Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

The Godrej way of Life

At 71, billionaire Adi Godrej is a happy man. His contentment can be traced to his daily morning walk and to his time with his grandchildren

Sourav Majumdar
Published: May 15, 2014 12:37:00 PM IST
Updated: May 15, 2014 12:58:12 PM IST
The Godrej way of Life
Image: Vikas Khot
Adi Godrej in a contemplative moment after his morning walk

Chances are, if you’re taking a stroll in the hanging Gardens in south Mumbai’s plush Malabar Hill area, you will find a fit, determined-looking gentleman walking there, deep in thought. This gentleman, in all probability, will be 71-year-old Adi Godrej, chairman of the $4 billion Godrej Group. “I like walking. It helps me a lot,” Godrej tells ForbesLife India in a conversation that stayed cleared of business and, instead, focussed on life. “I might be a little concerned about something, I go for a two-hour walk and then I’m over it.” While Godrej is known to be polite to a fault, he is unlikely to welcome suggestions of company during these walks. This is his time with himself, when he is able to think clearly and solve issues which could be preoccupying him. “Sometimes when I meet some people while walking, they like to join me. But I like to walk alone, so I make some excuse or the other,” confesses Godrej with a disarmingly honest smile. “I don’t mind walking with them for 10 minutes but I don’t like long walks with other people.”

This is understandable given that Godrej has enough opportunity to interact with others in the intensely competitive world of Indian business. As one of the most recognisable faces of India Inc, having led various industrial associations and chambers, he commands respect both in the business community and in policymaking circles.

But that is his known face. There’s the other, very different side to him, one which has Godrej playing multiple roles: Grandfather, father, husband and friend. And just as he juggles various business responsibilities—the Godrej Group has its interests ranging from fast-moving consumer goods to real estate to agribusiness—Godrej wears these hats effortlessly too.

The secret: Godrej believes in a well demarcated work-life balance, and zealously guards his time with his friends and family. “I don’t like to overwork. I am not the type who works for 15 hours at a stretch. I also don’t play so hard that it interferes with my work. It’s just the right balance,” says Godrej, who was eighth in the Forbes India Rich List for 2013, with a net worth valued at $8.3 billion at the time.

The underlying theme in this—the Adi Godrej way of life—is happiness. “Happiness to me is contentment. It means you should be satisfied with what you’re doing, how you’re doing it and that there should be the same feeling around you. Not just in you but in your family and in your place of work.”

Keep walking
Happiness also means staying fit and healthy. Godrej proudly says he has never lost a single day’s work because of sickness. “I may have lost a few days due to an operation, but never on account of flu or a headache or something of that sort,” he says. The physical activity that is so intrinsically interwoven in his life has played a key role in this. Now, while horse-riding was a passion when he was younger, it is walking which he currently enjoys the most. This is apart from water-skiing, which is a regular weekend activity with his family and his grandchildren in particular.

“I used to ride quite a lot earlier, but now it’s walking and water-skiing,” says Godrej. “I walk an average of over 10,000 steps a day, and on weekends it can even go up to 20,000,” he adds, pointing to his mobile phone where he has downloaded an app to keep track of the number of steps he walks.

The Godrej way of Life
Image: Vikas Khot
Adi Godrej at his Malabar Hill residence in Mumbai

“I walk a lot, even at home. I don’t like to sit still, so if I am not doing anything, I walk,” he says, recalling his days walking on Marine Drive with younger daughter Nisa (executive director of the group and its head of innovation), now 36, before she got married. “Nisa and I used to go for long walks along Marine Drive, from Walkeshwar to Nariman Point and back.” While this walking regimen is sacrosanct, Godrej stays away from gyms. “I don’t like machines, so I don’t go to the gym,” he says.

An early-to-bed, early-to-rise person, a typical day would see him doing some free-hand exercises before heading off for his walk. After a light breakfast of fruit and nuts, at 7.45 am Godrej leaves in his Audi A8 for the sprawling Godrej campus in Vikhroli in central Mumbai—a half hour’s drive at that time of the day. Lunches are typically light too, and a normal day would see him winding up at about six. A stickler for healthy eating, Godrej says he’s not fond of starches, but has a weakness for potatoes. “So no rice or chapattis for me—even if I have chapattis, they would be made of nachni (finger millet). I also like quinoa, which is good for health. I enjoy healthy food.”

