourteen months later, Anu’s 25-year-old son passed away in a car accident, the pain of which is indescribable, but, she found a way out of this suffering.

“I realised that it was meant to be. Death isn’t a tragedy, because it is inevitable – like sunrise and sunset. Pain is inevitable, but suffering comes out of not accepting why something happened to you. Suffering can be controlled, if you accept.”

Resurrection period

She stepped up as the captain of the ship i.e. her company, which had also begun to tremble. Anu then chose to shed all her self-doubt.

“I didn’t know hardcore business, and I was terrible at finance. Being at the helm of the capital goods industry, I had to know both. I surrounded myself with people who could guide me, and wasn’t afraid to show my vulnerability, and seek help without qualms. That helped tremendously,”

A year before Rohinton’s death, Thermax had gone public, but due to poor market conditions, their share price had fallen from Rs. 400 shares to Rs 36. Anu decided to take some bold decisions that then revived the company, although everyone was doubtful of her course of action.

“I wanted to appoint the Boston Consultant Group to do some damage control, but our team insisted that we simply wait for the economy to stabilize.”

“Until then, I thought the ones most affected by this would be me and my family, as we were the owners. But I received an anonymous note from a shareholder, saying we had let him down. For my husband and I, letting someone down was a dirty word. I couldn’t sleep for days.”

She hired BCG and made some more brave choices. They divested into non-core businesses and went for products like bottled water, which were all B2C.

“This increased our turnovers but eroded our bottom line. We had to make some tricky decisions and divest. In a country where there is no safety net, we can afford to have certain non-performers, but that had to change.”

Her employees came along and were in support of her.

“My team wanted me and the company to succeed. There was great support all around. My daughter and son-in-law also moved back to India with their children.”

The couple were sent to London to revive a then non-performing plant. Meher and her husband had joined as trainee engineers, and within two years, their tremendous growth impressed everyone.

As a chemical engineer, Meher had a great eye and sound know-how in finance. Anu handed over the company to Meher and took retirement.

Success came along

Anu then wanted to give back in terms of time and money to the society and discovered Akansha, an NGO.

“I got very involved in their activities, in a very hands-on manner. I brought them to Pune, and Thermax created space for them in our premises when we did up the office,”

Anu joined the Board of Advisors for both Akaknksha as well as Teach For India, aiming towards the improvement of the quality of education.

“It is important to share your stories, so people can follow your example. Innovation right now in the sector is mind-boggling. As this sector does not get much recognition, award ceremonies like Marico’s Innovation for India Awards help people share their awe-inspiring initiatives.”

Under their initiatives, four students were selected for full scholarships at world colleges, and five also got selected to the Azim Premji University.

Anu Aga also won the Padma Shri in 2010 for her contribution to the social sector.

But she said, “Don’t make me larger than life. I was and am, very ordinary.”

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