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An Interview with Meher Pudumjee, Chairperson of Thermax Ltd 

Taking over a family business invariably means confronting expectations. Whether it’s the legacy of the enterprise’s visionary founder or the agenda of its board members, a family firm’s next-generation leader often contends with pressures that go beyond the already challenging task of charting a successful path for the business. But despite the external noise, the right choices often come by tapping into the voice inside.

Meher Pudumjee, Chairperson of Thermax Ltd

In this episode, Meher Pudumjee, Chairperson of energy and environment solutions company, Thermax Ltd, talks about the lessons she learned working her way up through the family business, and the challenges she faced when her mother unexpectedly asked her to lead it. Despite feeling the pressure of following in the footsteps of her visionary parents, Meher focused on what she believed was one of their greatest gifts to her — the wisdom to make decisions that reflect who she truly is.

Key Takeaways:

  • After Meher’s father and brother unexpectedly passed away, she and her mother worked through the personal and professional turmoil of the period with the help of Meher’s husband. These challenging events underscored the importance of strong family dynamics to the health and well-being of the family enterprise.
  • Believing we have a responsibility to preserve the planet for our children and grandchildren, Meher began moving her organisation toward a green energy strategy, leading to the development of her company’s green steam product. Despite pushback from those concerned with the growth rate of green solutions, Meher feels making decisions that are true to one’s self are more important than making them to improve the bottom line.
  • Finding the right operational management that is aligned with the values of the family is very important for a family business. But then empowering that leadership is key to igniting their passion and triggering high levels of performance.
  • Surround yourself with good people — especially at the board level — who have their own points of view and won’t rubber stamp your ideas simply because you’re a family member. Then try to enjoy the ride, because life is short and we should make the most of every minute.


Ramia El Agamy: Welcome, everyone, to another episode of Women in Family Business. I’m very honored to welcome our guest today, Meher Pudumjee, who is the chairperson of Thermax. Meher, welcome to Women in Family Business. We’re very happy to have you here today.

Meher Pudumjee: Thank you very much, Ramia. Thanks for inviting me.

Ramia: The usual way we start this conversation, Meher, is always to ask whether it was intentional or accidental that you joined the family business. You watched your parents build this incredible business growing up. What was that like for you and did you immediately know that you wanted to be part of it in some capacity?

Meher: I’d say that I’ve always been extremely proud to see my parents, my father and my grandfather to begin with, and later my mom, build the family business. I think being part of the family, it’s almost like osmosis. It’s not in your face. In our family, it was never in your face. In our family, it was always that do whatever you want in life so long as you put in a lot of effort and hard work. Education was very important to both my parents. They said as long as you’re happy and you put in your best, you can do whatever you want. There’s no compulsion, there is no push for you to join the family business.

Having said that, there are always subtle innuendos in terms of when we had so many people come home every day for different meetings. “Come and sit with us. Why don’t you meet so and so?” You overhear a few conversations. Then there will be conversations at the dinner table. Then there would be, “We have something happening at the office. Why don’t you come over and have a look at it?” Just very subtle and with no intention of pushing you in that direction. It was almost like we’d love to share with you what we’re doing and then it’s up to you.

For me, I enjoyed the sciences and so I did want to do engineering. I didn’t do it with the intention of joining the family business at all but because I enjoyed it. After I finished my engineering, I said, “What can I do? What should I do?” To be honest, I had my husband, who’s my husband today, in India, and so I wanted to come back to India and work there. I just thought maybe I can try within Thermax. Another thing that my parents insisted on is if you want to come into Thermax, you have to start at the very bottom. I joined as a graduate engineer training with another 100 people that were joining in that year, and went through the same induction program, which was a year long as any of the others that went through it. So yes, I think it was in a way, accidental, in a way, subtle. I don’t know what you’d call it.

Ramia: We would call it reverse psychology, Meher. That’s what we would call it. It’s so interesting because then you’re explaining how you started at the bottom, but then I think we can all agree, I guess the moment you joined Thermax even as a trainee, in a way there is a succession process that starts happening in everyone’s mind. There might be family continuity on the horizon. But then for your family, I’ve marked here, of course, you have 1996, a very painful and sudden death of your father that led to your mother taking over. Then in 2004, a very deliberate transition from your mother to you in terms of leadership. If it’s not too painful for you to talk about, I’d love to get your memories and impressions to contrasting those two moments like when it happens suddenly and we are unprepared versus when there’s this conscious transition happening for the succession of the family enterprise and the leadership as well.

