Abhishek Modi© HelloIndia

Abhishek Modi On Family, Legacy & His Vision For India

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Neeva Jain

Hailing from a renowned business family that has evolved since the 1930s, the grandson of Rai Bahadur Gujarmal Modi has surely made the latter proud with his rapid strides in the family’s sugar business. A Harvard Business School alumnus, Abhishek Modi is the trailblazing entrepreneur who has also built a premium liquor brand. He opens up about his remarkable journey, sharing personal passions, and professional pursuits in a tell-all interview with HELLO!

HELLO!: You come from a family carrying a legacy in business through many generations. Can you tell us a little more about your background?

Abhishek Modi: “My great-grandfather had a thriving business in Patiala, so I’m a fourth generation businessman. However, my grandfather, Rai Bahadur Gujarmal Modi, established the Modi Group in 1933 in Modinagar, creating a diverse business empire. And this put the Modi Group in the top five business families of India at the time. During my childhood, a lot of emphasis was given to discipline, education and excelling in whatever one does. We were brought up with limited resources, and never made to feel like we belonged to an affluent family. I believe these strong value systems created the base for me and my siblings. Most business families generate so much wealth by the third or fourth generation that there’s no ambition left in them. Sheer discipline, along with the passion to excel, has helped me work towards creating my very own niche.”

H!: You joined your family’s sugar business in 1998. What was the experience like? And how did it shape you in the years ahead?

AM: “While I was a chemical engineer by education, my real interest was in marketing. I joined the family sugar business in 1998—I was given the charge to run Modi Sugar in Modinagar. One day on a market visit to Ludhiana, I noticed sugar cubes on the shelf of a retail outlet, and the idea of developing unique sugar products came to my mind. I came back and discussed the feasibility of making specialised sugar with my technical team. At that time, only one sugar company was making pharmaceutical-grade sugar for institutions and retail in India. We did a market survey and realised there was a huge opportunity! By 2000, within a short span of time, we became the market leader—creating a distribution network across the country. This small, but early success in my 20s helped me realise that one always needs to think out-of-the-box.”

H!: You are a graduate of Harvard Business School. Can you share some core management skills that you learned there?

AM: “In 2001, after three years of working in the family sugar business, I joined Harvard Business School (HBS) for their MBA programme. I believe they were the best two years of my life, and the relationships one develops there are for life. One of the best things about HBS is that it teaches you to think like a leader; it teaches you how to lead people and manage a business from the top. I had the opportunity to do a semester course with the late Professor Clayton Christensen, who taught us ‘disruptive innovation’. That class changed the way I looked at business from a strategic point of view. His first book—The Innovator’s Dilemma is a must read. However, I would say, my biggest takeaway from HBS was the subtle, yet persistent emphasis on being a leader with a heart. In the first year itself, there was a complete course on the importance for business leaders to give back to society. This resonated well with me. Interestingly, my grandfather was equally known as a philanthropist as much as a business leader.”

H!: Tell us about your premium liquor brand in India.

AM: “In 2011, we started a liquor business, Modi Illva, a joint venture with Illva Saronno, Italy to produce and market premium Indian alcoholic drinks. Modi Illva decided to enter the premium segment with Artic Vodka and Rockford Reserve Whisky. We believed that a quality product, with an international appeal and clear marketing communication, would cut through. Modi Illva has since managed to create a niche for itself in the last decade, with all our brands being well received.”

H!: What are your interests outside of work?

AM: “Watching movies or reading (mostly non fiction) is a great way to unwind and connect with oneself. Collecting art is another hobby that I have been pursuing for the last 15 years and it definitely energises me.”

H!: Your favourite destination holiday spot....

AM: “Hands down Florence! I love the city. I love the relaxed vibe! It has great food, wine, culture and shopping. The fact you can walk around all day in the city centre is something that I really enjoy!”

H!: Your favourite cuisine?

AM: “I love Japanese and Italian! I also love Mexican, but it’s hard to get good Mexican food in Delhi. I relish it when travelling...”

H!: We hear you are an avid art collector—tell us about your favourite purchase.

AM: “I’ve been collecting art for the last 17 years, with a focus on Indian contemporary and Indian moderns. I started with young Indian contemporary artists, but today I gravitate more towards Indian moderns and more established contemporary artists. For me, art is therapeutic—whether one is researching, or visiting shows and galleries. My favourite is an installation by artist Vibha Galhotra, made with small bronze ghungroos in the shape of a beehive. Atul Dodiya’s Shutter series is another favourite of mine.”

H!: Happiness to you is…

AM: “Rishaan, my 9-year-old son. Travelling and spending time with him gives me great happiness. [My wife] Nandini thinks I’m a little obsessed (laughs).”

H!: What are your dreams for an inclusive India?

AM: “We are in a very interesting period in India. On one hand, the whole world is looking at India as a growth engine, and on the other, the Indian consumer is becoming more quality conscious, proud of the ‘Made in India’ products. This brings a unique opportunity for Indian companies, who need to satisfy the local demand and develop world-class products. If we can do this across categories, we can play an important role in the global marketplace. The low cost of production advantage in India will further help us become a global leader.”

Photos: Manoj Kesharwani

This is an excerpt from an interview from HELLO! India’s October 2023 issue. To read the full interview, check out the latest issue right here.