Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India Pakistan and The World

Darius Forbes and Forbes Marshall: Building Up Industry

Much sweat goes into the building up of a successful enterprise, but at times, it must give its founders much joy

By Ashok V. Desai |Businessworld

We know about Tatas, Birlas and Ambanis, about how big business has conquered India and is looking to conquer the rest of the world. But India has many smaller entrepreneurs on a quest, who are scoring their own successes. Where did they come from, and where are they going? Take the story of Darius Forbes. His maternal grandfather, Nanabhoy Marshall, traded in grains in Broach in the early nineteenth century. He married Bhikaiji Principal of Surat, granddaughter of Maneckji Principal, magistrate of Surat High Court who was carried to court in a palanquin by Chinese bearers. Nanabhoy piled his luggage on three bullock carts and travelled from Broach to Bombay with his wife, family and servants. On the way they stopped by and enjoyed the hospitality of Parsi farmers. No wonder it took him three months to reach Bombay. There he diversified from grain into hay, which he supplied to Stearns and Kitteredge, the company that was running horse-drawn trams from 1874. He started selling British coal to textile mills. He took a quarter share in Opera House. He bought a 22,000 sq. ft plot near Gowalia Tank, where he built a mansion and grew mangoes, papayas, almonds, grapefruit and vegetables.

His son, Jeejeebhoy, was a born trader; he would even bargain for a discount on shirts in Harrods in London. He built Shamrock, a big bungalow with a lovely garden in Deolali, for holidays. But holidays bored him, so he started keeping chicken; before long it became a big business with thousands of birds. Jeejeebhoy would present eggs to friends, to customers, even to bankers who gave him overdrafts.

Darius joined Jeejeebhoy’s business, and was sent for training to Spirax Sarco, an engineering company in Cheltenham. There he got a bicycle and cycled to work. Once he came out of the office to find his bicycle gone. A prankster had hauled it up a tree; Darius’s fellow workers had a lot of fun watching him climb up and haul the bike laboriously down. So one day, Darius opened the bonnet of the prankster’s car and mixed up the plugs. The poor prankster could not put them back in order, and had to take a lift back home.

In 1958, Darius set up a factory in Kasarwadi near Poona to make some of the Spirax equipment. Those were the post-independence days of import substitution. It was difficult to import anything. So Forbes Marshall, Darius’s company, started manufacturing a growing range of equipment. Today it makes valves, flow meters, vibration and emission monitors, water, steam and emission analysers, and control systems. Apart from being a good manufacturer, Forbes Marshall has earned a reputation for ethical dealing. It has excellent relations with technology suppliers, and has improved the technology it received with its own research and development.

Darius turned 85 last Sunday. He, like Gandhiji, was born on 2 October; as he grew up in Madras in the 1920s, early in the morning of his birthday he would be woken up by processions singing Raghupati Raghava Raja Ram. Though he still goes to his office, the company is largely run by Farhad and Naushad, his sons. But he got a star role last Sunday; he inaugurated a new factory site in Chakan, also near Poona. The customary speeches were made. I enjoyed the dinner that evening more. It was on the lawn of Darius’s bungalow; akuri and other Parsi dishes were served on banana leaves.

But what I am looking forward to is the design of the new factory in Chakan, which is in the hands of Christopher Charles Benninger. He is a 69-year-old American who first went to Ahmedabad on a Fulbright fellowship in 1968. He finally came to live in India, and has been here for 33 years now. When he gets the space (and the resources), he creates breathtaking structures. For example, whoever named the Samundra Institute of Maritime Studies in Lonavala does not know Sanskrit; but Benninger’s design of it is impressive. Northern walls have photovoltaic cells; southern walls are shaded, and look out on the green.  The workshop gives an idea of what the Chakan factory would be like: a high, curving roof supported by columns, leaving two sides to let in light.

Benniger Architects are a part of the Forbes Marshall adventure which Darius began over sixty years ago. It has grown beyond expectations, and will grow further into something quite different. But before it grew into a first-class engineering company, it had to be set up, financed, manned, built and operated. Darius can be proud that he set out on the adventure.