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27 Aug 2015
Panel Discussion - Family Businesses: Continue the Legacy or Break Free?

(l to r) Parag Shah, Bharat  Sheth, Rohan Shah,
Dinesh Vazirani & Ankit Shah

The choice faced by newer generations hailing from traditional business families – Continue the Legacy or Break Free? – was the theme for an interesting session at the latest event under the Inspiration Series where a distinguished panel of speakers presented varied perspectives based on their individual experiences. 

On the panel at the discussion, which took place on August 23 at Sophia Bhabha Auditorium in Mumbai, were Bharat Sheth, Deputy Chairman and Managing Director, The Great Eastern Shipping Co. Ltd.; Dinesh Vazirani, Co-Founder, Saffronart; Rohan Shah, Managing Partner, Economic Laws Practice; and Ankit Mehta, Partner, H. Dipak & Co. Parag Shah of K. Girdharlal & Co moderated the discussion.

Welcoming the panelists and audience, Russell Mehta of Rosy Blue said that the focus of these discussions was on “sharing experiences” to find solutions to issues each company and individual was facing. “Nothing is right and nothing is wrong,” he said, adding that different lessons could be drawn from the experiences of others.

Parag Shah introduced the theme saying that all young persons reach a crossroads at some point while making career choices. He said it was important not to rush into a decision, but to spend enough time choosing the path. It would be ideal to find something that you love, are good at and also pays well, but such convergence does not happen for everyone.

Russell Mehta

The first panelist Bharat Sheth began by pointing out that shipping was an industry with a large number of family run businesses. When he graduated about three decades ago, he said it was almost taken for granted that he would join the family business, adding “there was no particular reason why I made the choice. But the business grows on you and soon becomes a passion”.

Saying that today’s youth have more choices and new technology ensures that you require less capital to start a new business, he said that launching a start-up makes it easier to take failure in your stride. “But, while there is comfort and safety at one level in a family business, there are also challenges. You don’t want to be the one to drop the baton; you want to hand it to the next generation in a better state than it was when you took it over”.

He concluded by saying that he believes we should redefine legacy. “It should be organisation driven. I would like the name Great Eastern to still be around 150 years from now, even if the family is or is not a part of it.”

Rohan Shah started off in a lighter vein saying he took the decision to become a lawyer at the age of three. “My dad who had an automobile business used to be out of the house every Diwali distributing sweets he had bought; on the other hand, my uncle who was a well known counsel, used to sit at home and clients would bring sweets for him!”

A view of the audience

He said that when entrepreneurship is part of one’s DNA, as is the case with the Palanpuri community, building a business in whatever field comes naturally.  “But you can truly succeed only when you have a passion for what you are doing.”

Saying that “knowledge is the money of life” and you need to “equip yourself with it”, he shared some tips from his own experience – learn the theory, but learn the practical aspects also; and train with the very best, for that gives you a great foundation.

Shah, who has been on Indian government delegations to the talks of the World Trade Organisation, said that real satisfaction also comes from being able to contribute to the transformation of the world and society.

Narrating his own journey from initially being part of the family business to finally striking out on his own, Dinesh Vazirani explained how for many years he focused on helping his father’s business, rather than pursuing his interest in art. “At the time of the dotcom boom, I finally took a one year sabbatical from the business, and never went back,” he said.

Early difficulties – “we were broke within a couple of years” – did not shake his confidence in the venture he had set up, but helped him fine tune his plans. “We realised we had perhaps overestimated how long it would take for art to become a serious investment business in India, but we were confident it would and held on.”

Vazirani says that there were two important ingredients to his sucess – his passionate involvement in his new business and the unstinting support from his family.

Stressing that all types of business models must embrace professionalism, he ended by saying that having professional talent is a must. They can steer the business, and we should trust them, he said, adding that he has handed over the actual running of the business to a CEO with industry experience.

The last speaker was Ankit Shah, who began by stating that he was never in doubt that he would join the family business. “I was never at a crossroads, I was clear that I wanted to join my father and take forward what he had built up.”

Shah said that inheriting a business provides one with assets and money, but as all business models have a shelf life, “even a family run business has to be reinvented if it has to go forward”.

In his case, he did not directly get involved but began applying what he had learnt in business school to develop small projects and study particular aspects in greater depth. “I was able to view the business as an outsider and evaluate it, see what is working well, what needs to stop, and where the opportunity lies for the future,” he said, adding, “You have to assess the risks and address them, and slowly move to the larger picture.”

It was essential that the next generation brings a new relevance to the business, and brings in changes while protecting the core.“When you make strategic choices to start something new,” he advised other youth,”then learn to think like a statrt up. Keep costs under control, for it is such restraint that sparks innovation and creativity”.
Shah said he had given a new thrust to the diamond business but had also ventured into some other areas related to tecchnology.

“Times are changing and the work culture has to be recreated. Old family businesses were top down, but now we have to ensure greater involvement of outside talent and give them responsibility too.”

The session concluded with an intense Q & A session.


The complete video recording of the discussion can be viewed at:

Part 1  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MUnYRayR5WE

Part 2 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ui41R2Y77q0


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