Nafeesa Moloobhoy is steering a century-old maritime company into newer adventures, after earning her place at the helm the slow, hard way
Nafeesa Moloobhoy does nothing in half measures. In 2001, when she wanted to take over the running of a 90-year-old AS Moloobhoy Group, she decided she would use a spare peon’s stool – the one with no backrest and a hard wooden seat – till she learns the ropes. She believed that her staff knew better than her, so she would listen closely. True to her word, she got a slightly better chair only after two to three years. Meanwhile, she worked across departments, be it marketing, taxation, law, supply chain or sales, to understand the ins and outs of the company.
When the reins of the 115-year old maritime manufacturing and servicing company were handed over to her, there were doubters. But Moloobhoy plowed on, with a stubborn will and an endearing self-assuredness, and proved each detractor wrong.
Born to a lawyer father and a teacher mother, Moloobhoy’s childhood in Bandra was far from luxurious, but it was a happy, secure and comfortable one. Her mother imbibed in her the importance of integrity. For instance, her mother refused to give her a leave note if she missed doing her homework during the Eid holidays. She told her daughter to be honest to the teachers, and if they yelled, she would meet them and sort it out. This principle of not molly-coddling your child but having his or her back is what Moloobhoy follows with her children and her employees too. “I tell my people, do your things with due diligence, intent and purpose, and get the deal. If anything goes wrong, I am there to support you. And I have always gone and fought from the front line along with my team,” she says.
She was always a bright student and a frontbencher. So when she had to drop out of college, where she was pursuing her BCom, after her marriage with Adil Moloobhoy was fixed, her teachers were aghast. Her principal tried to convince her mother to reconsider but her mother insisted that this was the right thing for her daughter. “My husband was the catch of the decade,” says Moloobhoy, laughing. One fine day, her books were sold off to the raddiwala and she was forbidden from going to the college. “Now, I always joke about it that since my ‘upstairs’ is empty, it helps me fill in and grasp things faster,” she says, good-humouredly.
At 21, she became Mrs Moloobhoy and found herself out her depth. The culture of her husband’s family was different from hers, in the way they dressed, spoke and even socialised. She remembers them as difficult days when there were many embarrassments, but believes that it made her a tough and “solid” person. So no regrets there.
When her father-in-law passed away, her husband had to manage the business and many estates, which weren’t well-maintained, and also had to clear tax and legal hassles. She volunteered to help and visited chartered accountant Raju Jhunjhuwala, who later became her mentor. He didn’t take her seriously at first, asking her to leave the files at his table and discussing everything including the weather but work. She insisted that she is in-charge now, not her husband, and went back to him thrice before Jhunjhunwala relented. “Today he says, when I sit with Nafeesa, she teaches me a thing or two,” says Moloobhoy.
When Moloobhoy was pregnant with her first child, the family business was in the middle of a split, and she actively participated in the discussions. But it was only after her two daughters turned four and two, that she formally took the charge of handling the peripheral businesses which included managing properties and share portfolios. She ran her office, with an accountant and secretary, from a bedroom in her house.
In 2001, when her husband began falling ill, he decided to take an early retirement and shift to Chiang Mai in Thailand, where his friend was opening The Asian Leadership Institute. The business he had left behind had begun to crumble and Moloobhoy wanted him to let her take over. He was reluctant, considering how little she knew about the marine industry, but she said: “It has anyway touched the rock bottom, so it can only move upwards. Why don’t we try it?” He replied, “See what you can do.” That’s when Moloobhoy decided to take the peon’s seat and earn her chair.
Moloobhoy’s way of finding her way through the industry has been to constantly learn from her competitors and partners, whenever she visits their sites. When she joined, the company’s major revenue generator was life-saving equipment that went on the ships, such as life boats, apart from servicing and ship chandling. She started taking interest in electronic equipment for ships, and began dealing with the defense, oil and gas industries, and government research institutes and bodies. Today, they supply parts for gadgets made by The National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT) in Chennai and Naval Science and Technological Laboratory (NSTL) in Vishakapatnam. Since she has taken over, the company has expanded into various geographies such as the UAE and Oman. It will soon start doing business in Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and even in Japan.
She credits her success to swift decision-making and a homemaker’s budgeting skill. “A homemaker can’t get an overdraft, so she’ll save, avoiding wastage and switching off lights when not needed. I carry the same habits to my business, keeping a keen eye on our cash flow. Business is no rocket science, it’s just common sense,” she says.
Moloobhoy plans to handover her business to her daughters, Gazalah and Tehzeeb, in the next three years. But just like her, they are also earning their inheritance.