Almost a hundred years ago, when famous weaver Nalli Chinnasami Chetty started a small store from his house in Chennai’s T. Nagar to manufacture exquisite silks and pure Kanchipuram sarees, it was unimaginable that a woman would be at the helm of affairs at any point. But that is exactly what has happened at one of India’s oldest family-run enterprises that sells more than 2 million sarees annually. For Lavanya Nalli, the 38-year-old Vice Chairman of Nalli Silk Sarees, that had a turnover of Rs 570 crore in FY21, things weren’t easy when she joined the business in 2005. “Retail was still a dirty word then,” says Lavanya Nalli, who was the first woman from her family to join the business. After completing her engineering, she had around three weeks free, which she spent in Nalli’s back office.
And she was hooked. “I was fascinated with the retail aspect. So much goes on behind the scenes,” she says. “We had all the systems and processes in place but it was all done by people.” The first thing she did was start work on automating the processes. Having worked at Nalli for a few years she went to Harvard for her MBA, after which she worked at McKinsey and Myntra before rejoining the family business in 2016. Lavanya Nalli says she had to find her own path within the organisation as things weren’t laid out for her. For instance, she set up the e-commerce business from scratch. “In my case there was no pressure to join the family business.”
While Lavanya Nalli didn’t face pressure when starting out, for other women who are taking the family business forward, the pressure to perform comes automatically. For Tara Singh Vachani—the youngest of Max Founder Analjit Singh’s three children—one thing made clear to her from the get go was that she had to earn her stripes. “Everything I do, I am very conscientious about it. So the sense of pressure was in-built. The gratitude of the opportunity and the resources to do this was an added level of pressure,” says the Executive Chairperson of Antara Senior Living and Vice Chairperson of Max India, which had a turnover of Rs 230 crore in FY22. For Vachani, 35, it was all about proving herself. “The company is run by professionals. If we were to join the business, we had to prove ourselves,” she adds.
Vachani makes an important point about ensuring merit in a family-run business. For Nyrika Holkar, 39, a fourth-generation member of the Mumbai-based Godrej family, a 360-degree feedback mechanism is an effective way to ensure that meritocracy is followed within the family running the business. “I worked for six years at a law firm before joining the company to make sure I don’t take things for granted. It’s important for each family member to have responsibility and they should be held accountable; they should have focus areas… It’s very important to ensure the board is holding family members accountable,” says Holkar, Executive Director of Godrej & Boyce, which had a turnover of Rs 10,140 crore in FY21.
At footwear maker Metro Brands, which had a turnover of Rs 1,343 crore in FY22, Founder Malik Tejani’s granddaughters Farah and Alisha are taking forward the family business. Metro operates brands such as Metro, Mochi, Walkway and Davinchi as well as third-party brands like Crocs, Skechers, Florsheim and FitFlop. Farah is the second of five sisters, while Alisha is the youngest. “The fact is that we are all five sisters. If there was a brother in the mix, I wonder how the situation would have been,” says 46-year-old Farah Malik Bhanji, Managing Director of Metro Brands, which has her father Rafique Malik as Chairman. “Growing up we were given a lot of freedom about what we wanted to pursue,” she says. Bhanji has lovely memories of the Metro stores when she was growing up. “When the business was small, it was almost like a family. My father’s birthday was always celebrated at the store. From a very young age, after school, we would go to the Colaba store to hang out with granddad because he was quite a personality. He would tell us jokes,” she recalls.
One of the biggest challenges for her, she says, was to bring in new changes in the business from the way it was being run. “It was an autocratic style of leadership. Most founders of businesses are far more autocratic in nature,” she says. But as she started getting more professionals into the company, it had to become a far more collaborative style of leadership. Women leaders like her, Bhanji adds, tend to come across as more aggressive because they have to push that much harder to attain success.
Experts feel that family-owned businesses are a great way to ensure that there’s more representation of women in leadership roles. Holkar agrees. “There’s still a long way to go especially in set-ups like ours that have traditionally been manufacturing/engineering-focussed. With family businesses, at least from an agenda-setting perspective, it has paved a path for better diversity ratios,” she says.
Sougata ray, executive director at the Thomas Schmidheiny Centre for Family Enterprise, Indian School of Business (ISB), says women in business families need to be allowed to participate in family enterprises as freely as the men. “There are still some families which believe that women are not supposed to join the business, especially [those run by] their parents. That postpones their opportunities to get to leadership positions,” he says. “Families where there is nobody else except the girl child are more open.”
