The Chennai based TTK Group was founded in 1928 as an indenting agency. Its founder TT Krishnamachari (TTK) introduced organised distribution in India. He set up distribution for products ranging from foods, personal care products, writing instruments, and brands such as Cadbury’s, MaxFactor, Kiwi, Kraft, Sunlight, Lifebuoy, Lux, Ponds, Brylcreem, Kellogg’s, Ovaltine, Horlicks, Sheaffer’s, Waterman’s and many more. By late 1930’s he became a full time politician and left the business to his four young sons. He was to serve as the country’s finance, industries and commerce minister under Jawaharlal Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri. Although TTK was one of the triumvirate (R Vekatraman and Kamaraj) who were behind Tamil Nadu setting up industries, he would consciously not use his influence to help his sons. He made them turn down lucrative distribution deals as Amul, as he had had a role to play in setting-up the co-operative.
TTK’s youngest son was TT Vasu, a colourful personality who dominated the Chennai social scene. He was also instrumental in bringing in several pioneering concepts to the country. Unfortunately, he was seen as a dilettante businessman who could not sustain his interest in his projects long enough to see them succeed. Although Vasu lost control over them, several of the businesses he helped set up have flourished in other hands. His biography, ‘The man who could never say no’ written with a lot of warmth and insight by Chennai’s chronicler, S Muthiah, gives a slice of business and social history of those times. The book reveals how Vasu’s role as a businessman has never been appreciated either by his family or industry.
Cosmetics manufacture was Vasu’s first significant contribution to the group. This happened way back in the 1950’s. Chesebrough-Ponds (the original makers of Vaseline, Ponds talcum powder among other things) of the US, had set up a distribution office in Bombay. Post-independence the government decreed that multinationals in India could not operate merely as distributors of their products. They had to make in India. When the Indian head of distribution turned to the TTK group for a manufacturing facility Vasu’s eldest brother Narasimhan put Vasu on the job.
TTKs applied for a license to manufacture Ponds products in Madras. C Rajagopalachari, (Rajaji) the chief minister of Madras turned down the application saying “Sita never used cosmetics. I do not understand why Indian women need such products now.” TTK who was then the industries minister in Delhi, refused to get involved. He sent the file to prime minister Nehru saying as he was an interested party, he did not want to take a decision. Nehru approved the project and is said to have told HVR Iyengar, the principal secretary of the industries minister, “Sita was a naturally beautiful woman and not many Indians are blessed like her, so they must have the help they feel they must need.”
Vasu decided to go to Bangalore given Rajaji’s attitude. A factory set up by the group to manufacture pens and ink was converted to manufacture Ponds products. This was possibly the country’s first large cosmetics manufacturing unit. Vasu made sure Ponds quality was strictly maintained. In 1978, when the Foreign Exchange and Regulation Act, FERA, was introduced, Ponds decided to go public and wanted to take over the manufacturing. The TTK Group and Ponds parted ways rather acrimoniously. Ponds would not have survived in India without Vasu intervening during various crisis points the company faced. Vasu, never got rewarded or recognised for the role he had effectively played.
Vasu’s contribution to family planning, too, has not been properly recorded. It was during the second world war, with troupes landing in India from West and Africa, the group tied up with London Rubber Company, UK to distribute the famous Durex and Durapac condoms. After independence, the TTKs wanted to go into manufacturing condoms and tied up with LRC. The next challenge was to get a license for manufacturing from the government which did not consider family planning a priority. A committee which had been set up to figure out how to control India’s growing population did not think condoms warranted manufacturing in India. TTK, was one of the members of the committee.
Vasu had to seek an appointment with Nehru and had to convince him. The licence was eventually granted. The TTKs set up a factory to manufacture condoms in a Madras suburb and struggled for years. Then Vasu got an order from Sweden for 85 million condoms to be distributed to developing countries. With technology from LRC, the group could assure the Swedish Agency, SIDA, of their quality. These were given to Indian government for distribution in the country from 1969. This is how the ‘Nirodh’ programme began. Vasu’s networking skills and persuasive powers played a major role in the government getting into condom distribution and LRC getting huge orders.
Vasu ventured on his own to set up the first five-star hotel in the city. It seems unbelievable now that nobody in the hospitality industry in the early 1970’s thought that Madras required a luxury hotel. The city at that time had no business or tourist traffic to speak of. Vasu acquired a vast quantity of land in the heart of the city at a throwaway price. He was convinced that things would change rapidly when the government started relaxing rules and regulations. He tied up with Holiday Inn and the project started slowly taking-off. He was to face many problems. He could not find investors, ran into debts, and Holiday Inn pulled out. He had to give up his shares in the group and ultimately had to sell out. His dream project was just ahead of its time. Today, it is Crown Plaza and is one of the leading five-star hotels in the city.
Vasu was also behind some smaller but interesting projects. One of them, TT Maps and publications was the country’s major producer of atlases. This was a printing press set up in collaboration with the German major Betelsmann. It had a large capacity as it was going to print atlases for school children in substantial numbers. However, Survey of India, expected a substantial sum and royalty which made atlas printing unviable. A lot of time was spent in negotiations before atlas business became profitable.
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In his later years, Vasu was the President of the Music Academy and and was to breathe life into it. His role as an industrialist slowly faded. Muthiah’s book brings Vasu alive and also an interesting and colourful era in the country’s business history.