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Harsh Goenka: The creative leader

  • The chairman of RPG Enterprises opens up to Mint about his left-leaning youth, his social media handles, and the need for happiness at the workplace
  • 'We don’t want to be the largest group in the country—that’s a by-product—but we want to make it the most exciting place to work,' says Goenka

Harsh Goenka.
Harsh Goenka. (Jayachandran/Mint)

If there hadn’t been strong parental intervention, Harsh Goenka might have ended up as a journalist or as a “red" economist.

Growing up in Calcutta, as it was called then, in a city that placed the artist above the businessman in its social hierarchy, Goenka was deeply influenced by Marxism. He considered going to the London School of Economics because it was left-leaning. He was influenced by the city’s addas, where students and unemployed youth debated politics and the state of the world over tea and cigarettes.

But his generationally business- inclined family had other ideas. They chipped away at his leftist notions, “brainwashed him" into choosing a capitalist path and becoming the fifth generation in the family business.

The 61-year-old chairman of RPG Enterprises smiles softly as he recalls those early days, a far cry from the plush Belvedere Club of The Oberoi in Mumbai. It’s early evening and Goenka has just returned from a jury meeting for an awards event. He jokes about how many juries he is part of because everybody is certain he will not win any awards.

Dressed in a dark suit, bearded, soft-spoken to a fault, Goenka has more accomplishments and interests than can fit on a page. The RPG group has more than 15 companies, with interests in sectors ranging from information technology, infrastructure and pharmaceuticals to energy and agriculture. His family used to routinely play host to renowned musicians and cricketers and his interests in food, art, sports and, more recently, Twitter have sometimes overshadowed his achievements as a business head.

“Earlier, I used to write a lot, every month. Now, I don’t feel the need. With 280 characters, I can say what I want. Over a period of time, I have learnt to put things (in a way) that get me in less trouble," he says, smiling. If he got into a spat with cricketer Ambati Rayudu a couple of years ago, just earlier this week, Goenka tweeted in support of a recruiter who outed a candidate on LinkedIn for not turning up for a job. This led to a spate of angry comments and plenty of shares.“I didn’t realize how intolerant our society is till I got on social media. My Facebook is a closed account, Instagram is about art and food and Twitter (he has 1.5 million followers) is just nonsense."

Once he got over his youthful phase of wanting to become a jholawala, he studied for a bachelor’s degree in arts, “which meant you didn’t learn anything". An MBA from Switzerland’s International Institute of Management Development (IMD) proved to be a defining experience because it was the first time he had to fend for himself.

“We were brought up frugally and I still remember my pocket money in school was 50 paise and in college it became 20. We could only go to Udupi joints or eat jhaal muri off the streets," he says. The only person he knows who lives more frugally than him is his friend (former Wipro Ltd. chairman) Azim Premji.

On his return to India, Goenka worked in traditional businesses, and found that processes and systems in the country were poor. He developed a shrewd sense for business, or baniya buddhi, as he calls it. It would come in handy at age 24 when he was made chief executive of the family-owned tyre firm CEAT.

“I didn’t have the wherewithal to run and lead a business where people were double my experience, age, and smarter than me," he says. “What it taught me was humility. You come back from an MBA and you think you are the cat’s whiskers. Then, when you lead a business, you realize you know nothing."

It sparked in him a constant quest for learning. Even today, Goenka keenly reads newspapers and magazines, and attends educational workshops and lectures on issues like shareholder activism and corporate governance.

Between sips of a fresh lime juice and ignoring a plateful of cookies, Goenka talks about his family. He says he is a more analytical businessman than his father, who was more intuitive. He recalls how Rama Prasad Goenka shook hands on a buyout deal with a German company after a brief exchange of information. Even as Harsh was considering the liabilities and assets on the balance sheet, the senior Goenka had moved on after giving his word.

R.P. Goenka, who retired when Harsh was only 34, also realized that his conglomerate should be divided between the brothers Harsh and Sanjiv. The group Sanjiv heads is called RP-Sanjiv Goenka (RPSG).

It was emotionally heart-wrenching, remembers Harsh Goenka, because his relationship with Sanjiv ran deep and they had worked together for almost two decades. He didn’t want a separation, but their father felt it was the right thing to do. “He could see what we could not," says Goenka. “Both groups have done well after separation. We have our independence. That time, we were unhappy with the decision but my father had the foresight to do it."

The RPG Group today has a consolidated turnover of almost $4 billion (around 27,600 crore). He says the group could have done better if they had been more aggressive. “If you look at our two years’ growth, a top-line CAGR (compounded annual growth rate) of 13% is not bad.

“We don’t want to be the largest group in the country—that’s a by-product—but we want to make it the most exciting place to work. We take a lot of interest in the softer aspects (of work-life). How do you make this the happiest place to work?"

“Seeking happiness, finding growth" is a mantra on the company website—and the vision statement has a smiley. Their head office in Worli has shed the corporate look. Some floors resemble the offices of an advertising agency, with breakout areas that could include a swing. Goenka says there is no constant pressure on people to perform—they have targets and it is up to them to achieve them.

“We have flexi timings," he says, using a millennial term. “Earlier, we used to have clock-ins. Not now. Nobody asks you why you have not come to work or are late. We have trust—you can work out of home."

An extension of this “softer" approach also led him to invest in the e-commerce firm Seniority, at a time when he was looking for some aids for his mother. “I was talking to a friend and he said the two things that have changed his parents’ life are Seniority and Carvaan (the portable digital music player), which is a Saregama (an RPSG company) product. It is fulfilling and satisfying to hear there is a marketplace where you can buy things for older people."

Goenka admits to one fixed routine on Saturdays: He “closes shop" at 5pm and heads to art galleries for an hour and a bit. He likes a lot of young contemporary artists and finds it exciting to discover an unknown artist. His interest is well-known, with art camps having been organized at his home in Mumbai’s Marve suburb over the years. The RPG office showcases, among others, the works of M.F. Husain, Tyeb Mehta, S.H. Raza and V.S. Gaitonde, alongside upcoming artists, in rotation.

Recently, however, Goenka has stepped back a bit—he is uncomfortable with the commercialization of the art world. “Once it became (about) commerce, then the beauty of art became different. Everyone wanted to sell, lots of pretensions came in. I don’t speak of art even if people want to speak about it," he says.

Before we part, I ask him whether it is true that he seldom loses his temper. “I don’t display feelings—not that I don’t have them—but keep them bottled. My wife would disagree," he says, grinning. “It just doesn’t serve a purpose."

He mentions a period in the early 2000s when the company was going through a bad time—three flagship companies (KEC, CEAT and CESC) were struggling and they had a large liability in their financial services business. When he felt low, he found refuge in the Bhagavad Gita.

“Am I ritualistic? No. Do I believe in God? Once in a while. Ultimately, you know what’s right and wrong. I wish the world had one religion which taught one how to live. But that would be an ideal world."


Favourite painting

An Akbar Padamsee “metascape" at his residence

Art he aspires to have

Salvador Dali, Frida Kahlo

Favourite restaurant

Izumi in Bandra, Mumbai

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Arun Janardhan is a Mumbai-based journalist who covers sports, business leaders and lifestyle.

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