At 65, Nusli Wadia has given up many things: Smoking (Dunhill and Davidoff were his brands); day-to-day management of his companies (his two sons Jeh and Ness and other powerful CEOs like Vinita Bali of Britannia take care of that almost independently); and his once all-consuming war with the Ambanis is history now.
What he hasn’t given up are his few friends (Ratan Tata, Keshub Mahindra, Sharad Pawar and L K Advani) and reclusive nature. He and his wife Maureen Wadia, the lady behind a thousand pretty faces including Aishwarya Rai, have always been staying out of the limelight and steering clear of business chambers and associations.
Plus, of course, the badge of honour that Nusli Wadia has always been known for: A feisty fighter. Ask Groupe Danone SA.
The French dairy major had at one stage wanted to fight Wadia over control of Britannia Industries. The simmering tension came to the fore when Danone decided to acquire a stake in Avasthagen, a Bangalore-based neutraceutical firm, without Wadia’s consent in 2007. Next came the French firm’s alleged move to register Tiger (Britannia’s popular biscuit brand) in 70 countries — again without its Indian partner's consent.
The “feisty fighter” struck back — and how. He first blocked the Avasthagen acquisition by invoking his first right of refusal and then dragged the French firm to court over violation of intellectual property rights involving Tiger (that case is still going on). When Danone sold its worldwide biscuits business to US-based Kraft Foods, only India had to be left out of the deal because it couldn’t sell its interests in India without Wadia’s approval.
As the curtains fell on the three-year long battle on Monday, Wadia managed to get majority control in Britannia — something he has been wanting since 1993 when he negotiated with Huntley and Palmer to take over the company. But the dream took 16 long years to become a reality, courtesy a bruising battle with American cookie giant Nabisco and his once close friend, the late Rajan Pillai.
It’s icing on the cake that Britannia happens to be the jewel in Wadia’s crown. Britannia was one of the two companies in the Wadia group (the other being the relatively much smaller National Peroxide) that saw an increase in its net profit for the nine months ended December 2008. This came at a time when the group’s consolidated net profit dropped 84 per cent. Britannia’s market capitalisation (m-cap) has fallen a modest 4.93 per cent to Rs 3,515 crore from its peak of Rs 3,697 crore on January 8, 2008. For the record, the m-cap of the four listed companies in the Wadia group went down by 49 per cent in the same period.
The fight with Danone was just one among many battles in which Wadia has been involved. Apart from Pillai, the other person who could have vouched for this fierce fighting spirit was Kolkata-based jute baron Arun Bajoria who threatened a hostile bid for Bombay Dyeing. At the end of it all, Bajoria had to sell his stake, saying it was merely a portfolio investment.
His turf battle with Dhirubhai Ambani is part of corporate folklore. It was a battle that involved not just the two of them but also many politicians, including then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and his Finance Minister V P Singh, and two media groups — the Indian Express and Observer.
The biggest battle that the grandchild of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, founder of Pakistan, fought was, however, with his own father, Neville Wadia. In 1971, the senior Wadia announced his decision to sell Bombay Dyeing to Kolkata-based industrialist R P Goenka and settle abroad. But Nusli, then 26 years old, ignored his father’s advice that they could live like lords in Switzerland with the money.
With help from his mother Dina Wadia and mentors such as J R D Tata, Nusli began by garnering 11 per cent of the company shares and went on to persuade the employees to pool their savings and buy shares to prevent the sale. The ploy worked and Neville Wadia, forced to abandon the sale, retired a few years later to be succeeded as chairman by his son.
Danone should have known better.