Ownership issues” among scions of business families are not uncommon, but rarely is a woman at the centre of the controversy. Which is what gives an added edge to the latest turn in the legal tussle between Priya Hiranandani-Vandrevala and her brother, Darshan Hiranandani. Priya and Darshan are the children of Niranjani Hiranandani, co-founder and managing director of Hiranandani Group which is one of the largest real estate developers in the country and has built mega townships in Powai and Thane near Mumbai. The over-Rs 12,000 crore group has now, under Darshan, diversified into hotels, hospitals and power.
It is the proposed power project, being set up in Maval in Pune district by a subsidiary, Hindustan Electricity Generation Company, that is at the centre of the current trouble with a newspaper report alleging that the protests at the site, which had held up work on the project, had been engineered by Priya. This apparently was what the Mumbai Crime Branch had reported to the state home ministry, after the latter had ordered an inquiry on the request of Niranjan who found that many of the protesting villagers and NGOs had lawyers who charged Rs 5 lakh a day.
Priya has not reacted publicly to the media report, but her father has. “I was sad and disappointed. I have only information of her involvement, but no proof against her,” he says.
But then 34-year-old Priya has always been something of a rebel and a maverick achiever. She started her career with international consultancy Arthur Andersen, much against her family’s wishes. She left soon after and, in 2001, set up a BPO, Zenta, on a friends’s advice. “I was always a rebel. I wanted to do things my way,” Priya, then 24 years old, had declared in a newspaper interview. That year, Priya, a post-graduate from Mumbai University and a chartered accountant, won the Indo-American Society for Young Entrepreneurs award (last year, she was one of a dozen Indians who were named Young Global Leaders by World Economic Forum). In just four years, Zenta became one of the top-10 BPOs in the country and Priya sold it to GTCR, an American private equity firm, in 2005 for $80 million (then around Rs 350 crore).
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This is not the first time that Priya has had a strained relationship with her family. Her parents had not liked it when her first marriage to Samir Gupta, who worked with her in Arthur Andersen, fell apart and she moved to the US. She met Cyrus Vandrevala, co-founder and vice-chairman of private equity firm Intrepid Capital Partners, there and married him, but it was only after the birth of their two children that their relations improved.
These days, Priya and Cyrus Vandrevala form part of what The Telegraph, UK, has dubbed “Britain’s Bollygarch” set — Indian billionnaires who have made London their home. Cyrus Vandrevala was in the news in 2008 for buying a £20 million home in Holland Park. The couple runs a British charity, The Vandrevala Foundation, that works in the areas of mental health, dyslexia and multiple sclerosis, and are regularly photographed at charity do’s and dinners with royalty, politicians, artists and film-stars.
In 2010, they were one of the principal contributors to The Elephant Parade, a charity and public-art event organised by an elephant-conservation NGO headed by Mark Shand, the brother of Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall. That year they also made to Evening Standard’s list of London’s top-20 philanthropists.
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The seeds of the current dispute within the Hiranandani family can be traced back to an arbitration plea filed a year ago by Priya in which she alleged that her father and brother had violated a business association agreement that the three had signed in May 2006. The bone of contention is the nearly 28 real-estate projects valued at around Rs 3,000 crore, which Priya says flout the agreement, which required Priya, Niranjan and Darshan to exclusively transact with each other while buying and developing land. She argued that new land bought by the Hiranandani Group was not translating into profits for her. The arbitration plea caught attention for the high profile names on the panel — Cherie Blair, wife of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who headed it; Ajit P Shah, former chief justice of Delhi High Court; and Lucy Reed, a queen’s counsel from UK.
The year 2006 was also when the Hiranandanis and Cyrus Vandrevala had floated Hirco, the investment arm of the Hiranandani Group, with an IPO on London’s Alternative Investment Market which raised a corpus of £383 million, and was one of the largest real estate IPOs on AIM that year.
By 2010, things had started to sour with Hirco as well. In September that year, Priya resigned as the chief executive following a strategic review by the company. Within a few months, Niranjan had also quit. He’d been waging a bitter battle with activist hedge funds which wanted his ouster from the company and had had to defer plans for Hirco’s reverse takeover of Hiranandani Group companies. There was also a Central Bureau of Investigation probe against him for breach of the Employees’ Provident Fund Act.
However, both Priya and Niranjan continue to be key promoters of the company; Priya also remains a consultant to the board.
Though insiders say it is money that is behind the infighting between the siblings, Niranjan takes a more philosophical view: “Younger people have high ambitions but little tolerance,” he says. “They want everything fast... Also, the joint family system is eroding. Earlier senior member of the family controlled affairs; now everyone wants to take their own call.”
Despite the bitterness, the Hiranandani patriarch does not seem to be without hope. “We would want to work out all issues and resolve them,” he states. “She [Priya] stays in London, Darshan stays in Dubai... Obviously we would like everybody to stay together. Nobody should impinge on the growth of other person. [But there is] a lot of scope to work together or separately.”