Neville Wadia was the last of India's aristocratic taipans, who expanded his family textile concern into one of India's largest and donated lavishly for the welfare of the Parsee community to which he belonged.
For 25 years he headed Bombay Dyeing, still a byword for quality across India, but he was a part of the company for 44 years, joining it - even though his father owned it - as a shopfloor assistant. Wadia also gave a new impetus to his family's philanthropic tradition by building hospitals, colleges and baugs, or homes, for Parsees in the western port city of Bombay, where a majority of this dwindling community lives.
Though born a Christian - his father had renounced the Zoroastrian faith of the Parsees and converted to Christianity - Wadia became a Parsee a few years ago amidst much controversy. The orthodox Parsee clergy, tasked with preserving racial purity, objected to his conversion, strictly forbidden under Zoroastrianism, while the relatively liberal priests justified it on grounds that at heart Wadia was a true believer.
The Parsees are a small but high-profile community who migrated to western India from a small town called Par in Persia around the eighth century, to escape religious persecution. The light-skinned, handsome settlers were erudite, clever and natural businessmen and over the centuries established successful trading and manufacturing businesses in port cities like Bombay and Karachi (now in Pakistan).
Neville Wadia's father, Sir Ness Wadia, was one such entrepreneur, responsible for turning Bombay into one of the world's largest cotton trading centres in the late 19th century. The sudden rise in cotton prices which followed the drop in supplies from America during the civil war led to Bombay's astute Parsee merchants stepping in and making up the shortfall by exporting cotton from the fertile Deccan plateau in the south.
Soon, Bombay became a boom town and sensing its potential the British government, aided largely by the forward-looking Parsee community, developed this disease-ridden, swampy fishing village into one of India's major textile centres.
Neville Wadia, however, cut his teeth in the textile business the hard way. Brought up in opulence in England where he was born and educated, he was unceremoniously flung into work at Bombay Dyeing by his father in the early Thirties, starting at the most junior level in each department and slowly working his way to the top. He was paid no salary and given only a meagre allowance befitting a lowly employee.
This training proved invaluable to Wadia, who succeeded his father as chairman of Bombay Dyeing in 1952 and turned it into one of India's most successful and quality-conscious textile concerns. In 1971, however, the eccentric Wadia startled Bombay's conservative business circles by announcing his decision to sell up and settle abroad.
But Nusli, his son, then 26 years old, had his own ambitions of owning and running the company and devised a strategy to stop his father. With help from his mother and sister and influential family friends he began by garnering 11 per cent of the company shares and went on to persuade the employees to pool their savings and buy shares, thereby preventing the sale. The manoeuvrings worked and Wadia, forced to abandon his disposal plans, retired a few years later to be succeeded as chairman by his son.
Neville Ness Wadia was born in Liverpool in 1911, and was educated at Malvern College and Trinity College, Cambridge. Soon after graduating he married Dina, daughter of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, and joined his father's textile business in 1933, supervising the loading of cotton bales on to trucks.
He became company chairman in 1952, retiring 25 years later. During this period cotton exports from India were growing and to help them expand he founded the Cotton Textiles Export Promotion Council, which he headed for 12 years. Wadia also contributed to building new wings and upgrading several hospitals in Bombay founded by his family, and established a commerce college in Pune, 120 miles south of Bombay, along with a host of charitable trusts for Parsees.
Quietly spoken and full of Victorian charm, Wadia loved nothing better than walking round the various hospitals and Parsee homes associated with his family.
Neville Ness Wadia, industrialist and philanthropist, born Liverpool 22 August 1911; married Dina Jinnah (one son, one daughter); died Bombay 31 July 1996.
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