It is easier for him to maintain this regime since Godrej says he doesn’t socialise as much as he used to, and does so only about twice a week. “But even then, if we know it’s going to be a late evening, then my wife and I have dinner and then go out. We don’t eat much thereafter.”

By contrast, he says son Pirojsha (managing director and CEO of Godrej Properties) is a gourmet, and is very particular about good eating places. “He’d book a restaurant a year in advance,” he laughs.

Godrej loves outdoors activity—so whether it is trekking or paragliding, he’s done it all. “Anil Ambani (a good friend of the Godrejs) and I trekked around Mount Kailash about 12 years ago. We did a 42 km trek at an altitude of 19,000 ft in one day,” he says. “I’ve also been to Uttarakhand.”

The Happiness Quotient

For Godrej, fitness and a happy family constitute the two main pillars of contentment. “You are able to enjoy things much better when you’re fit,” he says, pointing out that it plays a large part in staying young. “I also have a very good family life. My children have been achievers, so I don’t have any problems there. Sometimes family problems affect people. For me, my family contributes to happiness.”

He is happiest when surrounded by his grandchildren—Aryaan and Azaar (sons of elder daughter Tanya Dubash, who is also executive director and chief brand officer of the Godrej Group) and Sasha (daughter of Pirojsha)—in particular. The Godrej family had further cause for celebration recently, with younger daughter Nisa giving birth to a boy, Adi Godrej’s fourth grandchild.

“I get great joy spending time with family members, especially the young ones. It’s all the fun without the responsibility when it’s the grandchildren,” he says with a laugh. A typical Sunday would involve jet-skiing with the grandchildren, a family lunch on the Godrej yacht off the Chowpatty bay and topped off with a short cruise. “We try to do this every Sunday when I am in town. But again, not everybody’s there all the time.”

A self-confessed peripatetic, Godrej loves travelling: Wildlife parks and the mountains are two particular passions. Whether it’s the Andes, the Alps, the Rockies or the Himalayas, the mountains hold a special charm for him.

The Godrej way of Life
Image: Vikas Khot
Water-skiing is a regular weekend activity for Adi Godrej

With the group now spread across 25 countries, combining work with a quick, short holiday is often the best way to see new places. When the children were younger, Adi and wife Parmeshwar would take them to a new country each year. Within India, Kashmir would be a regular getaway. “I would go up and down from Kashmir and my wife would be there for about a month. That [Kashmir] used to be one of our favourite spots. Now I am told it’s nice again but I haven’t been there in a long time,” says Godrej.

However, he doesn’t like long holidays. “I like to keep vacations short. I don’t like to stay away from work for too long,” he says. “Going to vacations with all of them [children] together isn’t possible anymore. Sometimes we go with one of them.”

Godrej proudly mentions that he has visited 90 countries so far, with special attraction for Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, the Amalfi Coast in Italy and the Kruger National Park in South Africa. “When I was president of CII (Confederation of Indian Industry), I travelled a hell of a lot. Now it’s much less. But I do still take about six to ten trips a year outside India.” The last new country he went to, he says, was Uganda, where he was hosted by the Madhvani family which owns wildlife lodges along the banks of the river Nile.

Life & Style

The name Godrej is also synonymous with a certain lavish lifestyle. They are known to be good friends to the rich and famous and are extremely gracious hosts.

Whether it is their friendship with celebrity talk show host Oprah Winfrey or their bonhomie with the likes of megastar Amitabh Bachchan, the Godrej family is often in the limelight for their social life.  

“We host less than we used to,” Godrej says. “My wife is much more a social person than I am, so some of the friends are more close to her than me, though they are friends of both of us.”

He still keeps in touch with his friends from his school (St Xavier’s) days, and is also close to many in the corporate sector, the world of cinema and the crème de la crème of high society. These include the Ruias of Essar, the Jethmalanis who are neighbours, filmstar Shah Rukh Khan, Azim Premji and, of course, Ratan Tata. “I know Cyrus [Mistry] from when he was a little fellow,” Godrej recalls fondly of the current Tata Group chairman. “He went to school with Tanya.”

