Hinduja, a 'relatively' successful billionaire

One of India's wealthiest businessman, Gopichand Hinduja and his three brothers have built a multinational empire that is based on an adherence to simple religious principles.

Illustration by Christopher Burke
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Gopichand Hinduja is worth billions of dollars, but he still shares a kitchen with his three brothers.

"We are not materialistic," says the soft-spoken Gopichand, who often sounds more like a theologian than a businessman. He co-chairs the Indian multinational corporation Hinduja Group with his eldest brother Srichand.

Srichand, 75, and Gopichand, 70, are based in the exclusive district of Mayfair in London. The third brother, Prakash, 65, is in Geneva, while the fourth, and the youngest, Ashok, 60, remains in Mumbai.

In each country, there is a house with a joint kitchen for all four of the brothers and their families to use. "We live together. Wherever we congregate that is home to us," Gopichand says.

It is hard to comprehend how the Hinduja brothers could not live a life of exuberance and luxury. They are estimated to be worth a total of about US$9.5 billion (Dh34.89bn), according to The Sunday Times 2008 Rich List.

The Hinduja empire has interests in finance, energy, infrastructure, telecommunications and manufacturing services across the US, Europe and Far East. The group employs more than 40,000 people in 37 countries.

Srichand and Gopichand are thought to be the most successful Indians in the UK after the business magnate Lakshmi Mittal, the chairman of Arcelor Mittal, the world's largest steel company.

"We entered the business in our teens, and learnt it from the grass-root level," Gopichand says. "We've grown up with a hands-on experience at every level and each of us are responsible for different geographies and different sectors."

The family's success began with their father, Parmanand, who came from the Sindh province of what is now Pakistan and started a business in Mumbai in 1914 importing carpets, dried fruits and saffron from Iran, and exporting textiles, tea and other spices to the West.

He founded Hinduja Group, and Iran soon became the company's business base, where the family had close ties to the Shah.

The 1979 Islamic Revolution, prompted the company to move its headquarters to London, where it remains today.

Parmanand also made a fortune selling Bollywood films internationally and became a dollar millionaire in 1921.

"He began working at the age of 14 ," Gopichand says. "In the beginning it was just banking and trade, then he expanded to the Middle East in 1919. We brothers and the family are hard workers and we work for the business."

He pauses and then repeats the family motto: "Everything belongs to everyone and nothing belongs to anyone."

Gopichand's easy charm, sceptics say, is indicative of the family's ability to sweet talk senior religious, political and business figures, a talent that has helped them on the road to success.

One of the family's most controversial episodes was in 2001 when they contributed $1.5 million to the construction of the Millennium Dome in London, an issue that eventually led to the resignation of Peter Mandelson as the UK minister for Northern Ireland, for the second time.

Mr Mandelson, who was in charge of the Dome project, was accused of accepting the donation in return for pulling strings to secure a British passport for Srichand. The politician was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing, after he admitted making misleading statements about Srichand's passport.

The Hinduja family caused a stir in 1989 when the brothers were accused of receiving millions of dollars from Bofors, a Swedish arms manufacturer, in return for persuading the Indian government to buy 400 field guns. It led to a criminal investigation that culminated in the Delhi high court throwing out the charges.

Gopichand shrugs off such issues.

"You have to handle it with wisdom and also be more humble when you have more achievements," he says.

"No big business is without controversy. And as far as controversy is concerned, we try to deal with it, but there are instances where controversy is picked up by your success and growth of business.

"We try to avoid any legal litigation and find ways to resolve it amicably."

Despite all the speculation and media attention, the Hindujas see it as their religious duty to give money away and live a comparatively normal lifestyle despite being billionaires.

"Money is there only to spend and have a comfortable life," says Gopichand. "We all believe that we are trustees to use this money in a proper manner."

There are exceptions, of course, to that philosophy, and Gopichand admits he has a few very expensive prized possessions.

"I have a watch," he says, laughing, but clarifies that he has several, including a 35-year-old luxury Piaget.

"My children get me many presents. I have a Cartier … and all the big brands, but I stick to my old one," he says. "I love it."

Their Vedic religion, which helped shape Hinduism and is integral to the Hinduja family, advocates that they remain humble and modest about their work.

"It's the Vedic philosophy we have been following of our founder, of our father, who said that when you are working for the cause, never blow your trumpet," Srichand told The Indian Express in a rare television interview in 2006.

The approach seems to have worked and the group is expanding rapidly.

This month, the brothers were in the Emirates for the launch of the country's first vehicle assembly plant.

The operation is a joint venture between Ashok Leyland, India's second-largest lorry maker, and the Ras al Khaimah Investment Authority and is chaired by Gopichand's son Dheeraj. Gopichand insists that despite the company being very much a family business, there is no place for nepotism.

"My son became the chairman, not because he is Hinduja, but because of his own capability," he says. "We don't believe in just employing someone for the sake that he is a Hinduja."

In May, the brothers bought the Belgian financial services company KBC's private banking arm for €1.4 billion (Dh6.74bn) to increase their profile in the European finance sector.

Next year, the group is planning a $1bn public listing of Petromin, its joint oil venture in Saudi Arabia.

The corporate ethos of the Hinduja Group is in many ways based on the brothers' religious beliefs.

"In the group, we don't believe in leveraging business, and we have always honoured our commitments to our companies," says Gopichand. "Our father said we have to meet our commitments even if we have to sell our shirt. He never believed in having big legal documents if he found a man is honourable he used to deal with him."

The Hinduja Group has never closed a business and does not believe in takeovers, preferring partnerships.

"We have to deal with power and have good contact. The powers [that be] understand what we are doing is in the interest of that nation," he says. "We are business people. We are not politicians."

With the kitchen as their boardroom.