Towards a Vibrant Culture
A Smile on every face in Godrej
  March - April 2002   
Change   Vol. 2 No.2   
Oddities, Eccentricities, Etc. Of Enduring Interest Corporate Commentary Back to Main Page Editorial

An Unsigned

His life was like a great, heroic painting, that still looked unfinished because it was left unsigned. He never took credit for the many things he did. For him, what had to be done was important, who did it irrelevant. So Fame, short of discernment, passed him by. He didn’t mind or care. The painting remained unframed.

Naval Godrej
Naval  Godrej after his recovery from the stabbing incident , relaxes at Godrej Bhawan

Naval Pirojsha Godrej


Pirojsha, his father, took him straight from high school to the shop floor. Lacking companionship in his own age group, he developed an affinity for machines that, 
over the years, became pure wizardry. He spoke to machines, and they confided in him. He could take them apart and put them together again with efficient ease. And he loved designing them. Recognising their potential, he began by developing the Godrej Tool Room so that in course of time it would work marvels for him.

Typewriters for the first time in Asia. Refrigerators, good old Safes, Storwels, Safemyras … These made Godrej a household name. He remained nameless.

Machine Tools became a passion for him. He was convinced that they were the instruments that would build and shape Indian industry.

At his father’s instance, he became deeply involved in the construction of the Godrej industrial garden township at Vikhroli, named Pirojshanagar in tribute. This is considered to be the most environment-friendly of its kind, a tribute to nature, an Eden of Contentment, an industrial wonderland.

He lived simply, but dreamed grandly. He showed his deep humanity in his commitment to worker welfare and human development, setting up the Naoroji Godrej Plant Research Centre, the Foundation for Medical Research (along with his friend Vasant Sheth) and the Foundation for Research in Community Health with its scrupulously-planned but ill-fated Mandwa Project.

By a curious twist of fate, it fell to him who didn’t attach much importance to names, to begin to build his family surname into a trong brand. Brand consciousness, in its modern connotation in Godrej, began with Naval. As a voracious reader, particularly of business periodicals, he frequently came across the new buzzwords: building brand awareness, brand equity, managing brand equity, and so on. Aware that the major requirements of a strong brand were quality and values, he knew that the name ‘Godrej’ stood for both. This awakening of brand consciousness in Naval’s style of working appears to have begun with the manufacture of the All-Indian Typewriter in the early fifties.

There was first of all the background on which to build a strong brand — well-equipped factories, technical know-how acquired after sixty years of manufacture in specialised fields and a skilled labour force of thousands. These assets were fully utilised to maximise performance. There was further the potential value of publicising the fact that in typewriter manufacture, which in the precision and intricacy required compares to telephones and watches, Godrej were the first in Asia. Even the industrially more advanced Japan had not undertaken typewriter manufacture. There was also the long-established rival, Remington, who along with a few foreign makes, had almost monopolised the market.

Utmost care was exercised in the process to build a brand worthy of the name “Godrej” — selecting the right materials for different components, correct heat treatments, rigorous tests with the latest electronic equipment and heat-treating furnaces and hardness-testing machines. Realising that typewriters manufactured in the Godrej name would become the basis of competitive advantage in future earnings, Naval kept developing and improving the product from the “Pica” and “Elite” types, the “M-9” and “M-8” and, finally, to the feather-touch “M-12” model.

Aware of the complaints about the hard touch of earlier models, Naval adopted a brand strategy unique at that time of calling back the earlier “M-9” and “M-8” models in exchange, at a very reasonable rate, for the brand-new “M-12” model. This strategy resulted in a spurt in sales with production more than doubling.

Two later models, the Godrej “AB” named after his uncle and the “PB” named after his father, were so successful that competitors like Remington and Halda, who had earlier almost monopolised the market, now found it hard to keep up with the Godrej production pace. And when in 1983 Godrej achieved the pinnacle in typewriter manufacture with the “Godrej Prima”, Remington had to shut down its shutters a few years later. 

It was a case of history repeating itself. Just as Uncle Ardeshir’s success in making fire-, fall- and burglar-resisting safes had led the main British competitor to shift his operations to Australia, nephew Naval’s success in Typewriter manufacture caused Remington to sell the business in November 1993.

The focus had in the meantime extended from manufacturing the perfect machine to improving operational efficiency in purchasing, designing the product and promoting it through intensive publicity. “Prima” was the brand name, but it was linked with Godrej to to provide added value to achieve brand equity. Brand equity, according to Aaker*, is based on brand loyalty, brand awareness, perceived quality, brand association (with other prestigious Godrej products already manufactured and others still to be manufactured) and proprietary assets like patents, trademarks, which also Godrej possessed in fair measure. In other words, Godrej were acquiring a strong and distinctive brand personality. 

