It’s just past noon on a hot October Saturday in Mumbai when we enter the sprawling Piramal House off the upscale Worli seaface. The 10-storey building overlooking the Bandra-Worli Sea Link is home to the Piramal family and Dilip, the second of three brothers, who is chairman of India’s leading luggage company VIP Industries, lives on the sixth, seventh and eighth floors. Younger brother Ajay, who figures at number 44 in the 2014 Forbes India Rich List, also lives in the same building as does the family of the now-deceased eldest brother Ashok. The three families occupy three floors each in the building.
We are ushered into one of the many living rooms on the eighth floor, complete with the best European furniture, sculptures and a number of exquisite Italian statuettes. Among the many large paintings is a traditional Rajasthani one made by an artist from Jhunjhunu, the district the Piramals belong to.
Piramal, 64, walks in wearing a simple tee and trousers and greets us with a warm smile. He is a friendly, chatty industrialist who, despite his wealth, comes across as a simple man who will not hesitate to travel economy if it’s a short trip to a place like Delhi. Piramal admits his views could appear paradoxical, given that he is the chairman of the country’s best known luggage maker with brands like VIP, Carlton, Aristocrat, Skybags and Alfa. The Rs 1,000-crore VIP Industries, now run by Piramal’s daughter Radhika who is managing director, has been giving global luggage giant Samsonite a tough fight ever since the multinational came into India, a fact that Piramal is very proud of. He points out that VIP has maintained its market leadership even though Samsonite, which dominates all the 100 countries in the world where it operates, came into India nearly two decades ago and is still, according to him, a distant second.
Showing us around his home, he says the elaborate chandeliers which adorn his three living rooms were imported directly by him from the Czech Republic when he realised he could source them through his contact in Prague at one-third the price of what they usually fetch in India.
This, in a sense, is quintessentially Dilip Piramal, someone who is acutely aware of the value of money despite his obvious luxurious lifestyle. Piramal, a student of Sydenham College, Mumbai, and a University of Mumbai record holder in accountancy, says his father Gopikrishna instilled these values in him. “You could say my father was extra simple. He hardly led a life like those of his peers,” he says. Piramal’s grandfather built the original version of Piramal House in 1938 and the family has always lived together despite having different business interests.
A few days before the meeting at his home, we meet Piramal at his office where he tells us that material things don’t matter much to him. The office, a few blocks away from his home, is simple and functional and he likes it that way. “This sofa set could cost Rs 6 lakh or Rs 60,000 and no one would know the difference,” he says, pointing to where we are sitting. And these are the views that make him an antithesis to the typical industrialist.
“The biggest luxury I have in my life is that I am the master of my time,” he tells Forbes India. He is more interested in comfort than luxury. “I live well. I live in a large house,” he says. “But if I have to go to Delhi and if a business class ticket costs Rs 25,000, I will not buy it. I will prefer to travel economy and pay Rs 5,000-6,000.” A private jet is not essential either. “There are flights every half hour. Why would I need a private jet to fly to places like Delhi?” he asks. “I don’t even waste half a bottle of water. I have become more like that now. I am very conscious of the scarcity of water and energy in our country. I have luxury, but I am also a simple person and I don’t like to waste money. I know I am making a paradoxical statement, but I mean what I say.”
Two years ago, by way of a surgical procedure, Piramal shed 50 kilos in 15 months; he is now much fitter and able to enjoy the simple pleasures of life. To him, the fact that he is not compelled to do anything in life is luxury. After his weight loss, Piramal has become far more active and spends his free time reading and watching television—current affairs programmes and TV series The Big Bang Theory are favourites
—and holds ‘music parties’ where he lip-syncs old Hindi film songs for his friends.
“As one grows older, one becomes less modest and I now realise that I am probably in the top one percentile in my knowledge of old Hindi film songs. I can recognise most popular songs of the ’50s and ’60s within the first two seconds,” he says proudly.
At office, Piramal is attired in a simple half-sleeve striped shirt and black trousers. He does not wear a watch and carries a simple Samsung mobile phone. He swims regularly these days and exercises on his cycle at home (though he laments he hasn’t been able to of late because the equipment has broken down). “I have got my life back [after the weight loss],” he admits. But though he has lost weight, he does not feel the need to splurge on expensive suits and shirts. He says he gets his clothes stitched, something he’s been used to since nothing would fit him earlier. “I can’t spend Rs 10,000 on a shirt, which is the least what a good branded shirt costs nowadays. Only once have I bought a shirt for $250!”
