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Portrait of Darius Forbes

A portrait of a special man

Writers and dramatists have a saying: ‘Show, don’t tell.’ It means to convey a thought or emotion through dialogue or action, rather than telling the audience directly. The same principle applies to the most impressive leaders, especially those with strong values and philanthropic achievements.

Article By Denise Kenyon-Rouvinez | Eurpoean Financial Review

I first met Darius Forbes, founder of the Indian family firm Forbes Marshall, in 2017. The occasion was a conference speech by his son Farhad, a successful engineer and business leader in his own right. The speech was about to start, and the auditorium was getting dark, when my eyes were drawn to the arrival of an old, pale man, very slim and elegant, who took his seat in the front row, near the stage. A few people were helping him. There was a lot of deferral and respect around him. You could immediately understand he was someone of importance, and I was intrigued; there was something special about him. His presence conveyed a certain aura, that I have learned to associate with an individual who combines high achievement with humility: a rare and extraordinary combination that has the power to enrich many lives. I later learned that it was Darius Forbes and decided to approach him at the break.

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The initial impression was deepened in a conversation we had in the conference hall lobby. This straight-backed, elegant, refined gentleman declined to accept an offer of a seat. Another individual joined us in the conversation and, after Mr Forbes had left us, informed me that he was 91 years old. His eyes shone; there was so much life – a spark, so much energy. He was very eager about life and polite enough to answer my questions in a humble and yet precise manner. I was curious to learn more about the life journey of this man who had co-founded a trading company more than seven decades earlier, that had evolved to become a world-class company specializing in instrumentation, steam technology and energy efficiency, as well as a wide range of community initiatives and other philanthropic activities.

Darius Forbes was born in 1926 to an Indian Parsi family. The Parsi religion is Persian in origin, and little known. It is shaped by the principles Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds. Mr Forbes lives these principles, without preaching them. When he was just 19, he was invited by his uncle to work at the trading company JN Marshall. They soon developed the business, forming partnerships with British companies to import their goods, principally in steam technology. They formed successful partnerships; in one case so successful that the firm in question, Spirax, suggested that they start manufacturing their own. This led to the foundation of the first factory, in the city of Pune, western India. Development of a manufacturing firm in post-colonial India presented challenges. Governments were following protectionist, nationalist policies with very high tariffs and many bureaucratic restrictions. Yet, with his intelligence, pragmatism and spiritual calmness, Mr Forbes rose above these challenges, even turning them into advantages.

The difficulty in importing components encouraged him and his team to display ingenuity in developing their own. And bureaucratic restrictions on forming joint ventures with foreign companies meant that he forged many partnerships based on honesty and trust without formal contracts; a high-risk approach, but one with high rewards. On one occasion, Mr Forbes was no longer able to import a crucial component required for the manufacture of a pH measuring instrument. After much research, Mr Forbes identified a Swiss company run by Dr. Werner Ingold, inventor of the relevant technology, and the two of them worked out a plan to produce in India, after importing the technology. According to the Indian government, they could not do this, because the technology was already developed by a Calcutta-based organization. When Mr Forbes contacted this agency, they confessed that they did not possess the expertise, but did not want to acknowledge this, as they would lose their funding.

Dr. Ingold devised a generous and ingenious solution: He provided the proprietary technology for free, and Forbes Marshall technicians learned how to produce it themselves, after being trained in Switzerland.

Mr Forbes married Maharookh Forbes, a long and happy marriage, which has given them two sons, Farhad and Naushad. Both their sons are brilliant engineers and businessmen, trained at Stanford University in California, and present-day leaders of Forbes Marshall. In the 1980s, when they took over leadership, they saw how high-technology products were changing, and becoming so sophisticated that development in one country was becoming more and more difficult. They began a program involving closer work with overseas partners, bringing the technology up to world-class standards. Their modernization initiatives were helped enormously by the liberalization of the Indian economy that began with Prime Minister Rajiv Ghandi’s reforms in the late 1980s, followed by bolder reforms in 1991 introduced by Manmohan Singh, Finance Minister and later Prime Minister.

For Mr Forbes and his sons, social responsibility is part of the way of life for the company; as integral as the manufacturing and trading business itself.

The 1990s saw the elevation of Forbes Marshall to an enterprising, innovative international business at world class standards. Yet this came with challenges: with the opening up of the Indian economy to international trade, competition intensified. The company rose to the challenges, learning to play to its strengths, increasingly specializing in steam technology for industrial units and process control and instrumentation.

