Reclusive billionaire Pallonji Mistry has relinquished board seats in some of his companies as a precursor to possible change of guard in the 147-year-old Shapoorji Pallonji Group, regarded as one of the most valued private enterprises in India.
Pallonji, who has been at the helm of the group for decades, has, in recent weeks, left the boards of Forbes & Company and Afcons Infrastructure as old age and health worries catch up with the 82-year-old construction magnate. And it’s only a matter of time before he steps down as chairman of the flagship Shapoorji Pallonji & Company, putting his eldest son Shapoor Mistry in charge.
The 48-year-old Shapoor will be the fourth generation to head the group whose origins can be traced to Littlewood Pallonji & Co, started in partnership with an Englishman, Littlewood.
Pallonji is the single largest shareholder of Tata Sons, the holding company of the $84 billion salt-to-software Tata Group, placing him among the top 10 richest Indians with $7.6 billion in fortune. His quiet but strong personality made him the ‘Phantom of Bombay House’ (headquarters of the Tatas), a sobriquet that reflects his underplayed influence in the critical affairs of Tata Sons. Late last year, Pallonji’s younger son, Cyrus, was named the successor to Tata Sons chairman Ratan Tata, leaving Shapoor to manage the family business. Pallonji had split his 18.5% stake in Tata Sons equally between his two sons.
With age catching up, Pallonji has been slowly giving up positions at various group companies, said multiple sources at S P Centre, the group’s headquarters in South Mumbai. He has also been spending less time-about four hours, often having a quiet lunch with Shapoor-in office, they added. Sometime ago, the industrialist stepped down as chairman of United Motors (India).
Pallonji, also an Irish national, joined the family’s construction business at the age of 18 and was instrumental in transforming it into a global construction powerhouse with over 23,000 employees and revenues of over $2.5 billion. “It is under his chairmanship that SP&Co went international when we secured the contract to construct the palace for Oman’s Sultan Qaboos in April 1971. We were the first Indian contracting company to undertake projects in the Middle East. It wouldn’t mean much today, but those days that was an achievement,” said a senior SP executive. From construction and real estate, Pallonji diversified the group into textiles, shipping and consumer durables through buyouts.
It has been quite a while since he stepped away from daily management of the group and has been only involved in important strategy decisions. When TOI recently put in a request for an interview, Pallonji said, “I do not actively participate in the operations of the business which are being now managed by my sons.”
The burden of expectation on Shapoor will be enormous when he steps into the shoes of his legendary father. Not only will he have to manage the empire but will also be expected to take it to another level. But it’s not as if Shapoor is new to the business. He joined the group as director in 1988 and was initially involved in the real estate business, which developed the tallest premium residential property in the country, The Imperial Tower.
Pallonji spurns ostentation in the colourful, noisy world of business tycoons. Friends and employees describe him as down-to-earth, courteous and jovial. “There are some people who extend beyond themselves, but Pallonji came across to have a world in his own. He was a strong and silent kind of personality,” said an old timer at ACC, where Pallonji was its longest serving director for 50 years, including over four years as chairman.
“He had a traditional leadership style, never the one to seek publicity,” said the person, who had worked with Pallonji’s brother-in-law BN Reporter, the then joint MD of the cement major.