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Celebrating the open-door concept

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Quiet elegance M.A. Alagappan in his office
Quiet elegance M.A. Alagappan in his office

GEETA PADMANABHAN

The office of the Murugappa Group’s Executive Chairman is uncluttered and functional

It seems like it’s predestined. Rebuilt and opened in 1940, Dare House, whose trade history goes back 200 years, now headquarters the 106-year-old, $2 billion plus business conglomerate, the Murugappa Group. As Executive Chairman of the group, M.A. Alagappan directs from his Dare House office what could well be the convergence of parallel lines of business. Thomas Parry and William Dare would have approved.

Great view

The building’s rooftop offers a fascinating view of the city’s land and waterscapes. A room here would have made an ideal Chairman’s office. Why does Mr. Alagappan choose to work from a functional space at the end of a quiet corridor?

Maybe, because he wants people to feel free to step in. “The doors are open to any conversation,” he says. “I just sit here. From 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.”

“Sit” he certainly doesn’t. His swivel chair must make several sorties between the central round table and the continuous row of cabinets lining the wall beneath the windows. He wheels sideways, checks mail on a slim computer, gets back and stretches his legs, ready to begin the verbal serve-and-volley. He smiles politely, but behind it is a shrewd, watchful gaze. He is not going to part with information, unless he’s persuaded it’s safe.

“We moved here from TIAM House in 2004,” he says. “This was a drab place and we had to redo it. I put in the shelves, wooden floor and fireproof carpets. This table is here by default, to fill space. The sofa set (on the far niche) was brought from the old office.” He modelled this office on the earlier one, but “this is much more modern. Ours is an open office concept.”

It doesn’t look like much goes on here. Because it’s uncluttered? Because the furniture has slim lines and the curios are mini-sized? The office is paperless, except for the surprise daily-tear-off calendar, “an old practice in the group.” The three desktop photographs of employee groups are of occasions he’s happy to remember. The quiet elegance is also from two sepia frames on the walls. “That’s Aziz’s painting of the Government House, and look at this photograph, with signatures on the spaces between the print and the frame. Both were presented by the Sun Alliance.” Colour comes from a large painting of horses above the sofa.

It’s a contrast to the frenetic activity in Parry’s corner, but Mr. Alagappan says he has “plenty to do. Group strategy is evolved here. I have corporate heads visiting me. Three businesses came in 2006. I’m busy all the time.” He travels a lot, covering most of the manufacturing units, reviewing reports. “Mine is overall management, bringing in new ideas, directions. I keep in touch through internal mail.” Mails are responded to at once.

“When I’m bored, I watch NDTV Profit or tennis,” on the fair-sized TV at the corner. Tennis, like business, is a passion. I suggest ITL, he’s at once animated, the chair swinging to his increased interest. He plays a daily round before work. “No business there,” he laughs. “It’s just a good game of tennis.” Is this an all-week office? “During week-ends, I work from home. I have a nice office overlooking a lawn.”

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