From a disastrous entrepreneurial debut at selling soaps to leading Reliance Industries, here’s the story of Parimal Nathwani

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Posted On : August 22nd, 2016
Reading Time : 14 minutes

Whenever someone tells me how social media is making humans distant from each other, I recount of atleast 10 examples of how social media has connected me with people I would have never been able to reach otherwise. This meeting, adds to the list.

I was naturally very excited when I realised I’ll be meeting him. Knowing his story wasn’t even on the cards. Because people like you and I, we don’t usually get a chance to interact with people like him without the right ‘contacts’. And am not even glorifying, just typing down plain reality. Parimal Nathwani, Group President (Corporate Affairs) of Reliance Industries and a Rajya Sabha MP.

“You are exactly 48 minutes late”, he says looking at his watch and breaks into a big laughter as he enters the room. In the next sentence, he eases me out by acknowledging the short notice for meeting and Ahmedabad’s traffic.

Over the time, I have been told & trained not to get carried away whenever I happen to meet someone big for an interview, to ensure that the questions I ask and the answers I receive aren’t held back because of the other person’s grandeur. The man in the room, makes it easy for me.

“Oh, tell me about yourself – where do you live? What do your parents do?”, he initiates the conversation.

While we have this warm-up conversation, I have a million questions popping out of my mind. Mr. Nathwani is no ordinary a person. He hangs out with people we only read and watch about on media. He gets to call the Ambani duo as ‘Mukesh bhai’ and ‘Nita bhabhi’. And yet, he ensures the other person is always comfortable in his company.

“How does it feel? You get to work with the biggest of the industrialists and politicians of the country. How is that life, like?”, I ask.

“Not very different from anyone else. At the end of the day, everyone has the same life to deal with back home. Sometimes when I look back to where I come from, it does look like long way”, he answers.

 

Mr. Nathwani comes from a small-town called Jam Khambhalia in Devbhoomi Dwarka district of Gujarat.

“Our ghee is very famous”, he says, beaming with pride when he talks about his native place.

Young Parimal was far from being an adarsh balak, you could say.

“I was very notorious. In a class of 45 students, I would rank anywhere between 32-40, while my sister would secure a rank from 1-5. My parents didn’t really have high hopes from me.”

An ardent cricket fan even today, Mr. Nathwani tells me how he once skipped his annual exams to watch a test match between India and West Indies.

“I was in class 9th then. It was the last day of our annual exams – Andy Roberts and his team had come to Mumbai for a test match. I had saved up my pocket-money and bought a North stand ticket for Rs. 65. I asked my friends to accompany me saying, ‘Exam hi toh hai‘. Ofcourse they didn’t agree and I was the only one repeating a year, this time in the same class as my sister”, he shares with a hearty laugh.

Once rusticated from the school for 3 days, Parimal judiciously used the time to watch the shooting of the film ‘Love in Tokyo’ at Juhu without informing at home. The job was rightfully done by his sister, which got him a good deal of thrashing by parents.

“Those were the days.., he says with a smile and a long pause.

He asks one of his colleagues for some ice-cream for us before proceeding.

And I loved watching movies! Every weekend, our seats were fixed. I had two best friends then – Bhaskar, the richest one of us and Bharat. I would get Rs. 25 as pocket-money while they would get Rs. 100. So most of the times, they’d take care of my tickets. Come what may, we never missed any movie.”

A B.Com graduate from NM College in Mumbai, the young Parimal was as lost about his career as any other youngster.

“I wasn’t keen on studying any more. But I was clear with one thing – naukri toh nai j karu. (I will never do a job). My father was a whole-sale textile trader in Mumbai, but I was never inclined to join  him. The cloth market opens at 12 pm and closes at 6 pm. It never excited me.”

The only son, Parimal was certainly a topic of concern for the entire family.

“My mama, Mr. Suresh Kotak (founder of Kotak group) thought I was going off-track with my career so he offered me to head a new bleaching plant they wanted to set up in Vapi. I was sent to New Era Mill, near Matunga station, everyday to take training. However, half-way through it, my mama decided to drop the idea of bleaching factory and asked me to join Kotak. They were into cotton business then.”

“And you joined them?”

No, that was the whole point. I didn’t want to do a job. I couldn’t see myself confined to a conventional structure. I had no idea, dhandho karvo’to. (I wanted to do a business.)”

