MV Subbiah, former chairman of the Chennai-based Murugappa Group, and the current chairman of the National Skill Development Corporation, was awarded the Padma Bhushan earlier this year for distinguished service of high order in the field of ‘Trade and Industry’. The Padma Bhushan and other honours sit lightly on Subbiah’s shoulders. He said after the announcement was made, “I have always felt that such honour though awarded to an individual is recognition of the team’s work. In my case, this is an honour for the great work done by the teams at the Murugappa Group and the National Skill Development Corporation.” This is typical Subbiah, modest and gracious, someone who genuinely does not like to draw attention to himself in spite of his many achievements.
The Murugappa Group was founded by Subbiah’s grandfather AM Murugappa Chettiar in 1934. The group was a pioneer in many ways, such as setting up the first cycle factory in the country. Subbiah entered the business 43 years ago. By the late 60s, things were beginning to slow down, and problems started surfacing. He emerged as a tough leader who could turn around ailing units. In the late 60s, he put group company Corborundum Universal back on the tracks. In the 70s, TI Cycles was beginning to lose out to competition from the West and the North, and was facing a lot of labour troubles that led to a ten-month lockout. Subbiah took a tough stand, was not averse to making unpopular decisions, and finally got labour to agree to wages linked to productivity. His biggest challenge, however, was in turning around EID Parry, a 200-year-old British company that looked as though it was in its final days when the group took it over in 1981. He lived up to his reputation, cut costs, staff, made Parry operations profitable and integrated it with the group by 1987.
As the CEO of the group, Subbiah helped it become a well-structured, modern, forward-looking organisation. Today Murugappa Group’s turnover exceeds $4 billion. He retired as the chairman of the group in 2004. “I have not thought of business ever since,” he tells me. But there are many other things he is preoccupied with. In 2009, GoI asked him to take over as chairman of the newly-formed NSDC with public and private sector participation. The NSDC has been given the mandate to skill 150 million youth in India. It is