Meher: My father was really a true visionary and had grown the business into many, many different areas because India opened up in 1991. He saw huge opportunities for a company like ours, which was in energy and environment. But he saw opportunities even beyond that and so he went into many, many diversified, unrelated businesses. In 1995, we went public and so we had to get one more stakeholder to look after. Then suddenly in ’96 my father passed away. It was really very difficult for my mom who luckily had joined the company — I think it was eight years earlier — and was in human resources. Now, she had also joined under somebody who was the head of human resources and learned under him for five years. Then when he left the company, she took over as the head of HR. I think just knowing people within the organization gave her confidence to lead the organization at the time. Of course, it was very difficult because not only was it a personal loss, but being at the helm of a publicly listed company is not something that one looks forward to without too much training. My mom is an incredible woman.

She came in and made a lot of changes, which in some ways, it’s strange but my father didn’t do. Of course, the company went through a downturn towards the end of 1990s. She had to close many businesses. We brought in a consultant to help us close many businesses, sell off a few businesses, ask people to leave, which we had never done in the history of the company except for integrity grounds. It was really, really tough. I think she came in with a lot of trepidation in terms of how am I going to fill in the shoes of my husband? A year later, my brother who had come back from Venezuela, joined the company business, and he passed away in a car accident. That added to the huge distress within the family, but also just in terms of the organization and everything.

Then you fast forward and I was there along with my husband to help her in many of the situations that we had been in, whether to turn around the business, working with the consultant that came in. Having joined finance, I had been away for four years from 1992 to ’96 with my husband in the UK to help turn around a small company that we had over here. So I had a variety of experiences, some deliberate and some circumstantial. So ’96 when my father passed away, I had to come back to India, and suddenly. I hadn’t planned for coming back, but suddenly we came back to India and I got into finance because I realized that it’s important that I understand the financials of the organization. Then moved around a little bit.

In some ways, there was a lot more grooming in me than what my mom faced when she had to suddenly take over in ’96. Yet, Ramia, in 2003 when my mom says, “Now I’m 61. Next year I want to retire,” I was just not ready for it. Just not ready. I had so many negatives, question marks. How will I be as good as my parents? How will I fit into their shoes? My mom’s been so incredible. I’m just not sure of myself.” Again, being the tough woman that she is, she did two things. One is she announced to the press that she’s retiring the following year before she announced it within the family.

The ways she explains it and I get it — today I get it — is that if I say it openly outside, I can’t change my mind later. It becomes binding on me. Whereas if I told you, you would say, “Oh, mom, wait another three years, another five years, and then there will be negotiations.” She had said to herself, “That’s it. I’m going to retire.” She’s a social worker by training. She wanted to get back to her passion. She felt that, “Okay. I think now is the time when Meher should rise up to the situation.” The board had said that I needed to take over.

It was really tough and so what I did is I actually went for a program that she went to called Vipassana, which is a meditation program. She went for the reason of losing her husband, and I went because I was just in such a dilemma. She also came back to me and said, “If you refuse, I will get someone from the outside.” That was another gun to the head, so to speak. I did come back after those 10 days of being totally immersed in my thoughts and I said I’ll take it on. But it was not a happy situation when I did take it on. But today, I will say it’s the best decision that we made.

Ramia: When you reflect back on that, how did you manage those transitions together, I guess, emotionally as well? What kind of conversations? Did you consciously try to facilitate communication around these issues or did you just let it unfold and everyone tried to grow into it?

Meher: It was really tough at the time. I think it was even more tough because when my brother passed away we didn’t really talk too much about it. I remember when my brother passed away, the newspapers in India had reports: Thermax’s Future CEO Dies. Almost like there’s no future for Thermax because the male heir has gone. My mom was very sensitive to that. I must say that I was very upset about that obviously. Being upset about my brother who’s passed away and then this stupid newspaper cuttings. But my mom and I spoke about that and she was very, very sensitive and so was my husband. But we didn’t really talk about his death very much.

I remember we were in London and it was her birthday and I had given her a gift. I left it next to her bedside table. Normally my mom is very, very … she then comes and cuddles and thank you and stuff like that and she hadn’t said anything the next morning and I was really, really upset. I think the whole thing just went out of proportion. In some ways, we’re such a close knit family, thankfully. My husband intervened and said that you have not been talking about this very, very important event that has happened in the family and I think it’s time that you guys sit down and speak about it. I think it was that day that we really really talked about our emotions and how it’s how it’s affected both of us. Ever since that day, it was like a huge relief and it’s been extremely helpful beyond that because in family businesses, the family dynamics is so important to get the best out of the business. If the family dynamics are not there, I don’t think a business can do that well.

