In India, I once worked for an immensely wealthy family of landowners and farmers from the border region between the states of Karnataka and Maharashtra.
The patriarch was a barely literate man who had bought bachelors degrees from private colleges in order to project an aura of enlightenment to the world. In the early days, he used to be known as the ‘haldi king’ of Karnataka, someone who had the Indian turmeric market virtually by the balls. He also owned vast tracts of prime agricultural and urban land.
In the mid-1960s, the Indian government began the process of ‘land reforms’, aimed at taking away vast family-held lands from zamindars and distributing them directly to small farmers. The ‘Agricultural Land Ceiling Act’ came into being, under which a guy could own up to 10 acres of irrigable land and no more.
The patriarch may have been illiterate but he was smart. Since his holdings ran into thousands of acres, he began the process of divesting and investing the proceeds in the industry, more specifically the Indian automotive industry, which was then growing at 15% per year, most of it located in the western and southern parts of the country, where this guy was headquartered. Talk about being at the right place at the right time.
Meanwhile the eldest son got himself a Bachelors degree in Mechanical Engineering from BITS, Pilani, and went on to do his MS at the go-to place for rich spoilt Indian kids – MIT. Thereafter, he came in and began giving his dad a hand, like a scion would.
By now those who are in the Indian auto forgings and speciality steel industries will know who I am talking about. Let’s just call him ‘Bull’. He was full of it anyway. I do hope someone who knows whom I am referring to, shows him this piece so he will know what kind of a piece of work I think he and his ilk really are.
Feudalism ran through Bull’s veins and he thought of himself as a some kind of a modern-day yuvraj (prince), treating employees – even the senior ones – like serfs. He is now a leading industrialist, based at Pune in Western India, owning large automobile ancillaries with revenues in billions. His present personal net worth was $1.3 billion in 2014, according to Forbes.
Bull had this habit of looking at you with dark piercing eyes that glowered malevolently all the time, making you feel like you were a piece of turd. Didn’t matter if you were a VP or an Assistant Manager. He always made it a point to make you feel inadequate. At meetings, he could smell fear and immediately pounced upon the unfortunate executive who showed it, just to satisfy the predator in him.
I remember once (and I was in a senior position then) when I was standing in the lounge outside his office with some foreign investors, when he summoned the VP-Marketing with some market reports. When Bull’s eyes fell on the guy approaching, he barked,” On the double!” It didn’t matter that the guy was just ten feet away and would probably take a few more seconds to reach him. The poor man’s pace just wasn’t good enough for Bull. He wanted to see him run. He wanted to show those visitors who was in charge.
The VP loved his job, along with the perks and the status that it provided and he didn’t want to give it all up. He ran, as the amused visitors looked on. Later that day at the executives’ dining room, he was overcome with emotion. “ I was made to feel so insignificant,” he said to me. And I never forgave myself for watching my colleague being humiliated in front of a bunch of foreigners.
Bull’s dad, the patriarch, was an even bigger prick. An old shrunken turd with a perpetual sneer, daddy-o treated all his employees as his personal valets. If you took a trip with him, he expected you to carry his baggage, hold open doors for him and be there outside his hotel room until you were dismissed for the night. You were responsible for his comforts every second of the trip. You had his room inspected in advance, before he checked in, just to make sure everything was neat, the towels were fresh, the bed linen brand new and all appliances and fixtures worked. The car you hired had better be brand new.
At the airport you rushed an assistant ahead, to check in for the old crone, so he wouldn’t have to wait in line. He always sat on a particular seat number inside the aircraft, depending upon the model. It was always right by the doorway, first row, to ensure he had leg space and also so he could get in and out of the aircraft quickly (there was no first class those days). You quickly learnt by heart the seating layout of an Indian Airlines 737 or A320/310/300 and you made sure he got that seat.
Or else….I am not kidding. I personally know of three individuals who went home straight from the airport for the final time, simply because daddy dear didn’t get his favorite seat.
Soon hotel managers, taxi agency managers, airport managers, hotel boutique managers, florists, restaurant managers – all became my top-priority, men to be kept happy at all times, far more important than the clients I was primarily hired to service.
I once spent two days with the old shrimp in Kolkata where he had gone for meetings with procurement officials in the Ministry of Defense and some leading businessmen in the same cabal that had cornered the defense contracts in that industry sector. In the evening he wanted to take a stroll along the Hooghly riverside promenade.
