MV Murugappan’s daughter Valli Arunachalam waging a ‘lonely battle’ for a seat in the male-only board of holding co Ambadi Investments
Maulik Vyas & Satish John
Valli Arunachalam, one of the heirs to the storied, 119-year old, Murugappa Group, is waging a “lonely battle” to succeed her father as a member of the male-only board of the holding company.
“We are primarily seeking a board seat in Ambadi Investments, a holding company of the group, or fair market value for our stake in the company,” Arunachalam told ET over the phone from New York, where she lives. “My sister and I are qualified and experienced and hence eligible to get representation on the board.”
The board of Ambadi Investments, which owns shares in various companies of the $5 billion, Chennai-based Murugappa Group, has traditionally been reserved for male heirs of the family.
Arunachalam says she is “fighting biases” as she seeks to enforce her father’s will and take his place on the board of Ambadi Investments by virtue of the family’s stake in the holding company.
She backs her claim by saying that even the Hindu Succession Act recognises the right of women to head the family.
Arunachalam is the eldest daughter of late MV Murugappan, the ‘karta’ of the family who died in September 2017.
In Hindu Undivided Families (HUFs), women could not become the karta – or head of the family – because they did not have equal inheritance rights as men. That changed after the Hindu Succession (Amendment) Act of 2005, which allowed daughters to inherit as much as sons.
Arunachalam’s family – including her sister and mother – has taken the fight to the family patriarch, 80-year-old MV Subbiah. Her demand is that female heirs be given equal opportunity in the family business, on the same terms as male heirs.
Arunachalam, a nuclear engineer by qualification, has also approached other family members in her quest.
“My father, in his will, bequeathed everything to me, my younger sister and my mother, and clearly stated his wish to give us equal rights and to represent our branch in the family business,” Arunachalam told ET.
The board of Ambadi Investments met in late November without taking a decision on the matter, she claimed.
“In the last board meeting of Ambadi Investments in November 2019, the issue of giving me representation on the board came up, but then nothing concrete happened. The approach towards this issue is very vague and generalised,” she said.
‘I’m Fighting for All Women’
Emails sent early Thursday to Subbiah, the family patriarch who mentored the next generation of the Murugappa family to leadership roles, and to MA Alagappan, the former executive chairman of the group, did not elicit any replies.
“I’m fighting for my rights. But my story is not about me or my family. I’m fighting for all women, fighting biases,” Arunachalam said.
The promoter shareholding in Ambadi Investments is collectively owned by seven branches of the Murugappa family. According to Arunachalam, the other six branches of the family are represented on the board and she is seeking a seat to represent her family by virtue of its stake of about 8% in the holding company.
Ambadi Investments has two independent directors and representation from six branches of the Murugappa Group. When Arunachalam’s father Murugappan was alive, he was part of the board. “This is gender discrimination. This is a lonely battle, but should trigger public debate,” she added.
Arunachalam had approached other family members soon after her father passed away, asking them to honour his wish and, in favour of fairness and equality, to appoint her or her younger sister on the board of the holding company.
“For the last two years, we are running from pillar to post to get what is rightfully ours,” she said. “What is more shocking to us is that our father had helped almost everyone on the personal and professional front when it was required as the family patriarch, but currently nobody is reciprocating in the same manner.”
“All we are trying to do is to fulfil our father’s will and we are trying to settle this within the family and amicably,” she said.
Founded by Arunachalam’s greatgrandfather Dewan AM Murugappa Chettiar in 1900, the group’s revenue was ₹36,893 crore ($5 billion) in FY19.
The Murugappa Group currently controls over two dozen companies including nine listed companies such as Coromandel International, EID Parry (India), Tube Investments of India, Carborundum Universal and Cholamandalam Investment & Finance Company. Ambadi Investments’ major holdings in group companies include EID Parry, Cholamandalam Financial Holdings, Tube Investments and Carborundum.
Arunachalam’s argument is that the world is changing and other Indian business groups have co-opted women members on their boards. Amalgamations Group, another storied Chennai-based business group, has women leading its companies, as does the Godrej group.
While Arunachalam is prepared for a settlement, she’s also ready for a long battle. “If we are marginalised, we will be forced to look at other options, since we have been denied our rights so far,” she said.