Fighting a boardroom battle at the Murugappa group previously headed by her late father, US-based Valli Arunachalam has called for a public debate on bias against women in family businesses. Valli Arunachalam, the older daughter of former executive chairman MV Murugappan, has made the remarks after she was denied board position in the group holding company, Ambadi Investments Ltd (AIL).
"I hope my struggles and my story will help launch the public debate and keep it going until gender bias is eliminated from our corporate culture, where it has no place. I am sure there are other women facing struggles like this and feel they are not on a level-playing field. Their struggles may not be exactly like my struggle but I think the common threat is that we all face the handicap of not being on a level-laying field. So, I felt that starting a public debate on matters like this could perhaps help make a difference in the lives of other women," Arunachalam said.
Arunachalam, one of the heirs to Rs 36,000 crore Murugappa Group, alleged that the group promoters were against women getting into family business and she was denied a board berth in Ambadi Investments after their father's death in 2017. Arunachalam, her sister Vellachi Murugappan and their mother MV Valli Murugappan together hold 8.15 per cent stake in the holding entity.
"The family has always had this unwritten rule of not allowing women to get trained in the family business. So, while we are well trained and can very easily plug into the family business, we have never been given that opportunity. The counter argument that they are making that we are not well trained in the family business falls flat on its face because there is an example in the family where a mail heir with no experience in the family business and at the age of 23 and just out of college, was appointed to the (holding company) Ambadi Investments board. So, what possible experience he could have had in the group companies to warrant a position on the board of Ambadi. He was 23 years old and as of today, I have 23 years of work experience.
The board of Ambadi Investments has traditionally been reserved for male heirs of the family. She says my sister and I are "discriminated against when it comes to occupying a position on the board of Ambadi when male members with lot less qualifications and experience were able to get on the board".
She argued that since they were amongst the major shareholders in the holding group, it was fair to ask for a board position because every other family branch was represented on the board of the holding company except theirs.
Arunachalam said that the world was changing and other Indian business groups had embraced women in the family business. Citing success story of Chennai-based Apollo Hospitals and TVS Group, she said that "women have shown that they have the leadership skills and that they can be at the helm of business."
"Even in the conservative South, family businesses have nurtured and embraced women in the family business. The shining examples of those are the Apollo Hospitals Group and the TVS Group. The Reddy sisters at Apollo have done a remarkable job in growing and expanding the business. In the TVS Group also there are many family women in leadership roles like Mallika Srinivasan the head of TAFE. These are all women who have shown that they have the leadership skills and that they can be at the helm of business."
She also claimed that the board of Ambadi Investments shared an internal communication in media that they would settle the matter "amicably" soon. "In fact, after I heard this, I wrote to them directly and asked them to share any concrete plan, if they had one. I sent them this letter on January 6th but have not heard from them. So, I question what do they mean by 'amicably' and 'soon'."
By Chitranjan Kumar