Opportunity came knocking very soon and he took up the first that came – A dealership for cold-drinks.

“Prakash Chauhan and Ramesh Chauhan (owners of Parle Group) lived 2 lanes away from my home. They had a huge pitch made inside their bungalow and they would call me to bowl. One sided-bowling. I’d go every Sunday because I just loved experiencing real pitch. This was around the time when Coca-Cola was shut down for a while, Chauhan brothers began marketing Thums Up, Limca and Gold Spot heavily.”

Parimal, still in the final year of his college, was offered a dealership by the Chauhans for a deposit of Rs. 5,00,000.

“It was a huge amount then. I asked my parents but they refused it straight away. So I went to Parul, my mama’s daughter. She talked to all my cousins and they all contributed within their capacity and raised Rs. 50,000. That meant nothing compared to amount asked, so I gave up the idea. Next Sunday when I went to bowl as usual, they asked me about the deal. I told them what had happened.”

The Chauhans asked Parimal to start the dealership business nevertheless and that they would cut the deposit amount from his commission. And this is how his first business took off.

“From Grant Road to Chowpati to Nariman point and Colaba – that was my area. Taj and Oberoi were new then, I would ensure the drinks were always decked up. My father refused to give me space for office, so I set-up a make-shift office at a friend’s garage. I had a staff of 7 people then.”

“Your father didn’t give the space or couldn’t give the space?”, I clarify.

“Didn’t. Dealership business wasn’t very respectable according to him. But I just wanted to continue doing it. I was young,independent and with no responsibility. I’d spend everything on myself. I remember getting shirts stitched by Akbar bhai from Kachins & Gabbanna tailors, one of the most reputed ones in Bombay.”

With a child-like excitement, Mr. Nathwani tells me how he still has a shirt from Kachins that Rishi Kapoor wore in the movie ‘Khel Khel Mein’.

“I bought it for Rs. 700 then. Kachins would make only 5 exclusive pieces per design and this was the second piece.I lied to my father that it was just for Rs. 100”, he adds.

While he ran the dealership business, Mr. Nathwani kept harnessing his skills at sales and training the staff. He would travel in local bus since his father, already disappointed at his decision, refused to get him a vehicle or even take him along in his car.

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With his existing business up and running, Nathwani applied for dealership of Sunrise Soaps and Chemicals.

“I saw the advertisement in a newspaper and applied. I wanted to grow. I got it but it brought an added challenge. The area was exactly reverse of what I was working in – from Malad to Borivali. This is when I learnt delegating work to the team and trusting them with delivery, something I wasn’t really great at earlier.”

The partners split and one of the them asked Nathwani to join as Managing Director to a similar soap manufacturing plant.

“We started this company from a scratch. We got the manufacturing job done at a plant in Jaipur. I would head the marketing and sales part of it – giving commissions to retailers, providing dealership without deposits. We were directly competing with Sunrise. This ran for 2 years but the venture failed because of financial crunch. I was 30 then.”

With Parle dealership agency taking care of his everyday expenses, this failure didn’t come as a major financial set-back for Mr. Nathwani.

“I had experimented and made quiet a big loss. I began searching for newer opportunities and came across an advert by Baroda Stock Exchange in newspaper. I applied at a go. I was desperate to find newer ways to grow.”

He made it there as well.

“However, as usual, my father wasn’t positive about it. He labelled it ‘sattabaaji’ and was afraid I would start gambling.”

But stubborn to experiment with new opportunity he had just bagged, Mr. Nathwani moved to Baroda. This is also when he rolled out a new business of STD and PCOs.

“I set-up 140 PCOs at that time, employing 1 person at each booth. I would get done from the stock market at around 6 pm and focus on this business.”, he says.

With no experience in stock exchange, how did he go about learning the business?

“I made huge losses! I started with a capital of Rs. 22 lacs and made a loss of Rs. 40 lacs in just one day. Everyone had advised me to not make any speculations on the day when the central government Budget was being announced, but I did and had to bear the burnt.”

With a support of Rs. 8 lacs from his relative, Nathwani got back up and recovered the loss, learning the nuances everyday. With young Dhanraj, Nathwani’s wife was one of his strongest support then.

A strong believer in Lord Krishna, his office has a huge section allotted to a glorious sculpture of the deity. The rest of the space is adorned by either his personal photographs or that of Mr. Dhirubhai Ambani.

