Rome wasn’t built in a day, as the popular saying goes. Some of the world’s biggest businesses are, in fact, the culmination of decades of hard work and perseverance. Such is the story of the Godrej Group, one of India’s most renowned conglomerates, which started with a humble lock-making venture in 1897.
Ardeshir Burjorji Sorabji Godrej, who founded the company 120 years ago, was a man of high principles and resilience.
Image source: Godrej Archives
Born in 1868, Ardeshir was the oldest of six children in a Parsi-Zoroastrian family in Bombay (as Mumbai was then called). His father Burjorji Gootherajee changed the family name to Godrej when Ardeshir was around three years old.
Ardeshir studied law, like many other Indians from affluent families, during the British reign. However, his career in law was short-lived as Adi Godrej, the company’s present CEO, narrates in Peter Church’s book Profiles in Enterprise: Inspiring Stories of Indian Business Leaders.
“Fresh from law school he (Ardeshir) was given a brief in 1894 by a firm of Bombay Solicitors to go to Zanzibar to argue a case for their client. The case was going well until Ardeshir discovered that he would need to lie or, more charitably, manipulate the truth to present his client’s case. He refused to do this and no amount of persuasion by the solicitors or the client could convince him to change his principled stance.”
He came back to India standing his ground, but his career in law was doomed even before it had started. Church’s book mentions that he firmly believed that India had to become self-reliant. Having followed his disastrous start in law with an assistant’s job in a chemist shop, he became interested in manufacturing surgical instruments.
His first business — surgical instruments — did not do well, but Ardeshir was determined to continue a manufacturing business in India. He received a loan from Merwanji Cama, Parsi businessman and philanthropist, to start a new lock-making business.
The lock business marked the true start of the Godrej empire as we know today.
Image source: Godrej
Ardeshir began in a shed on May 7, 1897. His locks were cheaper than those imported from England — even better, he had discovered that foreign-made locks came with an inbuilt spring that often broke down. His locks came without this feature and sold far better in the market.
As his business flourished, Ardeshir expanded into manufacturing safes, and patented his door frame and double-plate doors. His affordably-priced safes became so popular that even the Queen of England used one during her tour of India in 1912, recounts an article in The Hindu. Godrej safes remain an iconic item till date.
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He moved on next to create Godrej soaps — crafting soaps out of vegetable oils instead of animal fat. These were the world’s first vegetable soaps.
Image source: Godrej
Despite being a marked departure from locks and safes, the business was a hit with that era’s version of celebrity approvals in the form of endorsements by Rabindranath Tagore and Annie Besant. Ardeshir taught people how to make the soap as well, with a Gujarati pamphlet titled ‘Vacho ane Seekho’ (Read and learn).
His younger brother Pirojsha also joined the business, his only sibling to do so, and together they came to be known as the Godrej Brothers.
Adi Godrej, who is Pirojsha’s grandson, remembers in Church’s book, “Ardeshir was never content at succeeding at one thing and constantly sought more challenges in diverse areas such as inks, toffee, perfume making, biscuits and even vineyards. Many of these ventures did not succeed in his lifetime but those that did made a mark.”
Even as his business flourished, Ardeshir lived simply for most of his life. In the book Vijitatma: Founder-Pioneer Ardeshir Godrej, journalist and author BK Karanjia mentions how he insisted on using public transport and “the sight of him patiently waiting at bus stops, engrossed in reading a newspaper or a book, created a lot of talk in the community.” His personal life was marked by tragedy as his wife Bachubai died early, leaving no children.
Yet, Ardeshir remained resolute in establishing a made-in-India business organisation. A follower of Dadabhai Naoroji, he believed that it was important for India to not simply reject foreign-made goods, but have its own industries with high-quality manufacturing processes. An avid nationalist — though known for his differences in opinion with Gandhi — he once donated Rs 3 lakh to the Tilak Swaraj fund, according to Karanjia.
Ardeshir passed away in January 1936, a year when Godrej & Boyce posted Rs 12 lakh as revenue and Godrej soaps reported ₹6 lakh worth of revenue. The quiet man laid the foundations of what has today grown into one of the country’s most reputed industries with investments across the world.