The single-mindedness with which Naval pursued the Company’s brand-building policy, is also to be seen in the Company’s next product, which was as much an adjunct of the home as the Typewriter was of the office — Refrigerators. Changes were repeatedly made in Refrigerator models, not only in size, but in improved features like polyurethane, Deep Door, and others, which led to Godrej Refrigerators enjoying a market share of 45 per cent in sales.

Machine Tools manufacture was closest to Naval’s heart. He guided the Machine Tool Association through its formative years and was its President from 1971-73. He also established the pioneering international exhibition, IMTEX, the showcase of the Machine Tool industry. The first exhibition in 1965 had about 10 exhibitors. The seventh, and the last in his lifetime, had 400!

Naval strove all his life to strengthen the 3-fold ideal laid down by Father Pirojsha and Uncle Ardeshir: a commitment in equal measure to consumers, employees and government. Unwavering in his ideals, he was prepared to take personal risks rather than concede to the violent and unreasonable demands of those who sought to vitiate industrial relations. This ultimately led to the stabbing incident in 1979 and to his death 12 pain-racked years later.

Naval at a felicitation function
Naval at a felicitation function on being awarded the Padma Bhushan, organised 
by the Godrej Central Works Committee on 8-2-1976 at Pirojshanagar. 
On his right is his elder brother, Burjor

A major reason for Naval’s success was that he won the esteem and regard of his workers, so that they came to believe that he could do them no wrong. A bond was established between them and him that was almost legendary. A rival trade union, anxious to enrol these workers to swell its own ranks, did everything in its power, by means more foul than fair, to incite these workers against Naval. But they failed in their purpose.

Many who worked along with Naval like Phiroze Lam, E.J. Kalwachia, and others, spoke of his uncanny ability (Lam called it his “seductive smile”), which enabled him to get the best out of not only his workers, but also his managers and directors.

Another reason was Naval’s considerable innovative skills, which are said to be the key to brand survival. Godrej were innovative, for example, when they made steel cupboards for the home for domestic use for the first time in the world. Even Naval’s philanthropies were innovative, as for example, a crematorium for pets, a Disaster Center and a permanent Exhibition Complex at Pirojshanagar.

There were other reasons too. Naval instinctively put into practice several of Dr. W. Edwards Deming’s 14 Points for Management. Pirojsha had depended considerably on personal inspection to achieve quality. This was time-consuming and less than 100 per cent efficient. Naval abolished the need for inspection on a mass basis by building quality into the product in the first place. He enforced teamwork by breaking down barriers between departments. He saw to it that people in research, design, sales and production worked together as a team so as to be able to foresee any problems in production or use that might later arise. He substituted leadership for management by numbers, numerical goals, quotas … He saw to it that apart from qualified engineers, workmen, staff and managers also enjoyed pride of workmanship, even if this involved abolishment of merit ratings and management by objectives. He wanted each and every person, whether in labour or management, to work together to accomplish the Company’s transformation.

The man Naval was also had a lot to do with his outstanding success as an industrialist. Very much like his father, he too believed that a happy worker is a good worker. He could not only get the best out of his workers, he helped them to believe in themselves. There were no horizons to his thinking. He always saw the good in others and the positive side of things, never dictated to others, wanted them to have their say, discuss and argue things out, so as to arrive at a consensus. He never expected others to do things he wouldn’t have done himself. He inspired confidence. He had the knack of saying the right things at the right time. And he never sat in judgement.

Naval had an adventurous spirit, even a touch of daredevilry. Fond of sailing, his major passion apart from his work, he often expressed the desire to sail round the world. He tended to be rather conservative in his views of what was morally right and wrong. His sense of humour, for example, didn’t extend to sharing ribald jokes. His nephew Rishad Naoroji recalls an occasion when at a naughty Parsi play, full of double-entendre and innuendos, while the entire audience was in splits of laughter, Naval and Soonu quietly walked out after just a few minutes.

He too had his flashes of febrile rage, which remained just flashes, when something was not done as it should have been. It needs a really great man to understand another man’s greatness. Nani Palkhivala, the eminent man of law and letters, said of Naval: “He combined great ability as an entrepreneur with wide vision and sterling nobility of character. In industry he maintained the highest standards of business ethics and public service.” Palkhivala recalls how the last time he had met Naval at Godrej Baug, Naval arrived driving his small car, attired as always in simple clothes: “Not for him the posh cars in which lesser mortals move. I felt proud to be in the presence of a man who had created such enormous wealth for the nation and spent so little of it on himself.”

