Business tycoon Vijaypat Singhania had handed over his shares, worth over Rs 1,000 crore, to his son Gautam and now has little to his name, even though the company he founded is worth more than Rs 6,000 crore
Welcome to the Moneycontrol Deep Dive. This is Seetal and let us begin this podcast with a home truth. Life is more devastating than fiction and well, this is a given but sometimes the two collide in an astonishing manner and it is hard to tell where life ends and fiction begins.
Hindi film aficionados will remember Avtaar, a 1983 family drama directed by Mohan Kumar. The film was a stray hit during a rather bleak period in actor Rajesh Khanna's career and struck a chord with a certain generation of filmgoers because Khanna played a patriarch who after spending all that he had on his children, is left out in the cold with nothing to his name. In a key scene, he admonishes another retired father for being sacrificial because as he says, if you keep nothing for yourself, you will live to regret it.
Sometime last year, retired tycoon Vijaypat Singhania said something similar. Vijaypat was possibly also the inspiration behind Raymond's complete man who in multiple ad campaigns showed us that power without love was nothing but when it came to his own life, the realisation that the opposite may be true, came a bit late.
Vijaypat, embroiled in a property dispute with his son Gautam Singhania, sent a message in 2017, to parents and stated with bitter poignance and we quote, "Love your children and care for them, but don't love them so much that you are blinded."
As is common knowledge, in 2015, Vijaypat had handed over his shares, worth over Rs 1,000 crore, to his son Gautam Singhania. Now, he has little to his name even though the company he founded is worth more than Rs 6,000 crore.
In a rather moving interview to NDTV in 2017, the man in his late seventies said "In the 79 years of my life, I'd never thought I would have to take a family dispute to court after giving away everything I had and that I wouldn't even have a roof over my head."
Worse was to follow but we are getting ahead of ourselves.
At the heart of the dispute
What brought things to this sorry pass? Well, central to this dispute is the majestic JK House, a family-owned 36-story redeveloped property in Malabar Hill, Mumbai.
According to the senior Singhania, post the voluntary surrender of his tenancy, Gautam has kept him out of his share to get extra floor space from the municipality.
As a result, Vijaypat was forced to opt for a rented accommodation and now wanted reimbursement for the rent money which was a steep Rs 7 lakh at the time when the NDTV report was filed.
The matter reached the court though Vijaypat had said at the time, "I had never dreamt that I'd have to take my son to court for the fulfilment of the promises that he had made to me in writing and then decided to back out because of his greed."
The Bombay High Court, too regretfully observed that matters such as these should never reach the court and the family should have worked towards a conciliatory agreement.
According to a Mumbai Mirror report published in 2017, Vijaypat had filed a petition in the Bombay High Court saying he wasn't handed over the possession of a duplex in the redeveloped 36-storey JK House on Malabar Hill despite repeated reminders to the property's owner, Raymond.
JK House was unveiled in 1960 and we quote from Mumbai Mirror, "Four duplexes in the building were later handed over to a Raymond subsidiary, Pashmina Holdings. In 2007, the company and the occupants decided the structure will be redeveloped. As per the deal, Vijaypat and Gautam, Veenadevi, the widow of Vijaypat's brother Ajaypat Singhania, and her sons Anant and Akshaypat will get a 5,185 sq ft duplex in the new building on a payment of Rs 9,000 per sq ft. Already, Veenadevi and Anant have filed a joint petition while Akshaypat has submitted a separate petition in the Bombay High Court staking claim to a duplex each."
In this imbroglio, Vijaypat in a petition accused Gautam of what he called as "high-handed conduct" and cited a police complaint to substantiate his point. Vijaypat claimed that two Raymond employees, Jitender Agarwal and RK Ganeriwala, who handled his property and bank documents and personal files, had gone missing at Gautam's behest, leaving him with no access to documents.
We quote from the petition, "Agarwal and Ganeriwala handled Vijaypat's income tax returns, chequebooks and other bank documents, personal files, investment documents and wealth tax related papers. All of a sudden, they stopped responding to his calls and messages earlier this year, after which he approached the police as the two had become untraceable for him. It is now becoming apparent that this was orchestrated by Gautam Singhania in order to harass and pressurise the petitioner who is 78 years old, and who recently underwent an open heart surgery."
