Ships, Planes, Fashion and Fun
Nishita Shah keeps a high profile, and that’s something new for her family’s 140-year-old company.
It’s a Tuesday evening in the open-air restaurant of the Four Seasons Hotel, and 28-year-old Nishita Shah is right at home. In one of the few posh places left in Bangkok where she can smoke, she’s wearing her usual uniform: hip-hugging jeans and a clingy top, her wavy black hair resisting its pinnings. She orders more chardonnay and rates the items on the tapas menu.
With the accent of someone who attended an English-speaking international school for 12 years, her conversation skitters from breast cancer research to her beloved Thai nanny to the colors to expect in the spring 2010 fashion season. There are interruptions. She hops over to say good-bye to a stylish young couple on their way out. Her BlackBerry bleeps. When a woman in a business suit at another table calls out to her, she responds brightly, while murmuring, “I’m not sure who that is.” Abruptly at nine, she folds camp: She has some investment bankers to meet.
Meet the fresh face of the 140-year-old GP Group, which never had a face before. In fact it’s stayed out of the spotlight for five generations, trading that most unbranded of products–rice–before her father started expanding into dozens of equally unglamorous businesses in the 1970s. But now there’s Nishita. The Thai and Indian editions of Hello! magazine recently featured her in photo spreads, wrapped in Hervé Léger. She’s launching her own fashion label–Nsha–on three continents at the end of the year, backed by $1 million from dad. And three years ago she learned how to fly a plane.
At the same time, Nishita is well versed in the family business and its “jewel in the crown,” Bangkok-listed Precious Shipping. She can discourse on recycled aluminum prices, commodities-trading software and the Baltic Dry Index. “She’s able to take her intelligence and apply it across diverse activities: become a pilot, hold her own in a boardroom and these other things,” says a friend in Sydney, Christa Avery, KPMG’s associate director of Asia markets.
At the same time, she’s warm and unaffected, never deploying the hi-so (high-society) witch’s nose gestures so essential for reinforcing Thailand’s rigid class lines. “Nish is not in the least snobbish,” says James Eckardt, an editor at a Thai newspaper who has crewed with her for five years in the annual Phuket King’s Cup Regatta. “She isn’t one of those people that’s on her BlackBerry all the time. And she can stay up until 2 a.m. drinking Long Island Iced Teas and then be full of energy at breakfast.” He has described her in his regatta chronicles as “an Indian Thai beauty whose doe-eyed face and voluptuous figure could grace an erotic Hindu temple frieze.”
Back on the ground, her father, Kirit Shah, last year made her GP’s managing director, not that any of the Shahs have titles on their business cards. The unlisted group holds the family’s stakes in more than 40 companies in 20-plus countries, controlling some of them but not running any of them. Virtually all of the family’s 42% stake in Precious Shipping, which accounts for most of GP’s value, is in Nishita’s name, putting her–along with her parents and two younger siblings–high on FORBES ASIA’s list of richest Thais this year. They rank nineteenth, with an estimated net worth of $375 million. Kirit, 55, has long listed GP’s investments in his children’s names. “I always believed that I was working for the family, so did not need to hold anything in my name,” says Kirit. “I know that my children will take care of me in my old age.” Could Nishita decide to sell her Precious shares? “I think I’d have a lot of influence,” he says.
It was Precious that helped pull the group through the 1997–98 Asian economic crisis. Kirit spent eight years renegotiating loans and shedding most of GP’s 154 companies, which were involved in everything from property to jewelry. How much in dollar loans did he have in 1997, when the dollar doubled in value against the baht? “Billions,” he says.
And how much did he lose? “Billions.”
By the time the dust settled and GP was buying companies again, Nishita had graduated from Boston University with a degree in business and finance. “My dad said I could study anything I wanted as long as it was business,” she likes to say. For four years she learned all about the various companies, visiting most of them. She’s certainly dutiful but makes no secret that she finds many of the industries rather dull. For example, there’s Mega Lifesciences, which manufactures pharmaceuticals and nutritional supplements that are sold in 125 countries; a year-old aluminum recycling plant on Thailand’s eastern seaboard; and Eka, which is developing commodities-trading software in Bangalore. The businesses that her Ethiopia-born Canadian mother, Anju, oversees–a corporate travel agency and the Amari Atrium Hotel in Bangkok–are in a sector she’d like to expand in.
In 2006 she rewarded herself with a year off in one of her favorite places, Los Angeles. She was thinking of studying something “creative”–one of her favorite words. Her father suggested that she fulfill one of his own dreams and study flying. She earned an instrument rating for a single-engine plane and a private pilot’s license. In between flights she took yoga and surfing lessons. Back in Bangkok, she travels 9 to 12 weeks a year, and friends of all ages are a constant: “Singapore, London, New York, Paris–I’ve got good friends pretty much everywhere.” Learning to fly paid off when the Shahs launched a regional charter service with Bangkok magnate William E. Heinecke–No. 15 on the list–almost two years ago. MJets has four pilots and will soon add a third plane.
GP didn’t have anyone like Nishita back when it started in 1868. Originally from Gujarat, Kirit’s great-great-grandfather Khetsee and his son Devjee (there were no surnames in those days) started a rice-trading business in Bombay and Burma. Rangoon, which was then part of the Indian colony, was the headquarters for most of the company’s history. The Shahs bought rice from throughout Asia and sold it in Africa and beyond, making deals by mail and later by telegraph. Soon after the Burmese coup in 1962 the government shut down all foreign-owned businesses and expelled most Indians. By then known as Gangjee Premjee (the first names of two of the brothers of Nishita’s great-grandfather), the company had had a branch office in Bangkok since 1918, so her great-grandfather ran the firm from there.
