“IT WOULD, PERHAPS, NEVER have happened without the accident,” says Sminu Jindal, managing director of the pipe-maker Jindal SAW. Sitting in her South Delhi office, she talks of her 17-year journey at the helm of Jindal SAW, and what it means to be a woman born into a patriarchal business family. She lost the use of her legs in a car accident when she was just 11, and has been confined to a wheelchair ever since. “I come from a family where women never worked. Yet I have worked all my life. Would this have happened without the accident? Maybe not,” she says.
Born into the Om Prakash Jindal family (her father, Prithviraj Jindal, is one of the four sons of the patriarch), Jindal says she “always wanted to be a part of the business”. Her father is vice chairman of Jindal SAW, and “when my father or grandfather used to playfully tell me that once you grow up, we will get you married quickly, I remember starting to weep,” she says. “When other girls were playing with dolls and creating doll houses, all I wanted to do was sit in my father’s office.”
And sit in the office she did, taking the company from a turnover of Rs 300 crore when she took over to Rs 7,500 crore today. She didn’t start at the top; she joined Jindal SAW as a management trainee in one of its loss-making factories in 1992, when she was 19, and earned Rs 2,700 a month. Two years later, she was made director. By 1998, when she became the managing director, she had managed to turn the factory around.
It was difficult to convince the rest of her family that she was serious about work. “When I first joined, my grandfather would ask me every day, ‘did you earn or lose money today?’” she says, laughing. “It took some time to convince him that I was earning and not losing!”
Convincing family was one thing; factory workers did not welcome the idea of working for a woman far younger than many of them. One of her father’s lieutenants was among those most averse to working under her. “He had tremendous talent and constantly screamed at me,” she recalls. But she was convinced that she could turn the factory around, and refused to give way even when he got aggressive. The man was finally moved to a different factory.
Stories like these make some write her off as the privileged child of the owners. Would the troublemaker have been shifted if Jindal was not family, they ask. She’s unfazed by such accusations: “I knew what to do to turn the factory around.”
Jindal went on to make more waves in the family. “I broke all the rules. I guess the final one was marrying for love, outside the world of business families.” She married Indradesh Batra, a management graduate, and, soon after the wedding, went to Houston to turn around another Jindal plant. That was in 2001. The factory was being run by “tough guys who were in a country facing a hard time”, she says (it was soon after 9/11). “Here was a young Indian woman in a wheelchair who was going to tell them what to do. The overall attitude was: What does she know?”
She recalls that a man called Bill ran the factory, who thought little of Jindal’s abilities. “Then one day, I pointed out to Bill that a welding process was wrong because the strength of the flame was wrong. I could see in his eyes that he was dismissing me but he went to check. I was right. I may not be an engineer but I have seen these things from almost the time I was born. It’s in my blood.” Bill came back with a sheepish grin and admitted she was right, Jindal says, and from then things got better.
“Sminu is indefatigable and in a business full of men and grime, she towers as a complete picture of how anything can be achieved as long as one is really determined,” says Pooja Jain, executive director of Luxor Writing Instruments, and a friend of Jindal.
It’s not just passion for the industry (she sees poetry in welding flames and water sizzling on a furnace, she says) that keeps her going. She also runs a nonprofit organisation, Svayam, which works to make public places accessible to the disabled. She’s known to be vocal about rights for the disabled and the aged. In 2008, Jindal spoke out against one of India’s biggest airlines, Jet Airways, which had forced her to sign an indemnity bond before flying. The airline later apologised. Jindal points out that apart from low-cost carrier IndiGo, no other airline has a ramp instead of a staircase to board flights.
“Everyone wants to be macho, even the airlines. But macho cannot be discriminatory,” she says.