Vinati Saraf Mutreja, 38, MD and CEO of Vinati Organics, that had a turnover of Rs 1,616 crore in FY22, says family businesses can increase the number of women in leadership roles. “I definitely believe family businesses can set an example. When families start treating daughters and sons equally, the message is driven home faster,” she says. Mutreja, who joined her father Vinod Saraf in his chemical manufacturing business in 2006, has grown the company to Rs 20,000 crore in market capitalisation from Rs 20 crore. “In the beginning I would shadow my father, sit in meetings, learning different aspects of the business. It was easier to learn as it was a small company. Today it’s a different animal altogether and I’ve been a part of that growth journey, growing along with it,” she says.
One of the biggest caveats of running a family business, Mutreja says, is that it’s not just a business. “It’s your family’s legacy; you’re not in it for the money. There are a lot more emotions attached. Then there’s a high level of trust. It may be harder to trust a professional,” she says. “One should only join a family business if you have an interest in it; otherwise get a professional CEO to run it.”
After Mutreja came on board, the company started diversifying from pharmaceuticals to different product segments such as agro chemicals, oil and gas, water treatment, personal care, etc., and today exports to 35 countries. She gives credit for it to her and her father’s balancing act. “My leadership style is more democratic —I take more team-led decisions so that we make an informed decision together... But my father, since he’s the founder, is a little more authoritative. That’s why we balance each other quite well and solve most conflicts as a team,” she says.
It’s possibly the toughest challenge for a family business to keep conflicts at bay. And it sure takes love and respect to keep it together, says Schauna Chauhan, 46, the eldest of the three daughters of Parle Agro Founder Prakash Chauhan. According to their father’s plan, the key responsibilities of Schauna, Alisha (the middle sister, 44) and Nadia (the youngest, 36) are clearly divided with each focussing on their strengths. While Schauna takes care of manufacturing, compliance, quality, finance and technical functions, Alisha oversees CSR and Nadia is in charge of strategy, sales and marketing, and R&D. “There’s never any insecurity between us… A big advantage of a family business is that you become each other’s bouncing boards; so with the work, our stress levels are equally divided as well,” says Schauna Chauhan, CEO of Parle Agro.
All three sisters have been part of the family business for a long time. “We’ve all been involved since we were very young. I was already mentally prepared that this is what I’m going to do,” says Schauna Chauhan. The advantage of having the Chauhan family name and ‘Parle Agro’ on her visiting card, she says, opens up a lot of doors, if used well. “Our father has had a very positive impact on us. He moves with the times and is adaptive to change, which none of us can match,” she says. Her sister, Nadia Chauhan, Joint MD and CMO of Parle Agro, agrees. “You need to be extremely agile and adapt to the changing environment.”
Nadia Chauhan recalls that when she joined the company over a decade ago, she didn’t want to just go about changing things. “I only wanted to establish a very clear vision for the company so it was about getting everyone to buy into that vision. Any change that was made to achieve the vision was that much more possible because everyone knew it was the only way to get there,” she says.
For most women leaders, a major challenge is balancing work and family. Godrej & Boyce’s Holkar says a woman leader has to balance “taking care of the family when she’s also running the business”. This is the reason why very few women reach executive positions, she adds. Historically, due to this, women have created opportunities for themselves to work outside the core business and run foundations, etc., says ISB’s Ray. “But that’s changing. Women of the new generation are actually interested to join the family business. It’s a very interesting start but there’s still a long way to go,” he adds.
Metro Brands’ Bhanji says women multi-task better because they are constantly juggling family and work. “There is an opportunity cost to coming to work every day. And that’s why we value it more and we want more out of it. We know we are giving up on something to come to work and that drives us more and we add more value,” she says. Bhanji believes workplaces need more women from different ethnicities to add to the diversity of a company because the thought processes are so different. Her sister Alisha Malik, 36, says that the biggest opportunity in a family business is that you have to keep reinventing it. “Metro Brands has been a family business for 70 years but as my father likes to say, it’s a 70-year-old start-up,” says Alisha Malik, President of E-commerce & Marketing, Metro Brands.
The Malik sisters, like the Chauhan sisters, have very clear roles in the company. “In our family we love to argue it out. We hear the other’s opinion and then come to a decision that we are all comfortable with,” says Bhanji.
As far as the next generation is concerned, there are 10 grandkids and Bhanji believes it would be nice if at least some of them were to join the family business or stay in operational roles. Most women carrying forward the family business would like the next generation to take the legacy forward. Some, like Schauna Chauhan, have already started involving their children. Her nine-year-old son, Jahaan, likes to come to the manufacturing unit and isn’t shy of expressing his pride whenever he spots a stranger drinking Frooti. “I would be disappointed if my son doesn’t join the family business, which is why I’m ensuring that I’m able to groom him. But I know I can’t go overboard and it’s his decision in the end,” she says.
As more women leaders break through the glass ceiling of family businesses in the country, India Inc. will see more diversity in boardrooms. And that can only be good for business.
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