 

“He is my inspiration”, he says pointing to one of the portraits of Mr. Ambani. He takes me for a walk across three rooms of his office, showing me several pictures and telling me stories behind them. He stops by one of his first pictures with Dhirubhai and re-counts his first meeting with him.

“Thanks to my cousins, I was working as a broker for two companies then – Reliance and Kotak Securities. One day I got a call from Dhirubhai’s office to meet him. I looked back at my work wondering if I had gone wrong somewhere. But my cousins insisted me to meet him nevertheless. First day at Reliance, I was faced by Dhirubhai, Mukeshbhai and Anilbhai. I was really overwhelmed, I had never thought I would ever get to meet them.”

Of what brewed then in the closed room, carved Mr. Nathwani’s fate as it is today. The Ambanis were facing difficulties in acquiring land and clearances for the refinery they wanted to set-up in Jamnagar, Gujarat.

“On my cousin’s reference for someone trustworthy for the job, they asked me to find out what was going wrong.”

Once again, with no experience in real estate & legal dealing, Nathwani took up the challenge because,

“They trusted on me with it. I had to do it.”

He tells me that he had no understanding of how land deals work.

“I was myself living in a rented bungalow in Baroda. I had no idea of legalities, but I trusted myself to learn all that.”

From someone born and brought up in a place like Mumbai, adjusting to village and villagers didn’t come easy. However, with help of some journalist friends, Nathwani found out trust as a major issue among farmers for not giving out land.

“Earlier the villagers were hesitant about dealing with a corporate. I am not sure if you’ve ever had an interaction with farmers, it is very difficult to get them to agree to you. I would clear one deal and the other day someone would make a small temple there.”

One after another, Mr. Nathwani began cracking all deals. All by himself for several months at a stretch, away from his family, Mr. Nathwani says that his only  companion was Dwarkadhish.

“I would go to Dwarka in bus as and when I got time. The Ambanis hadn’t committed any money to me till then, I was working purely because Mr. Dhirubhai had asked me to do it. I had spent around Rs. 3 lacs from my own pocket.”

When he went back to Mumbai, he was given another task of purchasing flats in Jamnagar, while the refinery was being set-up.

“That was another shocker. I had to purchase over 1000 flats around library for people who’d be working on setting up the refinery. I had to keep myself anonymous so that builders don’t realise it is Reliance buying, or they would hike the prices.”

And what about payment for the first task?

“I was hesitant to ask for my payment. I went up to the accountant and gave the receipts of my expenditure. I thought they are big people, they would have forgotten. But Dhirubhai called me up and gave me a cheque of Rs. 2 crore. That was the first time I had seen so many zeroes in a cheque payable to my name”, he shares.

He would go to purchase flats in auto-rickshaws, asking for loans and installments so he’d look “middle-class” to the builder.

“I bought one flat for myself, drawing the token amount account from a company I had incorporated just for the sake of it. 2 days later, I went up to the same builder asking for 3 more flats for my sister living in Canada. That is how I used to negotiate price. Eventually, I ended up buying the whole building-scheme of 120 flats. I closed the deal at Rs. 420/square feet instead of Rs. 500/sq. ft of quoted price. I would close deals for 50 flats everyday.”

No rocket science, only common sense, I think to myself.

“After I delivered this task, Mr. Ambani told me that I was no more an employee but an integral part of the company. Soon, I was given the responsibility of Reliance’s Jamnagar refinery. I readily took it up and shut down my other businesses. Since then, the journey has only been of growth. My father would then flaunt in-front of everyone how his son works with Dhirubhai! For the first time in my life, I had seen him carry pride for me”, he shares.

He tells me how he joined back Baroda Stock Exchange a few years back as an equity investor and served as the President for 2 years. He also became the Vice Chairman of Dwarka Devasthan Samiti, remained so until recently and contributed in great deal for development of Dwarka for almost a decade and half.

“I had to pay back to ones who’ve given me so much, somehow”

After I had put my picture with Mr. Nathwani on my social media, a close family friend told me how he had an opportunity of working with Mr. Nathwani during relief operations during Gujarat earthquakes. He told me how he had seen Mr. Nathwani spent sleepless nights at Anjar, arranging relief through Reliance fund in every possible way. When I mention about this in a follow-up meeting, he says,

“I don’t think that is even worth mentioning. Any human being in a situation like that and resources like Reliance and I had, would stand up and work to save others.”

