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Sohrab Merchant: End of an era

Sohrab Merchant, former senior partner of the erstwhile chartered accountancy firm, S.B Billimoria & Co Chartered Accounts (SBB; now, Deloitte) passed away on Thursday 14 January 2016. SBB was India's oldest CA firm and Merchant was one of its oldest serving partners. Yezdi Malegam was its senior most partner for many years. I had the pleasure of working under Merchant for a very short, but memorable, four months. For many of us who had the pleasure to have worked under him, it's an end of an era.

My first memory of Merchant was when I had walked into his office, fresh out of college, in 1997 not knowing who or what to expect. I had never intended to become a chartered accountant but I had a year at my disposal before I was to give a crack at my Masters in Business Administration (MBA) entrance exams the following year. I wanted time to study, but the thought of spending one year at home just to prepare was never an option. So I decided to get some work experience. And when applying for an MBA, work experience counts.

So I was recommended to apply to SBB, amongst other places. My closest friends and college classmates had already joined SBB by that time, pursuing chartered accountancy. SBB was not known to take on vocational trainees, so I had to use some contacts and Merchant was kind enough to take me on. He decided to give me a stipend of Rs.2,000 a month (my first salary ever); which he very graciously bumped up to Rs.4,000 when one his senior office accountants requested him since he must have thought Rs.2,000 was too less. I couldn't care less; I was willing to work for free to get some much needed work experience. SBB was an added bonus; it came with a lot of reputation.

Inexperienced and gullible, I walked into his office without a resume. He asked: "Oh yes, yes, Kayezad come, have you brought your resume?" I said no. He looked at me with a face I thought was so dismissive that I froze for a few seconds. Later of course, I'd know the man better to know that the face was the usual one he wore and a source of much amusement for all of us. He sent me to ICICI Ltd as my first assignment, where my team was already buried in the firm's books of accounts. At the time, ICICI Ltd (before the firm got converted to a bank) was a very prestigious audit. Mr Malegam was on the company's board and he had stepped down so that SBB could get the audit.

The drill was common. Each of our audits would have a team that would spend a few weeks to a month, to under two, to go through the books, make inquiries and notes and comments. Then, an SBB partner (Merchant, in our case) would come to sign the books of accounts. Merchant was known to be unpredictable. He could be docile at one moment, and could flare up at another. He commanded a lot of respect though, on account of his seniority, age and experience. He was tall and very fair and looked very handsome and well-groomed, so that added to his charm and personality.

He was compassionate and would listen to our arguments, patiently. I remember many accounting officers who were scared of him when he would visit companies to sign off their books. Entire department would be on high alert when he used to walk in; anyone could be summoned if one of us had a feedback or a query that was left unaddressed. Merchant always preferred confident people to those who were visibly shaky in his presence. I remember he had nicknamed a lady at Wartsila NSD (my most memorable audit and where I had spent the maximum amount of time) "a leading lady" because this woman was very confident in her responses when Merchant had any queries about her work. She was equally capable and Merchant liked that quality in people.  I thought he carried the same preferences for his own people, as well. At the end though, Merchant loved all his staff.

But most of all, he was a very funny man; strictly unintentional! He used to say the darndest things and some of us could burst out laughing. He used to call most of us as "Beta". (more like "Betaaaa"). He had his own way of calling us; if he could comprehend our names, we were lucky. But if he couldn't, he would start calling us what he liked. So Mandar became Mandana and Savio become Salvo. He favourites could afford to laugh in his presence, but others were kind of forbidden. Merchant was not used to screaming, but when he raised his voice, it was scary. But his manner of speaking, his thoughts, sometimes his interpretation to things around us, were many times most amusing and would crack us up and make our day.

Despite his strictness and aura, Merchant's visits to firms were looked forward to. He usually used to visit us for 2-4 days towards the end of our audit period. On all days, the management of the client company took him out for lunch at a four or five star restaurant. Merchant was very fond of good food and clients knew how to keep him happy. But on the last day, Merchant in all his benevolence, used to take his entire team deputed for that client, with him as well, for lunch. We used to look forward to those days.

Ofcourse, there was a downside. Merchant would order food for all of us. The menu was his- and only- his choice. "Some gravy, some chicken, some rice, some cucumber", told to the waiter with panache and some deft finger movements to indicate morsels and the quickness which was expected. The vegetarians would sit on one side, he would sit with the non vegetarians. And then he would direct the waiter towards the vegetarians in a disdainful manner to take their order. "Sher kabhi ghaas phoos nahin khataa", he had once remarked when someone asked him whether he ever has vegetarian food. The restaurant could serve Chinese or Indian or South Indian or Mexican; his menu would remain the same. Yet the food would be delicious and a change from the usual drab we'd eat on all other days, so food would be devoured in minutes. Merchant hated food going waste and he used to gently push us to finish off everything. I never quite appreciated this quality at the time, but today I look back with fondness and appreciate this quality.

Years later, I used to bump into him on few social occasions or in Fire Temples. I doubt whether he ever recognised me due to his old age. His vision had turned worse in recent years. But he lived his life to the fullest having achieved many things and also helped many youngsters launch their CA careers. His demise was neither unexpected nor premature. Rather it brings back a lot of pleasant memories that'll stay on with us for years to come and make us feel ever so grateful for being part of our lives.

It is truly an end of an era.



picture#1: courtesy Business Line
picture#2: courtesy an ex SBBian. 

Comments

  1. May His soul progress to the highest realms of heaven for all the good deeds he did to nurture us into what we are today. Kayezad,you brought back vivid memories. Thanks a ton.

    ReplyDelete
  2. May His soul progress to the highest realms of heaven for all the good deeds he did to nurture us into what we are today. Kayezad,you brought back vivid memories. Thanks a ton.

    ReplyDelete

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