VIP Industries has launched its Caprese brand for ladies, which is aimed at being an aspirational brand for the middle class, much like what the brand VIP was positioned as 40 years ago. But ask Piramal about expensive handbags and he says unhesitatingly that he feels it is wrong to spend Rs 3-5 lakh on a handbag. “My wife [Shalini] tells me some handbags cost Rs 20 lakh nowadays. For Rs 5 lakh, a poor man can get an entire house.”Early Indulgences
Midway into the conversation, Piramal begins chatting about his earlier years, when as a young man in his 20s, he would indulge and pamper himself occasionally. He says he began making changes to his home and even started making overseas visits about four times a year then, a far cry from the life his father was living. “Compared to my father, I was leading a luxurious life.”
Piramal is passionate about cars. He shares the story about how he bought a Mercedes 250 back in 1972. “I got myself a Mercedes 250 Coupe from the State Trading Corporation where consulates and embassies used to sell their cars. There were probably just one or two such cars in Mumbai then. I also began travelling first class and began going on overseas holidays by the time I was 25,” he says. “But I would always want value for money.”
Piramal recalls how, when he was 29, he was almost forced by a magazine to talk about the possibility of buying a jet in the future since the reporter wanted a good headline and he had become the darling of the media by then. “I told the magazine that some day, I might like to own my own jet. I said it just for the heck of it,” he laughs.
The car bug continued to bite Piramal later too, when he became the proud owner of the first Mercedes 450SEL in India in 1980. “Car imports were restricted in those days but, in 1980, a foreign citizen married to an Indian was permitted to import a car, and I was eligible under this category,” he says. (Piramal’s first wife, Gita, is a British national.) He had to wait for six months to get an import licence to bring the car into the country because the officials thought the free on board (FOB) value of Rs 2 lakh was too high. He had to pay 200 percent duty on the car as well. But the 450SEL was a prized possession, and even the German consul general knew of him because of this car.
Today, Piramal owns a BMW 7-series, which he bought a year ago after giving up his earlier car, an Audi A8. His choice of other cars, however, is guided more by utility than vanity. He owns a 2007 Toyota Camry, a Toyota Innova, a Honda City and the Maruti Omni meant for running errands is being replaced with a Hyundai i20.
Three years ago, he bought a BMW 650 two-seater, but “could barely fit into it”. “I sold it after one year and only 800 km. I had bought it assuming that my daughters would use it, which they did not, and it was just lying there, parked all the time,” he says.
The concepts of utility and comfort dominate what he does even when Piramal is travelling. Because he loves Europe, Piramal has not bothered to venture into other places like Australia, South America or even South Africa; he recently went to the US after a 10-year gap, when mentor Rahul Bajaj gave him a ride in his private jet. And when he does travel, he doesn’t insist on staying in suites. London, where he lived for three years in an apartment in Hampstead, is a favourite, as is France, Italy and Germany, where he’s been on a number of occasions because of work.
“Holidays are always luxurious,” says Piramal, recalling how he was uncomfortable in Japan because he had taken a four-star excursion for three days in Tokyo and struggled because the rooms were very small. “I definitely go for good hotels and a swimming pool is a must.”
His daughters Aparna, 38, and Radhika, 36, Piramal says, are quite like him when it comes to the simple, value-for-money lifestyle. Educated in Oxford and Harvard like her sister, Radhika now understands that the holidays she went for in her childhood—like those at the Hotel Victoria-Jungfrau in Interlaken, Switzerland, a favourite of her father’s —were actually quite expensive. “Now she knows how much it costs, so she tells me,” Piramal says with a smile. “She thinks of herself more as a salaried professional.” New Vistas
Despite assuming the role of a mentor and handing over day-to-day operations of VIP Industries to his daughter, Piramal remains busy planning strategy and chalking out diversifications. A foray into the air-conditioning and water generation business is currently keeping him busy. Also on the anvil is a renewed push for the Carlton brand, the top-end offering which VIP acquired 10 years ago and which Piramal admits needs a boost to compete on an equal footing with Samsonite in that segment. The brand VIP continues to be a big success. The Skybags brand, which the company has reintroduced as targeted to the youth, has also taken off well. And two years ago, the company entered a new category—ladies handbags—with Caprese.
“When we bought Carlton in London 10 years ago, we were told in a presentation that, ultimately, luxury is all about vanity,” says Piramal.
What would someone like him, who doesn’t yearn for a luxurious lifestyle, do in his favourite city, London, one of the world’s major destinations for people to satisfy their urge to splurge?
Piramal has his response ready. “You can always go and sit in the park. That’s so enjoyable.”
(This story appears in the 14 November, 2014 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)