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Lunch with BS: Manisha Girotra

Cashing in on middle-class values

Abhineet Kumar  |  Mumbai 

The face behind many of India's big-ticket M&A deals attributes her desire to start a venture from scratch - again - to her upbringing

Manisha GirotraRose Princess of Chandigarh at the age of 3 and show-stopper at a Mumbai fashion show in her later years. It would have been easy to believe that the glamorous persona behind many signature mergers and acquisition deals in India harboured aspirations to make it big in the fashion world.

But Manisha Girotra, once the face of Swiss bank UBS in India, says that was never the case. The first accolade, she admits laughingly later in the meal, was the result of doting Punjabi parents’ ambitions to make her look cute. The second was done for a lark along with other corporate chiefs to raise money for charity.

She still loves to dress up, of course, and likes old woven Banarasi sarees besides patronising designers like Sabyasachi and Anamika. But it’s banking that gets her mojo working, and now back from gardening leave – the break some organisations mandate before joining a potential competitor – she’s working it full time setting up the India business for US bank Moelis, writes Abhineet Kumar.

Initially, I was worried that she would postpone our lunch appointment since it had been tough getting an interview with her when she was working with UBS. But Girotra meets me as scheduled at San-Qi at the Four Seasons. It turns out that her current office comprises a suite in the hotel, so the location of the lunch was convenient.

Dressed in a striking gold saree with a green and purple border, she is brimming with enthusiasm about her new role. As we settle down at the tony San-Qi, she observes that recession has reduced the crowds at the restaurant. As we scan the menu, she asks whether I am a vegetarian or non-vegetarian. The former, I say, but only because this was the auspicious month of Shrawan, though this dietary restriction was more health-related than a religious compulsion. She promptly agrees to join me for a vegetarian meal, but I encourage her to follow her heart and she quickly turns back to her original preference for non-vegetarian food.

She orders Somtam Salad and steamed mixed Dim Sum as starters for both of us, and a set sea bass meal for her main course. I order vegetable fried rice with stir-fried green vegetables. There’s music in the background, so I ask her what she likes to listen to. Bollywood music, she replies, especially the songs she grew up on. But now she is keeping up with her daughter Tara’s choice of Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga in her effort to be authentically New Age, she jokes.

Girotra has been synonymous with UBS in India, so I ask her how she felt leaving the business she built from scratch over 17 years. In Moelis, she says, it has been emotional, but she takes comfort from the fact that her former boss set up the firm, and roughly half its employees are ex-UBS. Besides, this has given her the challenge to build a business from scratch once again — which, she says, is the middle class solution for her entrepreneurial ambitions. Setting up a new business in a crowded market is high risk but the comfort of a large organisation provides the hedge, she explains.

I ask the obvious question: Why is Moelis coming to India at a time when most of the large global investment banks are scaling back and laying off employees? She attributes it to the long-term potential of the India growth story. Besides, this provides her the perfect opportunity to build the team at realistic employee and real estate costs and the breathing space to familiarise the firm with potential clients in time for the big deals.

So what would the firm focus on in the next three to five years? The bread and butter for the investment banking side would be cross-border deals and restructuring, she replies. Clearly, her eyes are on the impending restructuring opportunities as Indian corporations pass through a rough phase in the slowing economy. She plans to build the private equity business in the next phase of growth for Moelis

At, 42, what fuels so much of hunger I wonder and ask what makes her so aggressive. A middle-class upbringing, she answers cheerfully. Her father retired as chairman of public sector and her mother was an affectionate martinet. In her desire to make her daughter independent and employable, she once locked her in a room to introspect when she came second in class at college. At any rate, her mother’s strictness paid off: Girotra graduated from Delhi School of Economics as a gold medalist and started on a job with a salary of Rs 1,850 a month.

Not that she plans to emulate her mother’s parenting techniques. She acknowledges that their generation was too focused on careers and livelihoods. “We must not fall into the same trap,” she says, “we must encourage our children to develop a holistic approach to life.” Now, she lives in an Altamont Road apartment in south Mumbai with her banker husband Sanjay Agarwal, who heads the corporate business of Deutsche Bank in India. Today, they would undoubtedly be one of the country’s richest professional couples, though they maintain strict professional secrecy at home despite pitching for the same clients sometimes.

By this time we finish our main course and she orders green tea for both of us. “So who cooks at home,” I ask on a lighter note. Sanjay, she answers emphatically. Then she tells me how she put a bar of Dairy Milk into a microwave when her daughter asked for melted chocolate during a family holiday in London, setting off the fire alarm, much to her embarrassment.

Considering the many big-ticket deals she negotiated – including Vodafone’s acquisition of Hutchison Essar, United Spirits buyout of Whyte & Mackey, Hindalco’s deal to acquire Novelis – I ask her about the favourite one. She tells me it is the disinvestment of public sector petrochemicals firm Indian Petrochemicals Corporation Limited and its subsequent merger with Reliance Industries. Why? “Because that is where I started,” she replies. As I leave, I wish her luck with her “middle class” values, which – so far at least – don’t seem to have served her badly at all.

First Published: Tue, August 14 2012. 00:38 IST