Where does Jeh Wadia go from here?

Where does Jeh Wadia go from here?

As he moves out of the boards of key group companies, is there a battle brewing?

Jeh Wadia with former Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri Jeh Wadia with former Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri

Jehangir Nusli Wadia, known to most as just Jeh, is a man hugely passionate about the aviation business. That led the younger of the two sons of Nusli Wadia, Chairman, Wadia Group, to set up Go Air in 2005 as a low-cost operation. The money came from the Wadia Group and though it was a small player, Go Air ran a fairly tight operation. Take the case of the four periods between 2016-19 where the airline’s revenue more than doubled and in a tough market dominated by the biggies, was comfortably making a profit each year. The previous fiscal (FY20) did the airline in and with that sank Jeh’s fortunes as well. It was in the red by Rs 1,279 crore.

Being in aviation was not something the senior Wadia approved of. Former Go Air officials say Jeh was emphatic and it worried his father that the group was continuously funding it. Things came to a pass in March this year when Jeh stepped down as the company’s MD and during the same phase did the same thing at Bombay Dyeing and Manufacturing. At that point, the group defended the decision saying both the companies wanted “to strengthen the management of the company by bringing on-board proven industry professionals.” It was not a logic that found favour with anyone and murmurs of dissent between father and son began to gain ground. Jeh’s older brother Ness runs another group company, Bombay Burmah Trading.

Almost right after Jeh moved out of aviation, his father took charge of the company. “He was extremely uncomfortable about the kind of money guzzled and wanted to bring in money from outside,” say those who worked with the airline. Going public seemed the smart thing to do and Go Air filed its prospectus with market regulator, SEBI. By this time, a full-fledged war had broken out over the usage of the Go Air brand name since it was owned by Jeh. It quickly made way for Go First.

The prospectus filed by Go Airlines made it clear that all was not well. It specifically mentioned that Jeh, in April 2021, “made an application to the National Internet Exchange of India to transfer 115 domain names registered in the name of our company.” It went to state that Go Airlines opposed these applications. It did not quite end there and said, “the company intends to take necessary steps and pursue legal options to establish its ownership over all trademarks and domain names.” Clearly all was not well and more action awaited.

That is precisely what took place a few days ago when Jeh stepped down from all the board positions in Wadia Group’s listed companies including Bombay Burmah, from where he entered the family business over two decades ago. The other companies are Britannia, the biggest in the group, and National Peroxide. A questionnaire sent to the Wadia Group spokesperson elicited no response. Calls to Jeh remained unanswered and a questionnaire sent also did not get any response.

A confrontation involving the Wadia group is not unfamiliar territory. The 1980s saw (Nusli) Wadia locked in a battle with Reliance Industries’ promoter, Dhirubhai Ambani and later there was a messy battle for the takeover of Britannia. More recently, he was right in the middle of the Tata-Mistry war in Bombay House that saw Wadia stepping down from the boards of several Tata group companies. All that never involved Wadia’s own family though. It’s quite a different story now with the future of Jeh in the group being unknown. There is no debate however that one has not heard the last word on this.

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Published on: Aug 27, 2021, 8:58 PM IST
Posted by: anwesha madhukalya, Aug 27, 2021, 8:52 PM IST