Ramia: Thermax has been featured in a lot of case studies because of your focus on sustainability and your focus on the environment. Your father even had that vision at a time where no one was talking about this. Talking about the amount of pressure that actually comes together for all of you, the personal stories, the family dynamics, but then also being actually quite a pioneering business in its industry and in the world. It’s one thing to have the family aligned, but then also the whole stakeholder management around that. When you took over, how did you become cognizant of this and how did you start managing that and making sure that whatever happens to Thermax, that culture and that focus on sustainability remains?

Meher: Honestly, I didn’t think that that was too difficult because, Ramia, I remember, as you rightly said, my father was very, very focused on efficiency improvements, on waste to energy, on energy in the form of heating, cooling power. In some ways the building blocks were already ingrained into the company. But I think when I came in I felt very strongly about moving the organization more and more towards green. That doesn’t mean we don’t do coal and we don’t burn fossil fuels. No, we’ll continue with that because in some ways that also gives you the bread and butter. But we will push the strategies, the future strategies on green. Anything if we had, say, for example, an M&A opportunity in fossil fuels, we would not look at that. We just say no. We’d continue what we were doing, but the whole emphasis of the organization would be moved to green.

I remember we started a subsidiary about 15 years ago called Tulsion wherein we were building, owning and operating equipment for green steam. That means steam produced out of green energy. Biomass waste. There also I was very keen that we never use food for fuel. It has to be waste. I remember coming to the board and some of the board members said, “Why would you want to keep it green? There’s such an opportunity to grow the business irrespective whether it’s coal, fossil, or non fossil.” I don’t know. I just had to put my foot down and say, “I’m sorry, but we will only do green steam and this whole subsidiary will only be green.” I’m just so happy that we stuck to our guns. In between three, four years down the road, there were lots of opportunities that came in and our CEO would come to me and say, “Can we look at this? Can we look at that?” I’d say, “Even if it means that we don’t grow as fast, I don’t care, to be honest.”

This is something that my parents, again, had left as a legacy. Is that they’re shareholders but one stakeholder. They’re not the only stakeholder. To me, the share price is an outcome. I always give this example. Still, a couple of my board members don’t agree with me, but I stuck to this very much, which is that if you’re in a tennis game and you keep looking at the scoreboard, I don’t think you will give out the best to play that game well. But if you concentrate on the game, then the scoreboard will reflect the outcome of the game and it’s likely that it will reflect a better outcome. Similarly, the share price reflects what you’re doing in business and what you truly believe is the purpose of your business. So I keep telling our people, “Just concentrate on the business. Concentrate on all your stakeholders, whether it’s the planet, the community, anyone, employees, customers, whatever, and the share price will be the outcome. Don’t worry about that.”

I think that has helped us take good decisions because if you’re driven just by shares and the price of shares, I think you can sometimes take decisions which don’t really truly reflect who you are. I think just being authentic has been one of the biggest learnings from my parents. If you’re true to yourself, if you’re authentic, doesn’t matter. You will make mistakes. It doesn’t matter. But you’re always going back home and saying I can sleep well at night. That to me is really, really important. The day that I feel that I’m being untrue to myself, I’m being pushed in a direction that I’m not entirely comfortable with is the day to sell out.

Ramia: Would you, Meher, share with us a little bit about how you’ve been able to, I guess, listen to enough of the noise to understand what is important to people but shut out enough of it as well to be able to stay true to your vision and that of your parents?

Meher: First of all, I’m in a non-executive position. I’ve got a great board, really a great board, that feels hugely for the company and is there to give feedback, to criticize, but in a very caring manner. They are not rubber stamps at all. They are people who speak their mind, but yet care a lot about the organization and I think that’s really important for me. The kind of board members I pick are those who are really, truly independent, but who care for the organization. Of course, that care also comes with time. I always tell them, “It’s important for you to look at the organization. It’s not so much the family, because whatever is good for the organization is really good for the family. So let’s look at it that way.” I think that board is really helpful. I think the kind of CEO that we have picked, and three years ago was the first time that we actually went out to get a CEO, whereas we’ve always had someone from within before that. This is my third CEO since I’ve been the chair. The two previous ones retired from the company and they both started off as engineer trainees in the company. They grew their way. The third one is somebody we got from outside and we spent — Pheroz and I, my husband and I spent a year looking for the CEO. We interviewed many, many people. But we were certain we wanted certain characteristics which we would not compromise on. I think getting the right CEO, especially when the family is in a non-executive position is very important. Because in some ways, unless we are aligned as a CEO and the family, it can cause a lot of complications in the company. The last thing you want is two power centers in any organization. We took a long time and I have to say that God’s been on our side in that sense that we’ve got a really good person, somebody who is very value-driven and yet wants growth. We have our differences… And we should. It would be pathetic if we both thought exactly the same thing. That’s not what we want. There are differences. He is somebody who is in a hurry to grow. We are far more conservative and it’s a very healthy tension.

