DBG-Married To The Boss
March 10, 2013 3 Comments
As Dipali Balkrishan Goenka (DBG), 44, takes charge as managing director of Welspun India — the original textile company, started by her husband 28 years ago — she finds herself in the news. Indian corporate history has occasionally seen the First Lady of family business houses play a limited behind-the-scenes role in the business, but for the most part they have focused on CSR (corporate social responsibility) activities. Now, for the first time, the spouse of a major industrialist is to be promoted to the top job in a widely held company. Welspun India’s revenues and profits are a third of the group’s 17,000 crore turnover and it employs more people than all the other companies put together.
About a dozen years ago Dipali wanted to join the business full time and her husband,Balkrishan Goenka(BKG) thought it was a fantastic arrangement. His thinking was that when his company was in a growth trajectory and he had little time for family and friends, this could be a harmonious arrangement.
In the boardroom,BKG and DBG (as Dipali likes to be called) make for a harmonious couple. As one talks, the other listens rapt, hanging on every word. She’s the more articulate of the two, constantly gesticulating with her hands, using lavish expressions. He’s the reserved one, happy to let his wife do the talking, given to terse replies when he’s asked a direct question.
So how did this arrangement come about? “Dipali has a genuine passion for business,” BKG says. “Ultimately, it depends on the individual.Otherwise there are so many avenues for ladies to spend their time.”
Nothing in the Goenka’s traditional Marwari wedding ,26 years ago, presaged what was to come. He was 22, a budding entrepreneur who had eschewed a college education to set up a polyester unit in the outskirts of Mumbai. She was a gangly 18 year old, fresh out of Jaipur’s Maharani Gayatri Devi Girl’s School. As DBG puts it,”I married into BK’s dreams and ambitions. Even when I was at home raising our daughters, I followed Welspun’s growth.”
DBG’s career at Welspun India was soft launched in 2000, when her two daughters were 9 and 11 years old. Starting in the purchase department, she moved to human resources and finally to the company’s design studio, where she found her moorings. Then came the retail boom, when Welspun decided to set up a chain of stores for its home furnishings and towels. DBG had spent two years in the company by then and was ready to assert herself. She went to Rajesh Mandawewala, the managing director and BKG’s cousin and said she wanted the job of CEO for retail, that the company was hiring for at the time.
DBG got the job and went on to build a national chain of more than 100 Welhome stores. This built her confidence, which received a further boost when she attended a Harvard Business School management development programme in 2005. She would eventually have to close down all the stores when they became unviable in the aftermath of the slump of 2008, but she had moved into a larger role in the company by then. “I had learnt to be dispassionate about hard business decisions. In a way, the pain was important,” she says.
The closure of her stores was not the only pain DBG had to face in her career at Welspun. She was also called upon to shut down the operations of two companies that Welspun had acquired in Mexico and Portugal. That probably hurt less, since the acquisitions had happened when she still in retail. Her move into the main business also coincided with a huge jump in the price of cotton, which had a major impact on margins. “I remember people used to say my entry had made cotton more expensive. It was a bad start,” she says.
Through all the ups and downs in her career, DBG has reported to Rajesh Mandawewala rather than her husband. BKG believes that is the key to the success of the arrangement they have had and he advises other industrialists who might want to follow suit to do the same. “You can’t mentor your wife like you would a child,” he says. “I have always taken care to see she never had a direct reporting relationship with me. In the office, I see her as a CEO, not as my wife.”
Though her appointment as MD of Welspun India still awaits board approval, DBG has taken charge for over a year now. Officially, she is still the MD of Welspun Global Brands, the company’s marketing arm, which is now being merged with the parent. On paper, Mandawewala, remains the managing director of Welspun India, though he is now referred to internally as the ‘group managing director’. It’s not a designation you might find in management texts, but it means the MDs of the group companies all report to him and he is still DBG’s boss.
According to Mandawewala,DBG has made a difference to Welspun’s culture.She has brought a sense of being a responsible social citizen to the organization, which was not there before. DBG has also brought a hefty dose of gender diversity into the company, recruiting women with a vengeance. According to DBG women have never been empowered enough in the Marwari community, so she wants to do her little bit to change matters. The textile industry is male dominated, though its consumers are mainly women. When DBG joined, only 5% of Welspun’s employees were women now its been brought up to 30%.
Welspun’s new women recruits are not just in the Mumbai offices — they are now a large and very visible presence in the company’s manufacturing facilities in Vapi and Anjar as well. In Anjar, DBG is out to create a hostel for women workers who might be from nearby villages of Gujarat. Very few textile companies have as many women on the shop floor as Welspun does.
Colleagues who worked with her in the early days, say that today’s DBG and the earlier DBG are totally different.In the early days DBG was more concerned with designs and products. Today she talks at an enterprise level, about vision and strategy. At the same time she remains very customer focused, which is seen as her biggest strength.
Travel is often a bugbear with women executives, but DBG has accepted it as an unavoidable part of her career. In the early days it was trips to retail store locations. Today, Welspun’s export oriented product portfolio makes for frequent trips abroad. And then there are the mandatory visits to the two production units in Gujarat. “It was hard in the initial years, when my daughters were still young. But everyone eventually adjusted to not having me at home all the time,” she says.
In balancing family and work, DBG has learnt to focus on the important and essential. For example, DBG cancelled her trip to Davos at the last minute last year when her daughters, both studying abroad, arrived in Mumbai a week earlier than expected, to give their parents a surprise.People who have known DBG since she was a child in Jaipur and have seen her change over the years,note that she has the mind of a working woman.Many Marwari ladies take an active part in their family business, but they tend to act like owners. Dipali is different. The way she behaves at meetings, its hard for outsiders to guess she is the chairman’s wife.
The Goenkas have always been a nuclear family, which has probably played an important part in the success of their arrangement. Even while climbing Welspun’s corporate ladder, DBG has continued to play the gracious host, throwing great dinner parties at the heritage property the Goenkas have bought in Breach Candy. They have also broken from Marwari tradition in that neither of them is vegetarian, nor are they teetotalers. BKG explains it away in his characteristically succinct style. “We are international people,” he says. BKG doesn’t have a patriarchal mentality. He interacts with his wife as an equal, just as he treats professionals as equals.
The Goenka experiment is likely to be a trend setter.Promoters have to groom family members carefully if they are to avoid creating resentment among professionals. After a point, it has to be merit based. If DBG hadn’t done well in the earlier jobs, BKG would have found it hard to expand her role.Indeed what could be better than partnering in business with your better half ?