Anu Aga
India
Anu Aga
  • Thermax Private, Ltd. (Equipment Manufacturing)
Born in Mumbai, 1942; B.A. in Economics, St. Xavier's College (Mumbai); post-graduate studies in medical and psychiatric social work, Tata Institute of Social Sciences
“[As a leader], you don’t have to know everything… In fact, one of the beliefs I have is [that] skills can be hired. The leader has to show wisdom—that cannot be hired.”

Summary

Anu Aga, current chairperson of Thermax Social Initiative Foundation, recounts how she inherited leadership of Thermax Global after the sudden death of her late husband in 1996, and describes the strategies she used to strengthen and grow the business during her eight-year tenure as chairperson. The company that eventually became Thermax Global was founded in 1966 by Aga’s father, A S Bhathena, as a hospital equipment company in partnership with the Belgian company, Wanson. Over time, the group, known as Wanson India, expanded into boiler manufacturing in accordance with the demands of the closed Indian economy.

In 1980, Wanson India broke away from its Belgian partner, and re-established itself as Thermax Private Limited. The following year, Rohinton Aga (Anu Aga’s husband) assumed the title of Chairperson and Managing Director after working in partnership with Aga’s father for many years. Aga herself became involved with the family business only in 1985, when she was appointed head of Human Resources. In the interview, she describes some of the team-building strategies she used develop successful working relationships and promote collaboration. She also explains some of the anxieties she faced taking on this new role, and the challenges of balancing work with raising her two young children.

Rohinton Aga suddenly passed away in 1996, and Aga succeeded him the new chairperson of Thermax Global. In the interview, Aga relates the factors that went into her selection for the role, as well as some of the biggest challenges she faced assuming leadership of a large-scale, highly-diversified engineering firm. At that time, the Indian economy was in the midst of a severe downturn. Despite the fact that she had little background in either business or engineering, she immediately recognized that the company was out of depth and needed major re-structuring.

However, the key to her success, she explains, was her willingness to ask for help—most notably, from the consulting firm Boston Consulting Group. In the first few years of her leadership, Aga took the decision to remove family members from executive positions and instead place them on the Thermax board.

In addition to her leadership within Thermax, Aga also became an outspoken advocate of corporate responsibility, both independently and as a member of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII). Her commitment to responsibility was one major factor that led Aga to take a hardline stance against corruption within Thermax. In her interview, Aga explains some of the factors that helped her convinced Thermax board members to institutionalize a no-corruption policy.

In 2004, Aga took the decision to step down as chairperson. In the interview, she describes the unusual way in which she approached this transition and the reasons that she selected her daughter, Meher Pudumjee, as her successor. Since that time, Aga continues to serve as Chairperson of Thermax Global Initiatives. She has also become personally involved in philanthropic activities, specifically NGOs like Akanksha and Teach for India.

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Anu Aga, current chairperson of Thermax Social Initiative Foundation, recounts how she inherited leadership of Thermax Global after the sudden death of her late husband in 1996, and describes the strategies she used to strengthen and grow the business during her eight-year tenure as chairperson. The company that eventually became Thermax Global was founded in 1966 by Aga’s father, A S Bhathena, as a hospital equipment company in partnership with the Belgian company, Wanson. Over time, the group, known as Wanson India, expanded into boiler manufacturing in accordance with the demands of the closed Indian economy.

In 1980, Wanson India broke away from its Belgian partner, and re-established itself as Thermax Private Limited. The following year, Rohinton Aga (Anu Aga’s husband) assumed the title of Chairperson and Managing Director after working in partnership with Aga’s father for many years. Aga herself became involved with the family business only in 1985, when she was appointed head of Human Resources. In the interview, she describes some of the team-building strategies she used develop successful working relationships and promote collaboration. She also explains some of the anxieties she faced taking on this new role, and the challenges of balancing work with raising her two young children.

Rohinton Aga suddenly passed away in 1996, and Aga succeeded him the new chairperson of Thermax Global. In the interview, Aga relates the factors that went into her selection for the role, as well as some of the biggest challenges she faced assuming leadership of a large-scale, highly-diversified engineering firm. At that time, the Indian economy was in the midst of a severe downturn. Despite the fact that she had little background in either business or engineering, she immediately recognized that the company was out of depth and needed major re-structuring.

However, the key to her success, she explains, was her willingness to ask for help—most notably, from the consulting firm Boston Consulting Group. In the first few years of her leadership, Aga took the decision to remove family members from executive positions and instead place them on the Thermax board.

In addition to her leadership within Thermax, Aga also became an outspoken advocate of corporate responsibility, both independently and as a member of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII). Her commitment to responsibility was one major factor that led Aga to take a hardline stance against corruption within Thermax. In her interview, Aga explains some of the factors that helped her convinced Thermax board members to institutionalize a no-corruption policy.

In 2004, Aga took the decision to step down as chairperson. In the interview, she describes the unusual way in which she approached this transition and the reasons that she selected her daughter, Meher Pudumjee, as her successor. Since that time, Aga continues to serve as Chairperson of Thermax Global Initiatives. She has also become personally involved in philanthropic activities, specifically NGOs like Akanksha and Teach for India.

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Video Clips by Topic

Education

Anu Aga discusses the decision India-based engineering company Thermax took in 1996 to devote a specific share of profits to social spending, and to focus explicitly on education, supporting schools and the Teach for India program. Aga denounces government educational policies as inadequate and corrupt.
Keywords: India, Education


Family Business

Anu Aga, former Chair of the equipment manufacturer Thermax in India, describes the difficult decision to reconstitute the company’s Board of Directors and her belief in the need to keep the roles of executives and Board members separate.


Leadership (2)

Anu Aga, former head of Thermax, an engineering and energy company in India, relates her own story of finding the confidence necessary to lead and to cultivate her own talents.

Keywords: India, Leadership


Leadership (3)

Anu Aga, former head of Thermax, an engineering and energy company in India, describes her decision to hire a consultant company in response to operational losses at the company, and of the skepticism she faced from company executives in doing so.

Keywords: India, Leadership


Resilience

Anu Aga, former head of Thermax, an engineering and energy company in India, explains the circumstances around which she was chosen as her husband’s successor at Thermax after he passed away in 1996. She discusses the many challenges she faced and how she was able to overcome them, noting the importance of accepting help and not comparing oneself to others.
Keywords: India, Resilience


Leadership (1)

Anu Aga, former head of Thermax, an engineering and energy company in India, discusses how, shortly after her husband died, the board made her head of Thermax, despite her reluctance. She speculates on why they chose her, including the fact that her family had 62 percent ownership and that some assumed she could be bullied.

Keywords: India, Leadership


Gender

Anu Aga, former head of Thermax, an engineering and energy company in India, describes the challenges of going back to work after taking time off in order to care for family.

Keywords: India, Leadership, Gender


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Additional Resources

Additional Resources

Interview Citation Format

"Interview with Anu Aga, interviewed by Geoffrey Jones, Mumbai, India, February 14, 2017, Creating Emerging Markets Oral History Collection, Baker Library Special Collections, Harvard Business School."