Ramia: Happy middle, hopefully.

Meher: Yes. I think with the board, with the CEO, and then we have the Executive Council, which has some people who’ve been there with the organization for very long, and many of them who are new. This whole blend of people and I have to say we’re just very lucky we’ve had very, very good people.

I think when you get professionals, non-family professionals, I think the most important thing is to empower them because otherwise they’re not going to give out their best, the best are not going to come to you, and it’s going to be a lose-lose situation. I think empowering them, but at the same time, feeling comfortable that what the two of you have agreed on is more or less in line with what you’re looking at. It might not be 100% and it can never be 100%, but if it’s more or less, I think it’s a good thing.

Ramia: I like how comfortable you are with it being slightly uncomfortable.

Meher: That’s life.

Ramia: I think it’s such a healthy lesson to take from this. Should be slightly uncomfortable, otherwise, you’re probably not doing the right thing. You told us before. I’m sorry, I’ll love this anecdote forever that your mother actually announced her retirement publicly first and only then told you basically. It brings me to the next question, which is you have a daughter and a son as well. First question, Meher, are you going to do the same thing to them? Are you going to just retire publicly and then tell them at the dinner table?

Meher: Never. That’s not me. My mom is far bolder, far steelier than I am. No. I think your term of reverse psychology in some ways has worked with my children too. Again, both well educated. My son finished his economics degree and decided to come back to India and wanted to join the family business and he was very keen to join the family business. Both Pheroz and I said, “You don’t have to. There’s no compulsion. Doesn’t matter.” He said, “No. I am very interested and I would like to join it.”

And with our daughter, she finished her degree in music technology. She really is very good. She came back to India and of course, she finished during COVID. In some ways, coming back to India in COVID, we had a discussion and she said, “Would it be okay if I joined the family business?” We were really pleasantly surprised because I had never imagined that Lea would want to. We just accepted it with open arms and said sure.

Ramia: What’s really interesting about Thermax is the company seems to be the kind of business that’s really in sync with the times, the industries that you’re in, the services that you provide, the green steam that you run on, if you will.

Meher: Energy transformation.

Ramia: Exactly. You’re really in a very timely situation. What is your takeaway but also maybe your advice when it comes to fostering agility and making sure that sustainability is not an additional report on the agenda of the board to get out to the public, but it’s actually something that can be woven into the culture of an enterprise?

Meher: I think three things. On the sustainability part of it, I think we have just one planet. I think it’s our duty and our responsibility to our children, our grandchildren, their children, in terms of preserving this planet. I think looking at it from this point of view presents a huge number of opportunities. You can keep looking at it as a threat or you can say, “Okay. This is a given. Now, what are my opportunities?” I would say let’s all look at it in terms of what are the various opportunities?

I think with regard to family businesses per se, I would say it’s really tough to be a CEO. I think we all have our needs, our greed, our ego, but I think it’s really important to keep that aside and see what’s really required to bring out the best in the business. If the best in the business can be brought out by a family professional and you’re willing to go through that rough and tumble, by all means. But if you feel that there is somebody else who could do it better than you, step aside and give that person the freedom and the empowerment and enjoy it. I think it’s really important to enjoy what you’re doing. As you said, it’s not a cookie cutter approach. It’s not a cut and paste for every family and there’s so much that any family member can do. I think you just have to find what is your strength and how does it fit in. It could be even starting a startup but within the family business. There’s so much opportunity. We’re all just so lucky to be born into family businesses. I think it’s how we take it and how we make the most of it.

The last thing I would say, surround yourself with good people, especially at the board level. Try not to have a rubber stamp board where everyone just agrees with you as a family member, but who disagrees, who have their points of view, and just enjoy the ride. I think our lives are so short and I think COVID has really brought that out in more than one way. That it’s really important that you make the most of every minute that you’ve got.

Ramia: Meher, beautiful advice. Thank you so much for joining us on Women in Family Business today.

Meher: Thank you, Ramia.

This interview is part of the special series “Agile Minds: How Family Enterprises Evolve” in collaboration with KPMG Private Enterprise.

About KPMG Private Enterprise

KPMG Private Enterprise is dedicated to working with business families and understands that the nature of a family business is inherently different from a non-family business and requires an approach that considers the family component. No matter where you are in your growth journey – whether you’re looking to reach new heights, embrace technology, plan for an exit, or manage the transition of wealth or your business to the next generation – working with KPMG Private Enterprise, you’ll gain access to trusted advisers who share (RC) your entrepreneurial mindset.


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