For Mr Forbes and his sons, social responsibility is part of the way of life for the company; as integral as the manufacturing and trading business itself. One major development began decades ago, after Mr Forbes was shocked that people injured in a road accident had to wait for the police to arrive before being cleared to be taken to a public hospital. He intervened himself to make sure the people received medical attention. He adds:

“When I left them afterwards, I was thinking that … if I have some [accident] in my own factory, what will happen? I said to myself: ‘I can’t depend on the hospital here.’ I decided that we would start our own little medical facility and our own hospital. That’s how we first got the idea of starting our hospital.”

The hospital continues to this day, and serves the local area, not just employees. The charitable foundation, currently run by Rati, Farhad’s wife and Mr Forbes’ daughter in law, prioritizes education; but their social initiatives have also included ensuring clean water, sanitation and electricity for local homes. Forbes Marshall set up a Provident Fund for employees, even before Tata, the much larger philanthropic corporation, did so.

The ethos of the company has always been egalitarian, long before the ‘flat’ hierarchy and informality became fashionable in the workplace. Mr Forbes rejected the colonial ‘master and servant’ culture. “I always propagated [the notion] that whoever we employ, we will not employ them as an employee,” he says. “They’ll be members of the company. I used to keep on insisting that we never called person an employee … I feel that, that made a big difference in people’s relationship with us.”

He encouraged individual and team autonomy, and flexible job descriptions – again, long before it was a business trend. Suitably qualified members have the freedom to take an ingenious approach to a technical or sales-based issue, without going through a time-consuming approval process. He adds: “I think the main reason of success is that nothing was impossible to make or, do. It was always that if we applied our minds we could get around whatever problems we faced. I would always encourage people, never to worry about a problem and to feel that the problem is something which gives us a challenge.

An individual will be disciplined, and potentially dismissed, for conduct that is unethical and contrary to the company’s values, such as theft.

“My way of working [was that] if I saw a product, which I thought would be very useful to us, I would always encourage people to make it. They always felt that, this is so difficult, we don’t have the drawings, we don’t have this, we don’t have that. I would always encourage them to see that they use their own resources, their own ideas, their own thoughts to develop. Whatever modifications we had to make, we would make it, but make certain that we succeeded with it.”

Honest mistakes are not punished, even if they are expensive. But an individual will be disciplined, and potentially dismissed, for conduct that is unethical and contrary to the company’s values, such as theft. All these values and ways of working have been continued by Farhad and Naushad, and into the third generation, who are starting to make their way in the working world. The company has frequently reached a high placing in the Great Place to Work rankings in India, reaching the number one place in the manufacturing category. The ethos extends to the customer; the Forbes Marshall way is to empathize, and try to see the problem from their point of view, and then work back to the solution. It can be a time-consuming exercise in the short-term, but leads to high levels of satisfaction, loyalty and repeat business.

Mr Forbes has maintained his aura of calmness and sense of fairness through the most testing times, such as the wave of trade union militancy that swept through India in the late 1970s. Throughout the most significant dispute, a politically motivated strike of over 100 days, he declined to respond to extreme provocation, and even still permitted strikers to use company resources. The only point he held firm on was not paying for days not worked. One of the strikers later recalled: “I feel ashamed to remember that during that entire period we came to the factory in the bus that the company was paying for … [and] the canteen was giving us meals at company expense. I know that Mr Forbes always really cared for our well-being and did his best for us.” That individual later became an advocate for the company.

Ashok Desai, a former member of the Supervisory Board at Forbes Marshall, describes Mr Forbes’ presence: “He seldom says much but when he does say something, it is worth listening to. He often reminisces in meetings; he reminds us of a certain way of doing business … If you ask me to define it, it is unbending commitment to goodness, to doing business correctly, honorably, honestly and sticking to one’s knitting, deciding what you’re good at and specializing in it.”

During a later period of unrest, activists held demonstrations outside many Pune workplaces; but Forbes Marshall was spared the indignity. Curious, the Forbes Marshall HR Director Bobby Kuriakose made inquiries, and learned that a planned protest was called off when one of the leading protestors, a local mother, declared that they could not demonstrate outside the Marshall Forbes campus because it was at their hospital that her baby had been born.

The family togetherness is also striking. The event at which I first met Mr Forbes was held in Hyderabad, several hundreds of miles from the family home in Pune. He had travelled by air, at the age of 91, to hear his son talk for 30 minutes. Similarly, when his son Naushad was President of the Confederation of Indian Industry for the year 2016-17, the whole family travelled to Delhi for his final address as President.

It is easy to forget that history is shaped by the good guys, as well as the bad. All that is creative, innovative and socially valuable is the product of the efforts of enlightened people, who combine strong values with hard work. When you have been in the presence of Darius Forbes, and his amazing family, you feel a little better about humanity, and its prospects.

Featured Image: From left to right are Naushad, Darius, and Farhad Forbes.