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Volume IconWhat legacy Pallonji Mistry leaves behind?

Pallonji Mistry's quiet demise was in tune with his reclusive nature. He diversified the Shapoorji Pallonji Group and built some of the country's iconic buildings. Find out more about his legacy

Pallonji Mistry

Pallonji Mistry

The Reserve Bank of India’s old building inaugurated in 1939, the 1960 magnum opus Mughal-e-Azam, then RBI’s new building made in 1980 and nine-km long Atal Tunnel inaugurated in 2020. 

What connects these three?

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All of them were made by the sprawling engineering and construction empire of the Mistry family, whose billionaire patriarch Pallonji Mistry passed away in Mumbai on Tuesday at the age of 93. His funeral is slated to be held at 11am today in Mumbai.

For decades, he steered the Shapoorji Pallonji Group, which built luxury hotels, stadiums, palaces, offices, residences, ports and factories in 70 countries.

The family business was founded in 1865 when his grandfather, also called Pallonji, started a construction business with an Englishman called Littlewood Pallonji. The initial project was Mumbai’s first reservoir constructed at the highest point on Malabar hill. When he died in 1921, his son Shapoorji took over. The company began doing business with the Tata family in the 1920s. Pallonji Mistry, who was born in 1929, joined the business in 1947 at the age of 18. 

The group went on to build some of Mumbai’s landmark buildings that dot the city’s skyline today, including the HSBC Bank, The Cricket Club of India, New India Assurance, Reserve Bank of India buildings, Grindlays Bank, Standard Chartered Bank and the State Bank of India. It also built Famous Studios at Mahalaxmi in Mumbai.

The company is also known for building the iconic heritage Taj Mahal Palace Hotel and its 20-storeyed tower wing extension as well as the Oberoi Hotel, both of which came under attack by terrorists in 2008.

Interestingly, the group had a brief brush with Bollywood when Pallonji’s father financed the biggest blockbuster of its time in Hindi cinema, Mughal-e-Azam.

Released in 1960, it was the most expensive movie of its time and took over eight years to make. The script for Mughal-e-Azam was reportedly presented to him as payment for a debt. The family did not invest in the movie business after that.

Towards the end of the 1960s, Pallonji led the company’s expansion into the Middle East. Construction in the Middle East, fuelled by petrodollars, was booming and under his leadership, the company bid for, and won a tender to build the Sultan of Oman’s Palace in 1971 and many ministerial buildings there.

Pallonji took over the reins of the company in 1975, when his father passed away. When the Al Alam palace in Muscat opened that year, it not only established Shapoorji Pallonji as the first Indian construction company to have completed a project abroad, but the Palace also became a masterpiece of Indian capabilities to the world.

This also provided a launching pad for the group to consolidate its presence in the Middle East and foray into Africa, where it has executed several landmark projects such as the Presidential Office of Ghana, the National Assembly of Gambia, and the Ebene IT Park in Mauritius. 

Back home, the company also built the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in 1962, the Mumbai World Trade Centre in 1970, Tata and the 60-storeyed twin residential towers called the Imperial in the city in 2010. The Imperial was India’s tallest skyscraper for nearly a decade. Brabourne stadium in Mumbai, MCA Stadium in Pune, Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Delhi, Park Towers and Landmark Group building in Dubai were also the company’s legacy.

Pallonji’s management style and desire to expand globally was in sharp contrast to that of his father, who reportedly travelled abroad just twice for medical treatment of some family members. Pallonji gave up Indian nationality in 2003 and became an Irish citizen after his marriage to Dublin-born Patsy Perin Dubash. But he continued to live in his sea-facing bungalow in Mumbai’s Walkeshwar.

Pallonji Mistry’s 18.4% holdings made him the single largest shareholder in Tata Sons. In early 2012, he stepped down as Chairman of the Shapoorji Pallonji group and handed over the chairmanship to his elder son Shapoor Mistry. 

He was often known as the “Phantom of the Bombay House” for his indirect influence over the Tata Group affairs. Bombay House is the headquarters of the Tata group. He always kept a low profile and avoided the media. The family is also reclusive. Even the details of Pallonji’s marriage is not in public domain.

Afcons, a unit of Shapoorji Pallonji Group, is known for executing some of the most challenging and complex projects across the world, including the 9.02-kilometre-long Atal Tunnel, which passes under the Rohtang Pass in Himachal Pradesh. It is the world’s longest highway tunnel above 10,000 feet. Afcons is also building the Chenab Rail Bridge in Jammu & Kashmir. Hoisted 359 metres above the river bed, it will be the highest single-arch railway bridge in the world.

The Shapoorji Pallonji group today boasts of 70,000 employees worldwide. Pallonji Mistry’s personal philanthropy, always given privately and without any fanfare, over the decades has also been significant. 

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First Published: Jun 29 2022 | 7:00 AM IST

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