That evening, the luxury taxi rolled to a stop at this serene spot by the Hooghly River called Outram Ghat, let us out and began following us at a creeping pace. Immediately the old man was off with long strides, staring imperiously ahead. I scrambled to keep pace with him and as I drew level with him, he turned and gave me a withering look and I realized that he did not want me in step but maybe ten paces behind. I fell back.
We trooped around Outram Ghat in silence for about 15 minutes, me following the shrimp and the car following me, till he suddenly wheeled around and said,” Take me back to the hotel.” Never once did he make an effort to get to know me, then a young engineer just starting out, desperately in need of encouragement. He never said,’ thank you for spending time with me’. To him, being at his side until late in the evening was what I was being paid to do. He never made an effort to get to know who I was or where I came from.
Driving anywhere with daddy dear was excruciating. He had this annoying habit of asking questions that even a 5-year old would classify as stupid. We were passing the Kolkata racecourse on our way back to the Oberoi Grand and he says,” How many horses do they have in a race?” He had this sullen, rasping tone of voice when he spoke, especially when he asked a question. I so wanted to say,” How the f–k am I supposed to know, asshole?” Alas, the need to continue to earn a salary and be able to eat, held me back.
Back at the hotel, I was hoping he would retire for the day. He had an early morning flight to catch, bookings for which had already been made well in advance. In fact I had booked every morning flight leaving Kolkata the next day, to Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Bangalore, just in case old Pops suddenly decided to go somewhere else. It was normal to see me walking around with a thick sheaf of tickets in my jacket pocket.
Instead of walking to the elevator, Shrimpy Pops veered off toward the shopping arcade that had those expensive boutiques that ripped off foreign tourists. We entered an antiques dealer who had ivory statuettes on display. The geezer walks to one, inspects it for an instant and rasps,” Have it gift-wrapped and sent up to my room. You can go now. Wake me up at six.” With that, he wheeled around and left the store.
Those days there were no credit cards and I had just five grand (then a princely sum) with me. The ivory piece was worth twenty grand plus tax. What was I going to do? There were no such things as ATMs and banks closed sharp at five. It was eight.
That was when my Christmas gifts to the hotel General Manager did their job. He gave the store manager his personal assurance that the money would be paid by the next evening, gave me a reassuring wink and hurried off. I saw to it that the carving was wrapped and delivered to the old man.
As to returning to pay the money that was owed, that was no problem. Whenever the old man or his son traveled, slush funds moved along with them, available for the regional branch managers to spend if and when necessary.
Which brings me to the now infamous December 2014 ‘Nut rage incident’ at JFK aboard a Korean Air jet when a flight purser got his ass hauled off a plane that was already on the runway, heading toward the threshold markers for take-off. A stewardess in the first class had served nuts inside the original packaging (those small sealed plastic packets) to a customer whom she had probably not recognized as the daughter of Korean Air’s founder & CEO. The woman also happened to be the airlines’ VP-Customer Service. As per protocol, the stewardess should have served the nuts on a plate instead.
The brat immediately began berating the stewardess and her boss, the flight purser, in a high-strung, trenchant tone of voice. The long and short of it is that the spoilt little lady ordered the aircraft back. The pilot obviously wanted to keep his job. He meekly brought the plane, along with 200 odd passengers, back to the terminal where the hapless flight purser was kicked out of the plane.
I don’t remember if the purser got to keep his job after the brouhaha blew up. To think that the hullabaloo was over a packet of stupid nuts and a brat’s desire to show who was the boss.
Having a predator as your boss is not uncommon. Just google ‘psychopathic & predatory bosses’ and you’ll get a flood of results, leaving you with the realization that they are anything but stray instances. Psychologists say most psychopaths are not behind bars and at least one study shows people with psychopathic tendencies are four times more likely to be found in senior management.
That’s when your boss is also an employee. But when – like in my case – your boss also owns the company you work in, it can become a full-blown human rights disaster.
“Not all psychopaths are in prison — some are in the boardroom,” says Dr. Robert Hare, a Canadian psychologist who is co-author of the book “Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go To Work.”
“Most of us have an image of a psychopathic personality that is inaccurate. We think of a killer, but the fact is that psychopathy is a personality disorder that may or may not result in criminal behavior,” says Dr. Hare.
And then, who hasn’t watched Miranda Priestly, the Meryl Streep character in ‘The devil wears Prada’.
I want to leave with a customized message for this father-son duo I have written about – oops, I forgot they can’t see my middle finger up here.