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April 9, 2012

Profile: Zarin Mehta

Photo of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra playing by Chris Lee

Unlike some who are part of a musical dynasty, Zarin Mehta went off the beaten track to become a successful accountant before he got back on the path towards a career in the world of classical music and orchestras. He talks to The Accountant about his journey from Mumbai to New York.

One liked notes, the other liked numbers: this is how Zubin Mehta became one of the worlds most well-known orchestra conductors and his younger brother Zarin Mehta became an accountant turned president of the New York Philharmonic (NYP) orchestra.

“As simple as that”, the 73-year-old Indian-born Zarin Mehta tells The Accountant.

If you opened the door of their comfortable but not lavish Mubai-childhood home you would hear a consistent stream of music, night and day and in every corner. In India, in the 1950’s, being a musician wasn’t a lucrative profession and so not at the top of the career list, even for the sons of violinist and founder of the Bombay Symphony Orchestra Mehli Mehta.

“My brother started off with the idea of being a doctor and I decided I wanted to be an accountant because I like numbers,” Mehta recalls affectionately.

Photo of New York Philharmonic Orchestra president Zarin Mehta by Chris LeeNotes and numbers have indeed entrenched during his life, with Mehta starting his career counting the kilometres that separated his home city of, Mumbai, from London, where he arrived age 17 to fulfil his dream of becoming an accountant. His first foray began through an apprenticeship at an accounting firm based in Stratford, East London.

“It was extremely cold, there was no heating and I lived in a small house together with a family with three young daughters and two others. I needed two buses to get to the office and I didn’t understand a word of what was being spoken to me. Probably they couldn’t understand me either,” Mehta says, revealing a distant Indian accent watered down by more than five decades of English language.

“I remember I lived on £10 ($16) a week…I paid £4 a week to the family and they gave me a room and board, breakfast and dinner; the lunch was £2.09 per week with a tip – so £4.50 went on food; and with the £5 left over I could do what I wanted,” Mehta recalls.

While he was in London, Mehta not only took his first steps into the accountancy world he also attended school to get his A ‘levels. Instead of going to university he learnt his trade and gained his accounting qualification, from the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, from which he was recently awarded an outstanding member award, on the job.

This type of route into the profession is now making a comeback in the UK due to the heavy increase in university fees.

Moving towards the music

After spending about three years in the UK capital, Mehta decided a change of city was needed if he was to progress up the accounting career ladder and headed for the US – commonly known as the ‘land of opportunity’.

“I couldn’t consider staying on in London, because in those days as an Indian I could not make any progress in the City. I could have stayed on with the firm but I could’ve never become a partner,” Mehta stresses.

“I saw an ad – I think it was in The Times – looking for seniors for international work: I responded to it and I went over to Washington for the interview. But I must say I didn’t like Washington, I found it a very bureaucratic little city, quite different from now.”

During his trip Mehta headed to the bright lights of New York City and decided he would door step a number of accountancy firms for an interview, but destiny called and after accepting an invite at his brother’s house in Canada he found new direction to his plans.

“My brother had just got a job in Montreal so I went off to see him and the second I was there I was having dinner and sitting next to the chairman of Coopers and Lybrand [now PwC],” Mehta explains.

“He said: ‘If you are looking for a job, come and see me’, as accountants were very much in demand. I also went to a couple of other firms and they all offered me jobs, but I decided the first one sounded the nicest,” Mehta fondly remembers.

After acquiring a green card the 20-year old accountant said farewell to London for good.

“I basically asked one of my old friends to send my belongings over to Montreal and that was the end of London,” he says.

During the sixties and the seventies, Mehta’s accountancy career matured in Canada, where he specialised as a general auditor and moved rapidly up the ranks to become partner at Coopers and Lybrand.

This also marked the beginning of the next chapter in Mehta’s life, where his passion for numbers eventually gave way to his other passion, the classical music industry – a not so unexpected development coming from a classical music dynasty.