According to Mumbai Mirror, Vijaypat had approached the Ballard Estate police when Agarwal and Ganeriwala "went missing."
As per the report, Vijaypat accused Gautam of occupying an area far more than what he was entitled to in the redeveloped JK House. Vijaypat said this was in gross violation of the tripartite agreement clause, according to which no occupant should be given preferential treatment. He further alleged Raymond had not even responded to his and other litigants' offer of making payments to take possession of the duplexes.
The Mirror report also stated that the veteran industrialist had quoted another clause from the tripartite agreement which purportedly said occupants of the JK House would be provided with alternate accommodation while the building was being redeveloped. We quote Vijaypat, "After vacating JK House, I was residing at Kamla Cottage in Juhu. However, I had to vacate that property as well following a separate litigation involving the family's three branches in Kanpur, Kolkata, and Mumbai. I then rented a row house at Grand Paradi building on Nepean Sea Road for Rs 7 lakh a month. I wrote to Raymond in July last year to reimburse the rent but there hasn't been a response."
Gautam Singhania had at that time stated that he would reconcile with his father provided, he stopped being led by vested interests and kept such elements out of the terms of settlement.
He also made some generic statements about conflict of interests and wearing two hats, personal and professional and about his loyalty to the credibility of the Raymond brand but at the heart of his argument was that a wedge had been driven between him and his father by others.
He had told NDTV, "As far as my father is concerned, I will do whatever it takes that is in my power to resolve the issue. At the end of the day, he is my father and he's old. I would want that at this age, he ought to lead and enjoy a comfortable life doing whatever he feels like and let his son earn the money."
The father, however, has cited repeatedly what he thought was 'arrogant and dishonest' behaviour on the part of his son.
Any resolution seems far away now as the dispute has travelled from the personal to the professional arena.
From bad to worse
The dirty family linen is unfortunately now been wrung even further and put out to be bleached and to dry in full public view. Recently, Vijaypat Singhania was removed as chairman-emeritus of the family-run Raymond Group.
Things spiraled out of control following a series of complaints that Vijaypat Singhania wrote to the company secretary about and the Board to register his thoughts about being kept out of the thick of things and key Board meetings.
On September 7, a letter signed by Thomas Fernandes, Raymond director secretarial and company secretary, wrote a letter objected to what he called 'unparliamentary and derogatory language' used by the senior Singhania in his letters and to stop using the title of chairman-emeritus.
The sacking of the man who had founded Raymond in any case could not have been done amicably but this sent shockwaves across business circles and obviously shook Vijaypat too, who asked for proof that the Board had decided to sack him.
Significantly, it has been subtly conveyed in this exchange that the company is not in any way concerned with the family dispute between father and son, and puts the blame of this drastic measure upon Vijaypat and his behaviour.
The letter stated and we quote, "Considering the aspersions cast against the Board, the company and the chairman and managing director, including repeated unparliamentary language, the board has decided to withdraw the title of chairman-emeritus post your vacation of office as a director. You are hereby advised to refrain from using or attempting to using the title of Chairman-emeritus henceforth, including levying your claim on this as alleged by you in your letter, since this could invite legal consequences in future."
That the company and the man at its helm, Raymond Chairman Gautam Singhania, are being extra watchful of what the old man may come up with next is obvious with the former's attempt to seek an injunction against a book that Vajaypat is writing.
The court though has for now rejected his application seeking the injunction against the book.
In a suit filed on September 25 this year, Gautam had sought to stop the book alleging that its contents were "defamatory to him." The publishers and Vijaypat's lawyers have argued that since the book was still in the making, it was premature to accuse it of a slant.
The book not without a sense of irony, has been tentatively titled 'The Incomplete Man' in an obvious reference to the company’s tagline, 'The Complete Man.'
That a company known for its spotless entrepreneurial record is embroiled in what seems like a petty squabble is stuff that soap operas and yes, family weepies from the eighties are made of, but well, we are dealing with cold reality here.
