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Anish Shah: The man at the wheel

Mahindra & Mahindra’s first non-promoter boss talks about learnings from GE, EVs, his equation with Anand Mahindra, and the philosophy of ‘helping out’

Anish Shah believes strongly in helping others (Priya Kuriyan)

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It was in 1998 that one of Anish Shah’s mentors first suggested, in passing, that he get in touch with Anand Mahindra of the Mahindra Group. Shah was leaving management consulting firm Bain & Co. and Rajan Panth, who had been an adviser at Mahindra & Mahindra and understood its ethos, was offering guidance on the pros and cons of rejoining General Electric, where Shah had worked previously. “Just have a conversation (with Mahindra), no agenda,” Shah recalls being told. He did.

It was only in August 2014, though, that Shah, now 53, joined M&M as group president, special projects. A year later, he became head of group strategy. Since April 2021, when Anand Mahindra decided to take on the role of non-executive chairman, Shah has been working as CEO and managing director at M&M, a federated group of companies with interests in businesses ranging from aerospace to agribusiness. He’s possibly the first non-family member to run the group.

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If office corners are any indication, Shah’s tells a story. For one, the office is in Mumbai’s Worli, on the same floor where group boss Anand Mahindra once sat (he now sits at Gateway House), and not in Kandivali, where former MD Pawan Goenka used to sit. Second, the office is surprisingly modern, with European wooden accents that may look more at home at a Swiss watchmaker’s than a company that makes tractors and SUVs.

The image of the independent new-age CEO tycoon carries over to the man. Shah, who dresses in sharp suits, with Salvatore Ferragamo silk ties, greets me at his office, where we are meeting for lunch ordered in from San Qi at the Four Seasons.

Over the last few months, Shah has been trying to consolidate, exiting businesses that haven’t been profitable. Losses had touched around 3,500 crore when he assumed command, due mainly to overseas businesses and subsidiaries. The group has since exited SsangYong Motor, GenZe (electric two-wheelers), GippsAero (Mahindra Aerospace’s Australian subsidiary) and the dairy business. MFCS (Mahindra First Choice Services), a used auto platform business, was sold to the TVS Group.

“Here, the underlying engine is running very well and I knew what needed to be done because I had spent seven years (in different roles) looking at the books.” Today, says Shah, the auto business is doing well, so is the farm business. In addition, he says, the auto SUV business has grown by over 60% in the last month, notching up around 28,000 vehicles compared to the same time a year ago.

At a group level, the consolidated operating revenue for the fiscal year 2022 was 90,171 crore, compared to 75,382 crore for the year before. The group has 260,00 employees in over 100 countries. By shutting businesses and selling what hasn’t worked, M&M has boosted profits by around 3,000 crore, says Shah.

Will he now look at businesses like real estate where profit needs to be turbo-charged? “Real estate, because of the brand equity, is much easier,” he says. “Also, because in real estate many developers haven’t delivered what they promised and a brand like Mahindra will. So from a sales standpoint, that becomes much easier for the consumer.”

The overall focus will continue to be on scale versus big-bang bets and investments. “We have a good collection of businesses, some have scaled, some are starting to build scale, and some are still lower on the spectrum. For example, Club Mahindra can grow phenomenally and is well positioned. Logistics, solar are other strong ones.” In absolute terms, Shah says he wants to get seven (or more) existing businesses up to a billion dollars in market cap in two-four years.

The seven are Mahindra Holidays, Mahindra Lifespaces, Mahindra Logistics, Solar, Accelo, which is into speciality steel and auto recycling. There is a rural housing finance venture, a separate entity under Mahindra Finance, and the motorcycle business Classic Legends, which includes brands such as Jawa.

Shah’s mandate, he says, is to maintain and enhance a purpose-driven culture, be a tech leader in each industry they are in, and create value by building scale in each business. How does the equation between Mahindra and Shah work? Shah pauses: “I try to involve him in everything as much as I can. And he tries to empower and give freedom for everything.

“Here, I would want to have him in for as much time as we can spend. Because he’s clearly someone who adds a lot of value in everything we do, whether it’s strategic, whether it’s with people, whether it’s external. So from that perspective, I have a great working relationship and am very comfortable with him. So, therefore, the more time we spend together the better it is for the group. And I guess he has a comfort level with me, which is why he’s, you know, being a lot more open and empowering.”