“Orchestras in North America survived because leaders of the community were on the board and did governance and raised money: that’s how, when I became a partner, the Montreal symphony asked me to join the board and I did in 1973, getting more and more involved,” Mehta says.

“By 1980 I was chairing the committee that was looking for an executive director and we couldn’t find anybody because of the peculiar nature of the job, which was running a Northern America orchestra while being able to speak French,”

“After a year and a half of being frustrated I decided that maybe I would take a sabbatical year and run the organisation myself. The first year I had success raising money and running the place and I enjoyed it, so I just thought I’d stay a little longer, then a little longer and then it became my profession. I took a sabbatical for three years (from the firm), but eventually I had to resign,” he says.

Fact box for Zarin MehtaCounting on accounting

Mehta admits his knowledge and appreciation of music, in his second career, played a greater role than his accountancy background. But, would he have got where he is today without it?

“[An accountancy background] helps you wherever you go. I’m not trying to advertise it, but the training you get, the facility with the figures [is also useful] when you are running an orchestra. It’s a little bit like being in practice, when you are not doing only one job but you are working with eight different clients on the same day. It’s the same thing when you are running an art organisation; you also have to be an entrepreneur. You have to know what’s going to work, what is good to raise money and to sell,” Mehta says.

The Montreal Philarmonic Orchestra was the door way to Mehta’s music industry career path leading him to become executive director then president and chief executive of one of the US’s oldest outdoor festivals, Ravinia Festival where he pioneered its jazz festival and a world music series, and then to his current role as president of the NYP orchestra.

While Mehta counts passing his Chartered Accountant exams among the most memorable moments of his life he says it is his current role that links to his most “unusual” and “cherished” highlight – a unique NYP concert in North Korea he helped bring to fruition in 2008. This was not only a big deal for NYP but also for the US as it would be the first time a US cultural organisation had appeared in the country and would also see the largest group of US citizens arrive there since the Korean War ended in 1953.

“The whole thing was unusual. Out of the blue, [Kim Jong-il] invited us [to play]: the ambassador of the UN came to my office to see me and went through [things]…At this stage we didn’t know why it was happening, but it did happen and it’s now recorded on DVD and shown all over the world. We were on the front page of every newspaper,” Mehta explains.

“It was unusual, because I didn’t know why they wanted us. As we are speaking now, they’ve restarted negotiations on de-nuclearisation and the man who is leading the North Korean delegation, the deputy foreign minister, was there the first time I went and we spent three hours together just chatting. For him I was representing the free world.”

Mehta describes his time in the strict communist country as a “funny adventure”.

“I guess one of the most unusual aspects of it was the airport only flies little DC3 planes and we were going to be 300 people large, including (90) Western journalists,” Mehta says.

Ensuring the media had access to the concert was an important stipulation Mehta negotiated before agreeing the NYP would go over and play. He says it was a big feat given that “there has never been any reporting from that country without censorship and control” and the concert made headlines.

“But they allowed all these news agencies to set up their own direct links to their newspapers and there were live reports done by the BBC and CNN they just allowed everything, we told them we are not going unless there was freedom of press,” Mehta says.

“We also had South Koreans in the orchestra and we said: ‘we assumed nothing will happen to them’.”

Surprisingly, raising the finances to fund the trip was one of the easier moments Mehta says despite the cost set at $2m, but logistically it was a little harder especially having to work out how to transport a vast amount of people and equipment with no aeroplane.

“We had to get a plane from South Korea and I had the nerve to go and ask a South Korean airline to lend me a (747) for three days. The plane came, picked us up, flew us to Pyongyang, left and came back two days later to pick us up. They had to fly out to the sea and come round because you cannot cross the border and in order for us to get off the plane, we needed step ladders, they didn’t have them,” Mehta notes.

Mehta is due to step down as NYP president later this year, but he plans to continue managing orchestras, managing concerts and wants to “consult in some fashion, maybe produce some concerts, maybe get involved in smaller festivals, but not work 24/7 like I have been”.

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