Consultant, solicitor and former President of Godrej & Boyce, Phiroze Lam emphasises the importance of integrity, hard work and passion in the path to success.
Godrej & Boyce, widely known for its furniture and appliances, is in fact a diverse firm with a large variety of interests. It manufactures parts for Rolls-Royce, satellites, rockets which India flies into space, missiles, components for petrochemical and nuclear plants, and much more. Phiroze Lam started as the head of the legal department, and eventually was given five other businesses to oversee. In the year 2000, he became president, and from 2004 to 2017, he was at the helm of 15 Godrej & Boyce businesses. He stepped down as president in 2015, and then two years later also stepped down as executive director. He now remains a consultant to the company, but he laughs, “I pray that they eventually let me go. Already, my wife and I spend four months abroad every year — we love food and travel!”
At 28, Phiroze was already a junior partner at a law firm, and as he says, “When you’re 28 and a partner, you get cocky.
Godrej & Boyce was our biggest client. I got a call one day saying that Mr. Godrej would like you to come see him. I said, it’s unethical to go see a client, I’m afraid he will have to come see me. There was pin-drop silence, and I was told that Mr. Godrej doesn’t go to see anyone; even the Governor of the Reserve Bank goes to see him. I responded, well, I’m not the Governor of the Reserve Bank.”
When they met, Mr. Godrej asked Phiroze to join his company. “I asked for triple my salary, and Mr. Godrej said I must be joking, he didn’t even pay his family that much! I said, well I’m not your family and they’re not solicitors. Also, I will need six months to wrap things up over here first.”
Mr. Godrej left, but then the next day called Phiroze back and said, “Young man, I’ve been thinking about you all night. You won’t leave your company in a lurch, I respect that. I accept your salary and I will wait six months for you.”
That was how Phiroze’s journey with Godrej & Boyce started. He went on to become the first non-family board member in over 100 years. “I stuck to my values, and Godrej & Boyce was known for being one of the only principled companies in India at that time, so it worked out,” he says. “We never take bribes. We always find a legal way to get our work done. The company is the largest landowner in Mumbai with over 5,000 acres worth US$10 billion. I was told that we were the only trustees for the city of Mumbai; we had to maintain the mangroves on that land to suck in the pollution.”
He is optimistic about the future. “Young people are bringing this culture of moral business practices to India,” he shares. “I fervently believe that the people around me, and those who come after me, challenge the status quo.”
Phiroze himself is quite the disrupter. “I start my review meetings with a bevy of jokes, and when everyone is laughing their guts out, we begin. I want people to feel that I am not their boss, I am their friend, and I am here to learn from them. That’s how I ran 15 businesses. I wasn’t qualified, but my teams were. All I did was motivate people, authorise people and use common sense.”
For him, mutual respect is also an important factor. “We have several schools primarily for the children of employees. The president’s son eats, learns and plays with the worker’s son; there is no difference. That’s what we believe in at Godrej & Boyce. We were the first company in town to introduce flexible hours, where 10am to 3pm was sacred, but aside from that, people could come and go as they pleased. I never saw them work so hard.”
“Lack of punctuality, however, is the same as adultery to me,” he goes on to explain. “People are free to choose their timing, but once they do, they must respect it. My colleagues are always on time. Why? Because they have a madman for a president. I don’t wait for anyone who is late.”
I ask if he has advice for young people starting out their careers. “You must have passion,” he says, “and the courage to follow it. You fall down, face the consequences, and then keep going. And when things get too hot, you must have a hobby to give you the strength to face tomorrow.”
Phiroze’s hobby is collecting 17th, 18th and 19th century pocket watches, as well as French snuffboxes. “I received a small ladies’ pocket watch from my mother, and my brother received a large gold one. I was so upset until I learnt that mine was twice the price. I immediately went to the Strand Book Store, bought a book and educated myself. I’ve been trading since. In 1981, I bought a Patek Philippe wristwatch for 15,000 rupees. I sold it some months later for US$50,000. Last year, that same watch sold for US$4.3 million. The only difference in these values, you see, is knowledge.”
He laughs as he shows me pictures of his vast, gorgeous collection. “My wife appreciates my hobby, but we have a fivebedroom house for the two of us and not a square foot of space. She tells me the only thing left is the ceiling, so will I please leave her ceiling alone?”
As we say goodbye, I can’t help but feel inspired. He warned me not to sensationalise this article, but I don’t think I am when I say he is sharp, funny and inherently kind. His only ambition, he says, is to have an epitaph which reads “He was a good man.” I am confident that he truly is.