S. Rethinavelu on how the TN Chamber of Commerce and Industry scaled heights under his leadership for 18 years

In the world of trade, they say, it is hard to find someone who is prepared to show you how things are done. But walk into the head office of the Tamil Nadu Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Madurai and, almost without exception, everyone will say they had someone to mentor them all along. Someone they could ask questions of and learn from.

That someone is S. Rethinavelu, who really needs no introduction. His record stint as the Chamber president for nearly two decades and then as its Senior President for two years has made him synonymous with this conglomerate and its activities. He is one of the most visible faces in newspaper columns, at public functions, and at agitations. We see him inaugurating showrooms, running business workshops, lecturing at colleges, leading brainstorming meetings and rubbing shoulders with ministers and political leaders.

Self-assured

Strong-willed, self-assured and media-savvy, he says, “My goal is to accelerate trade and industry in Southern Tamil Nadu.” And that he has achieved in the region, partly thanks to the “excellent team” he has always had, as he remembers to mention.

Such is his involvement that he even gets nicknamed after the projects he pursues. “Each time the former Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel spotted me, he would call out ‘Madurai 12,500 ft,'” he smiles. That is because the Chamber persistently pushed for the upgrading of Madurai airport. The airport recently got a new terminal and the runway was extended from 6,000 to 7,500 feet.

“Jasmine, textiles, surgical equipment, granite icons, herbal and other products are exported from Madurai,” says Rethinavelu. “We collected all details about cargo and passenger movement. It took us years and innumerable rounds of discussions to increase the flight frequency to and out of Madurai. Now we are looking at automobile units setting up shop here. For their jumbo jets to land, required runway length is 12,500 ft. We are working on this, though the international flights to Sri Lanka, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Sharjah are likely to start post-monsoon with talks going on with five airlines on allocation of seats.”

Known as a man who can argue pleasantly and persuasively, Rethinvelu says that before he takes on any assignment, he does his homework. “How you organize your data and present your case matters a lot. I believe if you repeatedly ask for something with justification, it can't be denied to you.” He has tried to run the Chamber not just with business objectives but with people's welfare as its focus.

Passionate

Rethinavelu did not start out with a passion for business. He quite enjoyed working as a lawyer and even practised for five years after graduating from Law College Madurai. But as the son of Sivakasi's well-known ‘King of Dates', V. Subbiah Nadar, he also had business in his blood. “Since my elder brother became a doctor, I had to join the family business,” he explains. He also had a flair for manufacturing. Rethinavelu joined with a few friends manufacturing and distributing the plastic woven sacks in which cement and fertilizers are packed. Gradually he entrenched himself in the distribution of milk, oil, pulses and home appliances.

His entry into public life was purely accidental. When he took up the family food grains business, he found that traders were ignorant of licensing procedures, taxation and the provisions of the Tax Act. “They were even scared to see a tax man those days,” he recalls.

To help traders out of their conditioned mindset, he chose four decades ago to become the Executive Member of the TN Foodgrains Merchants Association and Madurai-Ramnad Chamber of Commerce and Industry (which became the TN Chamber in 1987). In 1993, he was elected the Chamber's president and till 2008 held the post unopposed.

He also ensured that his post did not become ornamental. Each of his new ideas and projects was accepted and executed, and his popularity soared. Membership grew manifold, and today the TN chapter, with 7,000 members, is the largest Chamber in India.

Determined effort

Given the nature of projects initiated by Rethinavelu, from uzhavar sandhais to broad gauge trains (see box), even the general public identifies the Chamber as a fighting tool for welfare and development. “I am a conduit between businessmen and the government,” he says.

“I have become like an elected representative as ordinary people come to me even with complaints of bad roads, non-functional street and traffic lights, problems of water shortage and power cuts and expect me to resolve them.”

His total involvement in the city and the region's development and in issues of immediate concern to the public has left him with no time to grow his business. But Rethinavelu has no regrets.

“My income is enough to lead a peaceful life,” says this God-fearing man, who attributes all his success to divine grace.

Rethinavelu has a talent for judging the usefulness of ideas and applies whatever seems most efficient to him in accomplishing his clearly envisioned goals.

Sometimes that has meant taking to the streets to protect the interests of trade and industry. But, to a mastermind, what matters is getting the job done and getting it done efficiently.

What a dynamic leader can do:

*The Chamber's sustained efforts paid off in establishing the Regional Passport Office, the Madurai Bench of Madras High Court, Integrated Textile Park, Tidel Park and IT Park.

*Based on Rethinavelu's suggestions, the TN Government introduced the popular uzhavar sandhais across the State.

*The Chamber played an important role in approval and early completion of the Centre's Sethu Samudram Channel project.

*It gained broad gauge conversion projects for the South and a natural gas pipeline from Chennai to Tuticorin via Madurai, and initiated river linkage.

*The Chamber was actively involved in setting up the Inland Container Depot and Cereals, Pulses and Staples Milling Cluster, for storage, cold storage, packaging and display.

*It helped implement Namakku Namae for beautification of the city, the Vaigai River Development Scheme for leveling and cleaning the bed of the river and laying roads along the embankments, and many other public welfare schemes.

*It began conducting the Chamber Trade Fair in 1997 to motivate trade and industrial activities in the region.

*The Chamber set up the Young Entrepreneur School and Women Entrepreneurs to motivate and guide young people and women, the Chamber Arbitration Tribunal as an alternative forum to settle commercial disputes, the Business Promotion Centre to train and update retail traders and exporters, and SHARP to sharpen the soft skills of students in more than 2,000 schools.