Godrej says he knows most CEOs, “some well, some less”. Are genuine friendships possible in the competitive world of big business? Godrej seems to feel so. “I don’t get into rivalries.”

Not surprising, Godrej draws fulsome praise from others in the world of business. “He is inspiring and very humble, which is a quality I really admire in him. Whenever I have called him he comes on the phone, and whenever I’ve asked for meetings he has readily agreed,” says Harsh Mariwala, chairman of FMCG major Marico. “I have a very open equation with him and whenever we meet we discuss things openly. He has the ability to speak about everything in a very frank manner.”

Godrej’s humility is particularly striking when viewed against the fact that he is among India’s wealthiest industrialists and luxury is an integral part of his lifestyle. Sample this: The yacht and speedboats aside, the family owns a fleet of cars and while Godrej himself drives his Audi, wife Parmeshwar has a Rolls-Royce, the daughters have a Mercedes and a Jaguar while son Pirojsha uses a BMW.

The Godrej way of Life
Image: Vikas Khot
Adi Godrej With wife Parmeshwar

“I think it’s each according to his own,” says Godrej when asked what he feels about luxury. “Overdoing is not good, but it’s difficult to define what’s overdoing. I like comfort and convenience.”

The fabled humility of the man, many reckon, has a lot to do with the Godrej values. It is very important to have integrity, “not just financial, but also intellectual,” he says. “You must do what you say. You must take people along. That doesn’t mean you don’t stand up for the right things, but it’s very important to carry people with you.” He was “quite authoritarian” in his younger days, he admits, but has changed now. “One of the things which changed me,” he says, “was the 360-degree evaluation method where you’re assessed anonymously by your subordinates and peers. That helped me learn about myself and change a little.”

Taking people along is central to the way the group is structured. While Godrej himself is chairman, his cousin Jamshyd (chairman of Godrej & Boyce) and brother Nadir (chairman, Godrej Agrovet) work in perfect harmony. “It’s worked well,” he says of the arrangement. “We have always owned equally in our businesses; we may run one business more than somebody else does, but ownership is common. In our family daughters have always inherited, so my daughters have as many shares as my
son does.”

Godrej says he is an optimist. However, he admits that emotion is not something he is prone to demonstrating. “One of the criticisms I get, especially from my wife, is that I am not very emotional. I react to things on a rational basis,” he says. He and wife Parmeshwar are very different people,  he adds, “which is a good thing”.

The rare occasions when Godrej does let his emotions show are typically when he is with his grandchildren. “Those are the moments that bring out the emotions in you.”

Amitabh Bachchan  on his long-time friend Adi Godrej

The Godrej way of LifeAs someone who has known Adi Godrej for over 40 years now, Amitabh Bachchan has had a ringside view to the man behind the corporate leader. According to him, “Adi is a very passionate human being and likes to go into great detail about things. He is a man of great knowledge but also a very humble person”.

In a phone interview with ForbesLife India, Bachchan says, “Adi is a very old friend, from the time I joined the film industry.” Even his children Shweta and Abhishek grew up with the Godrej children when they were neighbours in Mumbai’s upscale Juhu area where Bachchan still lives. The actor says Godrej is a person who is “very welcoming” but someone who also likes to keep to himself. “He might appear as a shy person but he is very hospitable,” he says.

Bachchan recalls his first meeting with him many years ago at a common friend’s home, where Godrej beat everyone at the memory game. “A lot of us failed, but his memory was so good that he won. That showed his power of concentration and his involvement in the game,” says the megastar. “Whatever he does, he does it with a lot of focus.”

He also speaks of an instance when Godrej went boating off the Juhu coast and, despite taking all the necessary equipment with him, he got caught in a bad current. “Everyone panicked, Parmesh [Parmeshwar Godrej] was very worried,” Bachchan says. “Finally, the police and the life safety people located him and he came back.” But Godrej was unfazed. “He said he got caught in a reverse current and, rather than fight it, he waited for it to ebb,” says Bachchan. “This is symbolic of what the person is. He has the practicality to face the situation and understand it. It’s a very rare quality.”             - SM

(This story appears in the March-April 2014 issue of ForbesLife India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Vishal Vivek

    After reading the story, I realized that the higher you go the more humble you become.

    on May 15, 2014