In a letter addressed to the Board on August 30, Vijaypat had called out what he believed to be were his son's "manoeuvres" to get him removed from the company and also blamed him for not returning various cherished collectibles like his Padma Bhushan medal, art and photographs.
He had also pointed out like a beleaguered Shakespearean figure that the directors, now firmly on the other end of the fence, had once known him personally and were aware of his service to the company. He also added that that the title of chairman-emeritus, is usually given for the span of a lifetime.
He added and we quote from multiple news sources, "I am not aware of what harm I have ever caused to Raymond for being so appallingly treated."
Gautam Singhania talking to Mumbai Mirror reacted to the allegations thus and we quote, "My father does not remember where he has kept these things. I don’t have any of his belongings. What will I do by holding these things with me? I am pained to see my father behaving this way. If he has a problem, I am ready to sit across with him and sort all his problems. But, so far as the company’s functioning is concerned, I have nothing to do with him not being the chairman-emeritus anymore. It was the decision of the Board and the Board must have its reason to do whatever they did. I have no role to pay in it."
Acrimony on home turf is not new to the Singhanias. Last July, three groups of the Singhania family, in Mumbai, Kolkata and Kanpur, settled a nine-year legal dispute over shares in properties, according to Mumbai Mirror. We quote, "According to the settlement finalised by a Supreme Court-appointed arbitrator, Vijaypat and Gautam were asked to hand over Kamla Cottage in Juhu to the Kolkata group of the family, while the Kanpur group was to hand over possession of four properties to Vijaypat and Gautam. As part of the settlement, the Mumbai group will get Rs 23.4 crore, while the Kanpur group will get Rs 22.71 crore."
The wrangle over JK House has also been persistently contentious.
Where it all began
The beginning of one particular squabble though can be traced back to February 2015, when as we said before, Vijaypat decided to 'gift' his 37.17 percent stake in Raymond, worth almost Rs 1,041 crore, to his son Gautam.
Then Vijaypat's four grandchildren through his estranged son Madhupati filed a court case claiming right to the Raymond brand, ancestral properties, real estate and other movable and immovable assets, reports the Mirror. The children said their parents had no right to enter into any agreement on their behalf and relinquish their claims.
While that story continues to unspool, Raymond, one of India's largest clothing brands, saw its share price dip by 4.4 percent when reports began to circulate that Vijaypat Singhania has been sacked from his position as the Group's chairman-emeritus.
As Business Today put it and we quote, "The man credited with building the brand - and father to the current chairman and managing director of Raymond - was reportedly informed of his removal in a letter."
While Gautam in public has maintained the stance that he has no ill will towards the family patriarch, he has also been adamant that the JK House apartment can’t be handed over to Vijaypat because the company's shareholders have not approved the transfer.
He also constantly cites vested interests who according to him have misguided his father.
In the end, regardless of the legal resolution of the disputes between father and son, what we are left with is a sour aftertaste of an almost, as we said before, Shakespearean tragedy.
The 80-year-old man, now being called forgetful and misguided was at one time, not just the force behind the Raymond Group of clothing and textiles, but also a former Sheriff of Mumbai and a keen aviator with a flight experience of over 5,000 hours. He till date holds the world record for highest altitude gained travelling in a hot air balloon. He achieved this feat at the age of 67.
Singhania also holds a world record for his solo microlight flight from UK to India in 1998.
Among his other achievements is a gold medal he won in 1994, in the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale air race covering a distance of 34,000 km spanning 24 days. For this achievement, he was also conferred the rank of Hon. Air Commodore of the Indian Air Force.
He was also honoured with the Padma Bhushan, the third highest civilian award by the Government of India. In March 2007, he was nominated to be the Chairman of the Governing Council, IIM Ahmedabad succeeding N R Narayana Murthy.
That the man who once wrote 'An Angel in the Cockpit,' a riveting account of his journey from the UK to India on a microlight aircraft in 1988, is now writing 'The Incomplete Man.' That goes to show that you never can tell.Yes, you can never tell how a story will end or muddle itself after a glorious start and a triumphant middle.