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Updated: May 1, 2013 15:53 IST

Serving another ace

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Ramanathan Krishnan with son Ramesh at his Indane office Photo: R. Ragu
The Hindu
Ramanathan Krishnan with son Ramesh at his Indane office Photo: R. Ragu

A conversation in Ramanathan Krishnan’s house invariably centres around his twin interests — tennis and cooking gas. That’s because the legendary player happens to be one of the first LPG distributors in the city

That tennis legend Ramanathan Krishnan was a pioneer in his sport is well known. But you probably didn’t know that he was also a pioneer in another — and completely different — field: cooking gas!

Krishnan was one of the very first distributors of cooking gas, and the only distributor of Indane (then called Calgas) in the city back in the early 60s. His agency recently had a 50-year anniversary celebration, honouring its oldest employees and customers, and that set Krishnan down memory road, reminiscing about 1963, a time when no one had heard of LPG, and kitchens in the city used either coal or firewood or kerosene.

Popularisng LPG

“I knew the product was first class, but I had to figure out how to sell it to people,” he recollects. “I gave one to my father, one to my sister and I didn’t know whom to give the third one to!”

People were wary of this new fuel, and reluctant to give it a try. So Krishnan, in true pioneering spirit, came up with a novel idea. “I gave cylinders to 50 important houses in the city and said, ‘try it for one week. If you don’t like it, I’ll take it back.’”

At the end of that week, of course, no one wanted to part with this new, clean, efficient fuel. His own mother, he says, used to be in the kitchen from 5.45 a.m. to 8.45 a.m. every morning, but found herself done by 7 a.m. the first time she tried LPG, all with no sweat, and no smoke.

“She came out and said, ‘if anyone wants food cooked on a wood fire from now on, they’ll have to cook it themselves!’” he recalls with a laugh.

Those 50 first users recommended it to their friends and relatives, who in turn did the same, and soon, a successful business was born. “Fifty became 500, and 500 became 2000, all within the space of a few years,” says Krishnan. “It spread like wild fire, purely by word of mouth. No advertising.”

Today, his two agencies, South Madras Gas Agency and Cooking Gas Agency, have over 50,000 customers, and a staff of over 80. It is truly a family business, with his wife, his son and daughter-in-law, his sister and even his granddaughters playing their part.

It all began in the early 60s, when Krishnan was one of the top ten tennis players in the world. But that was a different era of the sport, and Krishnan played as an amateur, for the love of the game and the joy of representing India on an international stage. “I was looking for a business to fall back on as a source of income,” he says.

A meeting with Dharamsey Khatau in Mumbai led to the idea of starting a gas distribution in Chennai for Calgas. “We were the first, along with Burma Shell, to introduce cooking gas to Chennai,” he says.

In 1975, Calgas was taken over by the Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) and became Indane. “The Government of India has helped us and given us special privileges because my son and I played for our country,” he says. “Tennis has also helped me in the sense that customers came to me because they knew me as a player.”

At the grand old age of 76, Krishnan says he’s a contented man. “We talk about two things in our house — tennis, which is my first love, and cooking gas, which is my second!” he laughs. “I’m happy with the way both have worked out for me.”

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