THE BACKSTORY

Shah’s academic inclinations seem to have been influenced by his parents. His father, an executive with Pfizer who went on to head the Indian Pharma Association, was in the first batch to graduate from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. His mother was part of the second batch. Shah, who attended the Mumbai-based Jamnabai Narsee School and then studied commerce at Sydenham College in the city, joined IIM, Ahmedabad for his master’s in business administration. In 1992, he joined Citibank’s commercial division in trade services, which meant he looked after the trade desk, issuing letters of credit bank guarantees and so on to large corporate houses. In 1993, he left Citibank, heading to the US for a PhD in finance and accounting at Carnegie Mellon University.

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The plan was to stay in the US for six-seven years to get international experience. Shah joined Bain & Co. in Boston, acquiring experience of working with businesses ranging from industrial equipment like steam boilers to financial products and consumer goods. “I loved Bain and Boston both and was there for around three years,” he says, adding that he then felt ready to actually run a business. So he grabbed the opportunity in late 1998 to work with General Electric in North Carolina, defining strategy for one of its business units. “It was a pathway to getting into industry and that’s when I jumped to GE and then spent some 14 years with them.”

The receptionist indicates lunch has arrived and we get up to move across to a smaller boardroom on the same floor. “GE was a complete meritocracy. They didn’t care about your background, how old you were, nothing. In fact, at 29, I was made head of marketing and product development for the business unit, which was one of its larger ones and had a net income of about $550 million (around 4,500 crore now). I was on a leadership team where everyone was 15 years older than I was, and most of them were white American men. But it’s something I didn’t even realise.” He believes Indians are more conscious of hierarchy and background.

He got to meet the legendary CEO Jeff Immelt several times and even lead what the latter called an imagination breakthrough project. “These were 30 projects across GE, at five projects in each of the six big verticals in GE.... I was, at that time, the product leader for mortgages, where we had what was $20 billion of assets effectively in two countries, UK and France. Immelt’s mandate was, “Take this to 30 countries and triple the assets from $20 billion to $60 billion in three years.

“You had to set up a new product but the support system was there,” Shah says. “So it was about thinking big and delivering. We got to 33 countries and $65 billion in two and a half years,” he adds.

After nine years at GE, he joined Bank of America in North Carolina to run a $2.5 billion business within retail banking. He spent two years there before being roped in by GE to move to Delhi and run GE Capital India. “The GE businesses in India had gone through lots of issues, there were 12 different business units, many of them were making losses. So the mandate was to shut down six of them and to grow the other six, and one of the ones to grow as a joint venture with State Bank of India, which was SBI Cards, which also had gone through lots of losses,” Shah says.

“That was one very good turnaround story,” he smiles, “because eventually it went on to a $9 billion IPO (initial public offering). So, a lot of value was created.”

When he moved to the Mahindra Group, he began looking at “a number of different things”, such as digitisation of businesses, settings for data science groups, synergy across businesses. There used to be five group presidents, reporting directly to Anand Mahindra (the president structure has since been disbanded). Shah roped in a fresh set of managers.

What about the pressure to perform in, for example, the auto business, where the world’s best car-makers are wondering how to tailor products to the electric era? Shah responds with a specific example. “Mahindra will start with having the best cars possible for electric. And today, given the XUV 700 and the teams that we have, we feel confident we can do that. We have a very good electric modulating platform.” All the talk of lack of infrastructure, the high cost of EVs and the challenges of driving range aside, Shah is expecting that one-third of their sales will come from EVs by 2027. Current sales are small, given the transition to EVs is underway, Shah adds.

What is his management philosophy? Shah says it’s helping others. Does that really work in the dog-eat-dog world of capitalism? “I encourage all our teams to help others; it builds a much stronger team. And over time, you may not get credit but the payback is far greater. People eventually notice. So you may have a little bit of heartburn sometimes, saying I didn’t get credit for it. Over time, it’s something that stands in much better stead. If that happens, then you will build a much stronger organisation as well.”

Pavan Lall is a Mumbai-based business journalist and author of Yes Man: The Untold Story Of Rana Kapoor.

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