Believing strongly in the ripple effect of a healthy nation, Naval initiated the Foundation for Research in Community Health, providing rural areas with an all-inclusive package of preventive medicine, including Family Planning, constructively directed to the removal of the cause of poverty and ignorance. Satisfying another national imperative was the establishment, along with the Sheth family, of the Foundation for Medical Research, in which about 300 specialised research scientists worked dedicatedly towards a cure for leprosy and tuberculosis.

In recognition of this mosaic of service to society and entrepreneurship, he was awarded the Padma Bhushan.

Naval’s wasn’t entirely a success story. He had his failures too. Among these may be mentioned the failure of the Mandwa Project. He took a bold initiative in setting up a Primary Health Care Centre designed by Godrej and also adopted a village close to his residence at Mandwa, under the aegis of the Foundation. The Centre was very successful and became extremely popular with the local residents, particularly the women. Unfortunately, the men who held high positions but were chauvinists by nature, resented the importance women got. They made impossible demands so that, in despair, Naval handed over the Project to the Government of Maharashtra. The Government of course was too busy politicking to spare time for this laudable purpose. The project failed.

Another failure was his standing for election to the Parsi Punchayet. This too he did with the best of intentions of serving his community. He was opposed to the current indirect system of voting: “Why shouldn’t the whole community vote? Every adult Parsi should have the right to vote.” This the Punchayet opposed for reasons best known to itself. Naval wanted to computerise accounts, to introduce an open-house policy whereby seven trustees as well as the main administrative officers would be available on certain days of the month to face and answer whatever questions were raised by community members. His aim was also to institute a regular system of overhauling the Punchayet’s residential properties to obviate ad hoc repairs. Finally, to appoint a really good administrator and give him the power to fulfill his responsibilities.

All this was anathema to the venerable trustees, too set in their ways and stuck too fast to their seats. Finally, a dispute about contribution to the Punchayet building fund led Naval to resign. Said wife Soonu, “he resigned because he found he was unable to function. He joined to help the community. When he realised he couldn’t do much, he withdrew. He was never interested in holding on to a chair.”

However, one happy outcome of Naval’s joining the Parsi Punchayet was that the community did get the Godrej Baug, which has fulfilled one of the community’s most dire needs of housing.

“The amount of time he spent on this project was considerable,” recalls Jamshyd. From the groundbreaking stage onwards, he would review the progress every Saturday. Right through his long illness after the stabbing incident, on his way to hospitalisation and on discharge, he desired to drive through the Godrej Baug to see things for himself.

Naval’s third failure was also in a related sphere — building a modern township close to Bombay, along with his friend of many years, the late H.T. Parekh, Chairman of the Housing Development Finance Corporation. Parekh recalled, “I think he had many dreams. He realised many dreams, but I was connected with one dream, which was not fulfilled. He put a lot of faith in me about helping him build a modern town close to Mumbai. He dreamt about it, he sought to realise it. I tried to help him with it, but so far it has not been realised and yet I have not given up hope.”

Naval combined in himself Uncle Ardeshir’s inventive genius and Father Pirojsha’s consolidating and organising skills. His secret of success was that he knew, human nature being what it is, that power and authority are needed to get things done. He knew also that power and authority can and do corrupt, and that spells the failure of leadership. Far better, as Naval knew or found out for himself, to use wisdom and compassion for a leadership development practice that, as Tim Smith implies, harmonises the mental, emotional, spiritual and physical aspects of human existence.

This Naval understood and did, achieving the worth of a master. And he did it without announcing it to the world.

Concluding, I recall an anecdote I haven’t been able to forget. It happened after I left Godrej in 1961 to become Editor of Filmfare. In the meantime, Pirojsha had died, and my brother Russy asked me to write a piece on Pirojsha that was published in Blitz newsmagazine. Some time later, I was invited by Godrej to a function held on the Godrej Bhavan roof garden. The French Ambassador was conferring the Legion of Honour Award on Sohrab Godrej on that day. It was a glittering evening, with the diplomatic corps fully represented, industrialists whom I recognised from seeing their photos in business magazines and men who matter in various spheres of life, and handsome women in shimmering saris and gowns and ornate shawls.

Feeling strangely out of place, I skirted the crowd to go to the rear. Under the farther bonsai tree, I noticed Naval standing by himself, engrossed in his thoughts. Seeing me, he came up to me. “Thank you for what you wrote about my father,” he said quietly. “I was deeply moved”.

I can’t recollect what I mumbled in reply. I couldn’t of course tell him then that, some day, someone would be writing much more about his father and most particularly about him, and Destiny would ordain that someone would be I.


In the last issue, in the article on Pirojsha Godrej, it was stated that Godrej supplied ballot boxes for free India’s first elections in 1956. Actually, it was in 1951. The error is regretted.