[Hat tip: Percy Kavarana]
What do you do when you are 80, have Rs 1,500-2,000 crore saved up and no kids to bequeath it to? Few on earth have had to face such a dilemma, but for those who do, Keki Hormusji Gharda is setting a novel example — he wants to blow up a large part of the money in scientific experiments and donate the remaining to charity.
But then, the octogenarian chairman and founder of agrochem major Gharda Chemicals is not expected to be ordinary. The entrepreneur, for whom the Rs 1,000 crore business is a byproduct of his need to experiment and innovate, has always been a maverick. DNA caught up with Gharda to find out how far along he is on realising his dreams.
What do you plan to do with the money you get from selling your stake?
My mom used to say, you must earn money honestly, but you must die poor. I come from a family of [Parsi] priests, but I soon realised that there was a lot of hypocrisy around the idea of God.
Anyway, I figured it was better to serve God by serving people.
By temperament, I am a chemist, an engineer. I like to experiment. The business was started partly to fund my experiments. But I also have some experiments I have not been able to conduct due to the investments required.
For example, making rock phosphate. There is a standard process of making rock phosphate and people are happy improving it by 2-3%. But we have devised a way to make it much more easily. I have done it in the lab, but I need to test it to find out if it will work in the real world.
Similarly, extraction of iron ore. For the past 30 years, the process of extraction has remained the same, the industry has stagnated. I believe I have an easier way that will reduce both the operating and capital expenditure by 20-25%. Again, it works in the lab, but I need to try it at a plant level. Similarly, I want to test out a new way to manufacture temperature-resistant polymers.
These experiments, if successful, will create new technology, which will then be licensed out. It will be a new, royalty-based company, owned by the trust. The royalties will used to further conduct research, while setting apart a fixed portion to charity activities. So, instead of making incremental changes, this company will make its profits from bringing about paradigm shifts in technology.
Why doesn’t the company fund the experiments?
These are my dreams, and they are quite risky. In many ways, its a gamble and I don’t want to gamble with other people’s money. It will take Rs 150 crore to put up a small iron and steel unit to test my new method, for instance. I cannot risk the company’s well being for the sake of my experiments.
So 99% of the proceeds from the sale of my shares in the company will go to a trust – the Aban and Keki Gharda Trust. The trust will fund such experiments, while also investing in charitable causes like schools and hospitals. Even now, we run an engineering college and three small hospitals.
Why not just give the money to your relatives?
Yes, that is what they also ask. [Laughs] But I think the company has made many of them financially very secure. They do own 30% of it. I think that is enough.
I don’t think you need a lot of money to get by. Every month I give my wife Rs 10,000. She adds it to the Rs 5,000 or so she earns as dividends and runs the household with it. All the jewellery she has now has been passed down either from her mother or my mother and it is not much. A thief will only find a couple of lakhs worth of jewellery at my home.
In the overall corporate atmosphere in India, your company is an exception in terms of the emphasis you place on innovation-based growth. It is also the most decorated chemical company in the country. Why do you think overalling spend on R&D is less?
Indian companies want quick results, but R&D is a very risky business. We have been lukcy enough to have a high hit ratio — around 40% of the chemicals we investigate make it into the market. But it is hard. Sometimes, by the time you successfully complete your investigations, the market may have turned so much that there is no space for the compound.
To be a good innovation-driven company, you have to look at unsuccessful investigations as important assets. Every time you investigate something, you are adding to your store of knowledge, which you can later tap into.