Kirit joined in 1975, when the head office still consisted of just his father, five employees and one of the city’s few telex machines. He took over in 1979, after his father had a stroke, and launched an enormous expansion, fueled by the new affluence of the Middle East and the more well-off parts of Africa. He expanded beyond rice to other commodities and traveled for months at a time. “The merchant who used to order 50 tons of rice now had a market for 500 tons,” he recalls. “Then they needed edible oil. They’d want maize, sugar, pineapple. I’d say, ‘You need uniforms. There are all these construction workers, they need gumboots.’ Then they’d need steel, timber, bitumen, asphalt, cement.”
He set up small buying-and-selling offices in dozens of countries. Kirit didn’t go to university and doesn’t profess to do sophisticated investment analysis: “I’d look around and see what businesses interested me.” He invested in the manufacturing of some of the commodities he traded, such as latex. Back in Bangkok, he got into building hotels and apartments. His construction company, Maxwin, spawned a dozen subsidiaries.
Kirit had an earlier warning of the crisis than most borrowers in Thailand. He had loans from Bangkok Bank of Commerce, which collapsed in 1996 under the weight of $7 billion in bad debts. Loans from BBC and other banks helped Kirit and his allies buy shares for what turned out to be a bitter six-year takeover bid for Phoenix Pulp & Paper, the largest employer in the impoverished northeast. His group finally succeeded in 2000 and nursed the company back into profitability. In 2006 they sold their shares after the Siam Cement conglomerate “made us an offer we couldn’t refuse,” as he puts it.
If the public recognizes the Shah name or Globex, the family’s investment vehicle, it’s because of the extensive press coverage of the Phoenix battle. Like other Indian Thais, the Shahs have always kept a low profile, shunning social events and the media. Unlike Chinese immigrants, Indian Thais rarely marry ethnic Thais and don’t participate in politics. But Kirit says he’s comfortable with GP’s new public profile. “I’m not shy,” he says. “There was just no need to publicize anything. But this is the new generation. They think you need to be exposed. It might bring about new opportunities.”
Like Nishita, the rest of the next generation also has a creative bent. Her sister, Sameera, 24, is studying jewelry design in Los Angeles and would like to start a jewelry line. Brother Ishaan, 19, is a sophomore film student at the University of Southern California. Anju, their mother, quickly adds: “He has the idea of coming into the business. He’ll end up with a business degree.”
Still, the younger Shahs have never been expected to take an executive position in Precious or the other companies. In the early years Kirit was known as a paper-clip counter but, he explains, “I realized I had to give up control. Very early in life I decided to own these companies, but I didn’t want to manage them.” So, Kirit emphasizes, all of the companies are run by professional managers. When Nishita teases him about what job he imagined for her, he answers soberly, “Your job is to know about the companies, so you can be a good shareholder.”
With her clothing company, called Burn Baby, Nishita is a more hands-on executive than her father. She continues to read coal, shipping and metal reports every morning and sits in on meetings on the 15 days of the month when her father is overseas. But her office, with her seven Burn Baby employees, is now in spacious quarters in a scruffy ten-story building on Sathorn Road where all the other family offices are lodged. Nsha (Sanskrit for “intoxicated”) will be a line of “luxury activewear” for “modern urbanite women,” according to the business’ mission statement. She is now lining up boutiques for the December launch. So far she has won orders from New York’s Blue & Cream and H Lorenzo in Los Angeles and expects to add Bangkok and London. Kirit’s initial $1 million investment, Nishita calculates, should safely cover costs even if it takes three years to make a profit.
Nishita’s creative director is her “best friend since age 11.” Chomwan Weeraworawit is a British-trained lawyer who veered into designing uniforms for hip restaurants. “She helped me figure out what I wanted,” Nishita says. The two have spent many hours thinking about the musical tastes, work, wardrobe and travels of their 25- to 35-year-old target customer. She sounds a lot like them: A young single woman who can drop $50 for a T shirt and $350 for a bright pink rain poncho.
In a four-week jaunt though Switzerland, England and the U.S. in the spring, Nishita visited prospective Nsha retailers but also took in a jewelry and watch show with Anju and did a bit of art and clothes shopping. Going out at night with friends, she stayed on the lookout for ideas for clubs or boutique hotels that might work in India. The Andy Warhol and Romero Britto prints that she picked up in the U.S. were destined to decorate her condo, which is one floor up from her parents’. She’s dedicated the walls of the GP offices strictly to contemporary Thai artists, such as Sujin Wattanawongchai and Jakkai Siributr.
Days after she arrived home, Cyclone Nargis struck the Irrawaddy Delta, killing at least 85,000. Nishita immersed herself in the relief effort. GP’s Mega Lifesciences operation in Burma donated inventory to Yangon General Hospital and the U.N. None of the company’s 350 people in the country were harmed, so it had staff–and 50 trucks–that could enter the devastated region, and it could provide a way to channel money from overseas. The Shahs immediately donated $60,000, and Nishita tapped their network of friends to collect more; by late June they had raised more than $100,000. “If there’s one thing I learned from the  tsunami, it’s that people want to give to organizations with low overhead,” she says.
Nishita is now thinking beyond the emergency relief phase. “With $20,000, we can build basic houses for 450 families. It’s about $80 to build a house for five or six.” She was also pondering the plight of farmers, since soil won’t recover for several years. “These villagers are going to need some kind of basic industry to get on their feet, at least for a few years.” All that knowledge of GP’s “boring” businesses might be just what Burma needs now.