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Monday, October 15, 2001

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Madras miscellany

Distinguished family business

WHEN THE International Institute of Management (IMD, Lausanne), a prestigious business school and non-profit foundation, recently presented its Distinguished Family Business Award 2001 to the Murugappa Group in Rome, the Madras-based company became not only the first Indian company to win this recognition but also the first Asian one. Winning this award that's been presented annually from 1996, the Murugappa Group (once known as the TI Group before deciding to get closer to roots) joined several internationally renowned companies, who had been recognised earlier. Two previous winners whose names are now well known in India are Lego of Denmark and Henkel of Germany.

The award given by the Swiss Foundation is based on several criteria. The family should have run the business for at least three generations; the Murugappa Group is four generations old and the fifth generation will soon be joining it. It should be a national leader in business as well as have international business; when it teamed with Tube Investments of the U.K. in 1949, it pioneered joint ventures in Independent India. It should have strong links with tradition, yet move with the times and be innovative. It should demonstrate good corporate governance; the Murugappa Group is perhaps the first family business in the South which has, restructuring itself, given professionals the opportunity to run its constituent companies, invited non-family members to be Chairman and serve on the Board, and has family members playing only mentoring roles. And it should be a good corporate citizen; few corporate trusts have invested more in schools, technical training institutions and hospitals, without seeking contributions as capitation fees etc. as well as in such civic causes as creating heritage and environmental awareness. The only celebrations on Madras's 350th birthday, for instance, were sponsored by the Group.

The Group, which grew from the South and Southeast Asian business interests of Dewan Bahadur A.M.M. Murugappa Chettiar, may today be a Madras-headquartered one, but the Murugappa family, with a strong faith in tradition and conservative values, still considers its village in Chettinad, Pallathur, home and, whenever they gather there, they effortlessly slip into local tradition. But for all the family's conservativeness, they have also had a reputation for aggressive takeovers, the Parry takeover the best known of them, as well as of being tough and willing to dig their heels in, when the situation demands, reiterating at such times what might be described as the family's faith: "Firm but fair".

Looking Back from `Moulmein', the biography of A.M.M. Arunachalam, the head of the family from 1965, unfortunately saw the light of day only after his death in 1999. But he'd spent hundreds of hours answering an interviewer's questions and recording himself his views on business, industry and the family. As frank an expression as any one would wish of fact and opinion, the book, whose title is based on his High Range retreat which he named after the Burmese town of Moulmein where the family business began, includes an illuminating contribution on how the family stays united and works together as a team. The legendary family breakfast on Sundays was not possible in later years with so many travelling, ``but we meet as a family whenever possible and discuss all business and family matters and, when we can't, we consult everyone on a decision by contacting each one who is not present. Generally there's consensus, but there have been times when there have been differing views rather forcefully expressed, no matter the age of the person opposing a decision. Annoyance, irritation, resentment are all inevitable in such cases. But in the end the A.M.M. family discipline prevails; the eldest member of the family, considered `absolutely neutral' by all, takes the final decision and everybody thereafter supports it wholeheartedly. One thing all of us in the family have always understood is that all of us have to sacrifice something in life; we can't always have the things we want or our own way," is a brief restatement of what A.M.M. had to say about how the Murugappa family has succeeded in staying together in business and as a family. The Swiss award is, in many ways, a recognition of that philosophy.

* * *

A quiet Golden Jubilee

IT WAS a small, quiet celebration when the Indo-American Association marked the 50 years it had completed in Madras, meeting almost throughout that period at the Hotel Dasaprakash and doing so again for the recent event. An association that drew its membership from those who had studied in the U.S. or who had gone their on study tours, its founding members included Dr. P. V. Cherian, Dr. V. Ratnasabapathy, M. V. Arunachalam, P. Ananda Rau, Mrs. Ammu Swaminathan, Mrs. Mona Hensman, G. Lakshminarayanan and C. Srinivasan.

Honoured at the celebration for `Lifetime Achievement' was C. Srinivasan, a Columbia graduate long associated with Gemini Studio, who then served as media advisor to the Organisation of African Unity and, later, to President Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, before retiring to Principalship for over a decade of the Bharathiya Vidya Bhavan's School of Mass Communication in Madras. It was Prof. Srinivasan who pointed out the difficulties the Association had faced not long after its founding."Very soon, a rude shock disrupted seriously the even tenor of the Association," he narrated. It was an order from the Madras Government "forbidding its officers from joining any association organised to foster friendship between India and a foreign country". Those were the first days after Independence and there was a mushrooming of such organisations, recalls Srinivasan, "and the security environment was such that Government had to ensure that no activities inimical to the interests of the country were carried on under the guise of these friendship organisations". With many `official' members having to resign, winding up the Indo-American was discussed, but Drs. U. Krishna Rao and V. S. Subramaniam "provided the leadership needed to tide over the crisis". That order, subsequently withdrawn, is a bit of Madras history few remember today.

There were two especially nice touches to the evening. In the first, the chief guest, U.S. Consul General Bernie Alter in his inimitable informal style - no doubt dating to his Peace Corps days when he was a Poultry Extension Officer in the backwoods of Madhya Pradesh! - arrived toting a haversack with what turned out to be over ten kilos of books and told the audience and their author, who was also being honoured, that he couldn't carry any more up. Acknowledging the moving gesture, and the Award, the author (I'll leave my name out of it!) felt the award was more likely to be more for a "lifetime's association with America" than for a lifetime's achievement.

That association had begun in 1931, when the author's father, one of the early South Indian visitors to the U.S., decided on his return that his infant son would one day go for higher studies to the U.S., instead of to what was traditional at the time in this part of the world for those seeking higher education, Oxbridge. And so the son had in 1946 been sent there to study engineering; he was in that first batch of South Asian students after the War to go to the U.S., and there were less than 300 of them throughout the country that year. That he went on to journalism from engineering is another story. And so is the story that both Bernie and Pat Alter graduated from the University of Denver. It was a happy discovery to make that evening that they had spent several years in what became Madras's Sister City in 1984. It's sad, however, that it's a sororal link not pushed hard enough by those who matter.

The other nice touch of the evening was Dr. Ida Lobo's singing. It's amazing how powerful her voice remains - and "may the Good Lord bless her", the audience echoed her concluding number.

* * *

When the postman knocked

IT WAS yet another request for help that the postman brought recently. This time it was for information about descendants of Pandit Sangendi Mahalinga Natesa Sastri (1859-1906), as well as about those who might know anything about him or of any private unpublished papers connected with him. I'm afraid I was of no help at all, but perhaps the following information may stir the memory of a reader or two.

Pandit Natesa Sastri was from Trichy, but was brought up in Lalgudi and Kulitalai. He joined the Government Archaeological Survey in 1881 and lived on Brodie's Road, Mylapore. He was apparently a collector of ethnographic records and manuscripts and was one of those British and Indian `anthropologists' who published collections of Indian Folklore. He wrote a four-volume Folklore in Southern India, which was published between 1884 and 1893 by the Bombay Education Society Press, Byculla. He also edited, together with Georgiana H. Kingscote, an anthology titled Folklore of Southern India, published in 1888. Active in the literary circles of the time, Pandit Natesa Sastri wrote prolifically in English and Tamil, particularly for G. A. Natesan's Indian Review and the publications of the Guardian Press.The researcher seeking help is working on a book on British colonial anthropology in India and would welcome any information that would shed some light on Natesa Sastri's life and letters "which could help me to contextualise his work and understand it better. It was very rich work and very meticulously done, but there is so little known about him."


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