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Entry in Rajya Sabha from Jharkhand, he says, happened to him by accident.

“I had never thought about it, really. Reliance had started its operations in retail (Reliance trends) and for a case of land dispute, I was sent to meet Jharkhand’s Advocate General. AG asked me wait for 10 minutes in the same cabin while he was having a conversation with a group of 8-9 MLAs, who were worried about the upcoming Rajya Sabha elections. Once the meeting was over, the advocate general asked me if I was interested. The offer was definitely tempting.”

So Mr. Nathwani motored down to Ramgadh in Jharkhand to explore the ‘offer’!.

“This was the first time I had been to Jharkhand, I didn’t know a single person there, not even their language. They asked me if I had filed ‘parcha’ (nomination). I was clueless.”

After filling up the nomination form, he had to arrange for an endorsement by 10 MLAs. Which he did within 48 hours.

Right after the nomination was filed, Mr. Nathwani was reminded of the “boss”.

“I felt very guilty that I hadn’t taken Mukeshbhai’s permission. I was in Delhi, staying at Meridian. I remember I made a call to Mukesh bhai from the lobby asking for an appointment to meet him. He asked me to come whenever. You see, we don’t have a relationship where I have to ask for his appointment. May be he sensed something wrong and in next 2 minutes, he called me back, asking if everything was okay. I told him that I have committed a mistake but if he will tell me, I will withdraw my nomination. He was surprised and elated and asked me to meet that day itself.”

Of the conversation, Nathwani shares just one thing that Mr. Mukesh Ambani said that hit him hard.

“He said – your victory or defeat is now Reliance and Mukesh Ambani’s victory or defeat. He very softly told me to go ahead with this only if I was sure that I would win or it would spoil both his as well as Reliance’s reputation. The elections were only 20 days away and he told me not to waste time at Mumbai anymore.”

Skeptical, Mr. Nathwani headed straight to Dwarka temple.

“I bowed down to Dwarkadhish’s feet and closed my eyes. My confidence was trembling because this was no more about me, it was about Mukesh bhai and Reliance. In one moment, I had a ‘go ahead’ signal from Krishna, I went back to Jharkhand and began preparing for my campaign. Like you know, I won the elections. I ensured to spend enough time in the state to understand its people, its problems.”

His victory did get him his share of negative media light about corporate honchos getting into politics for their benefits.

“There was a huge uproar about irrelevant outsider coming in their state. I promised that I will open my office on the next working day and start working for the people. You can now Google, about the work that I have done for the people of the state.”

Mr. Nathwani hands me a few reports that speak of several initiatives he initiated. He shares various controversies with the state government and the task to have them in his favour. He was re-elected in the next elections as well.

“Reliance has been fully supportive of my work at Jharkhand. Managing my time with my job at Reliance and with my tenure as MP, wouldn’t have been possible without Mukeshbhai’s support.”

Mr. Nathwani, as Chairman, Reliance Rural Development Trust (RRDT) created village infrastructure viz. Aanganwadis, Panchayat Offices, Community Halls, Roads, drinking water facilities, etc in 5000 villages of Gujarat.

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As our conversation converges, Mr. Nathwani shows me various pages of his diary that he has written – everyday journal, his experience with Mr. Dhirubhai Ambani. It is in this conversation when I get to know that he is also a vice president of Gujarat Cricket Association and shares that his next aspiration is to be in BCCI with a greater role.

“I have been a cricket fan since my childhood! You see my left eye is damaged…I damaged the retina while playing in my younger days. I couldn’t play for Ranjit Trophy because of circumstances and that is something that still pinches me. To fuel my passion for cricket, I am currently working with GCA”, there is an apparent spark in his eyes again as he speaks about the sport.

Talking about one regret he has in his life, he says,

“I could not enjoy Dhanraj’s (son) childhood because of my work. He was completely raised by Varsha (wife). He secured admission in a college in London and till the time when he was leaving, I had no idea about it.”

Mr. Nathwani recently lost his mother to age. Recalling of her, he shares,

“In my college days, I took up the habit of drinking beer with friends. I drank 3 bottles on Diwali. My mother figured and had tears in her eyes. She made me swear on her to never drink again. Since then, I’ve attended and hosted several parties where alcohol is served, but I have never touched it.”

“What is one thing that life has taught you?”
“Believe in the almighty, take chances and do not settle.”

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