The fascinating journey of Tamil Nadu’s multi-billion-dollar business houses
WHY IS it that when we talk of Indian industry, names like the Tatas, Birlas and Mahindras come up, but not necessarily of anyone from the southern part of the country? Till Infosys and Wipro made Bengaluru famous, the south was hardly in the national imagination. And yet, there was manufacturing, as well as information technology leaps being taken in the south way back in the 1970s and 1980s that would have far-reaching consequences for Indian industry in years to come. Sushila Ravindranath, who as a journalist has covered the south for many years, argues that it was not on anybody’s radar for two reasons: one, the national media was indifferent to the region; and two, the companies, mostly family-owned and private, were publicity-shy.
Bengaluru was home to many public-sector units like HAL, but everyone sat up and took notice of the city only when Texas Instruments set up shop there, leading the way for it to be crowned India’s Silicon Valley. Till Chandrababu Naidu took over the reins of Andhra Pradesh in the 1990s, it was known primarily as an agricultural state.
Ravindranath’s book, though, is about Tamil Nadu and its many pioneers, including the TTK Group, which, “among other things, introduced pressure cookers and condoms to the country”, and the TVS Group, a “super star” in the automobile industry.
From outlining the stories of multi-billion-dollar business houses like TVS, Murugappa, Amalgamations and MRF Group to the many enterprising businesses of Coimbatore and other regions of the state, Ravindranath takes us on a fascinating journey.
The companies and family groups of the south were ready for liberalisation long before their counterparts in the west and north. They were willing to reinvent themselves and reading about them in such detail gives us an idea as to why they are so well placed to take on the future. Besides old money, there are new players, such as Pratap C Reddy of Apollo Hospitals, who bet on the healthcare industry long before the others; the Marans of Sun TV; and info-tech giants like TCS, which paved the way for an IT boom.
The Murugappa group was founded in 1900 when Dewan Bahadur AM Murugappa Chettiar set up a money-lending and banking business in Burma. The business expanded to other south-eastern countries, but when Burma became independent in 1947, the government nationalised all foreign holdings and the Murugappas had to leave. But this didn’t become a calamity at all, as AMM Arunachalam, son of the founder, explains: “…under our financial accounting system, all collections made by the branches were required to be remitted to our head office at Madras. Thus, when the Burmese nationalisation blow fell, we had sufficient liquid resources in India to provide us with a base to rebuild.” Today, the Murugappa group has a turnover of R243 billion with interests in auto components, agro commodities such as sugar, tea and fertilisers, engineering products such as tubes, abrasives and financial services, insurance and cycles.
The TVS Group’s journey is equally interesting. Founder TV Sundaram Iyengar registered the company in 1911 and started south India’s first passenger bus service in 1912. Over the years, the group expanded quietly with individual companies doing well in their own right like Wheels India, Brakes India, Lucas TVS, Sundram Fasteners and TVS Motor Company. One reason why we haven’t got to hear too much about these firms is because people behind companies like Murugappa and TVS don’t like to talk about themselves and, in fact, engaged PR services only in recent years.
In tracking Tamil Nadu’s growth story, Ravindranath also talks about some failures. For instance, the state missed out on the petrochemical boom of the 1980s despite being a pioneer. Some entrepreneurs like R Subramanian (Sterling Resorts) were hit by the slowdown in the economy.
One of the most interesting chapters is reserved for Coimbatore, once called the Manchester of India because of the proliferation of textile mills. “Almost everybody from Coimbatore aspires to be an entrepreneur”, observes Ravindranath. So it’s not a surprise that all kinds of businesses spring up in Coimbatore. “Today, Coimbatore is not just textiles. It has foundries, pump and motor manufacturing, auto ancillaries and wet grinders.” On the other side are emerging IT stars like Suresh Sambandam and his OrangeScape, named the prime technology partner for ‘Google App Engine’ and Girish Ramdas of Magzter, a digital magazine service app. Headquartered in New York, the entire back-office work is done in Chennai.
But there are certain legacy issues, not least their shy ways, which may be preventing these companies from taking the next big leap. The businessmen from the south are also not comfortable getting close to politicians, says Ravindranath. They obsess over quality, productivity and efficiency. And it is one state, that can boast of “skilled manpower, peaceful industrial relations and a strong manufacturing ecosystem”. There should be no stopping these giants from the south.