When Chennai Inc plays the trend-setter

December 11, 2011 03:37 am | Updated 03:38 am IST

The factory of Rane TRW Steering Systems on the outskirts of Chennai. File photo

The factory of Rane TRW Steering Systems on the outskirts of Chennai. File photo

Like many industrial groups in this part of the country, this one, too, is publicity-shy. It is celebration time at this industrial group, which has seen 75 summers. A prudently managed Rane is an integral part of the city of Chennai. A well known name in Chennai, the Mecca of Carnatic music, Rane is also a respected brand in the auto component space within and outside the country. Unlike their counterparts elsewhere in the country, the industrial groups in Chennai are content with being in the background, going about their businesses quietly without much ado. So much so, they are often dubbed as ‘conservative.' More often than not, they are considered a unique breed which falls into a category that avoids risk. They are perceived to be a set of people who take to the path of caution. A trip down memory lane, however, will help one discover the fact that many theories surrounding the industrial groups in Chennai could at best only fall into the realm of myths.

Long before the India shining story was assiduously marketed by the BJP Government at the Centre, the city of Chennai had been a star in the corporate horizon of India. While the Ambanis, the Birlas, the Tatas, the Ruias and the like hogged the headlines for whatever they did and didn't, the daring and path-breaking initiatives of the industrial and corporate groups in Chennai, for some inexplicable reasons, remained buried deep in obscurity. The city has been the fountain-head of many a new idea. It has been a breeding ground for many innovative concepts. If they are indeed conservative as they are often accused by many, how could the mandarins of the industrial/corporate houses in Chennai have ventured into untested roads? If proof was required, they are aplenty.

Do you know who pioneered the concept of a listed corporate film company in the country? Can anybody guess where was the first listed corporate school established? Who introduced the concept of leasing in India? Who was responsible for introducing the time-share concept in India? From where did the idea of a corporate hospital germinate? A search for answers will invariably take one to the city of Chennai. An obscure founder of Madras Motor Finance and Guarantee Company was instrumental in setting up a corporate school in the Orgadam belt, which is now turning out to be a high-activity corridor. That he had to subsequently sell his company to the takeover tycoon of early the 1990s Rajaratnam was, however, a different matter. Who can forget the contributions of Dr. Pratap Reddy in establishing a chain of hospitals across the country under the Apollo brand? Corporate India today has entered the money-guzzling film business. But it was the late G. Venkateshwaran a chartered accountant-cum-film producer, who floated a listed entity by the name and style of GV Films. The film funding has undergone a major metamorphosis since then. In the early 1970s, Farouk Irani founded First Leasing Company of India, the country's first leasing company. So much so, Dr. Irani has come to be known as the ‘father of the leasing industry'. It was a daring concept at that point in time.

And, Dr. Irani took the risk boldly by walking the unexplored path! R. Subramanian wasn't a well known name until Sterling Holiday Resorts that he had set up pushed the concept of time-share effectively into India. Chennai has indeed been the ground for experiment. And, the enterprising lot has never hesitated to go beyond the beaten conventional track.

The actions of the so-called conservative traditional industrial groups in Chennai post-liberalisation again debunk the long-held wrong notion about the mindset of businessmen here. Of all Indian manufacturing companies, Suresh Krishna-piloted Sundram Fasteners was the first one to set up a production base in China. Long before quality could become the watch word among the Indian enterprises, it was again a TVS Group company, Sundaram Clayton, which became the first Indian enterprise to land the Japanese Deming Award. Who could forget the dare devil hostile open offer made by Carborundum Universal, a Murugappa Group company, to acquire shares in Wendt (India) in the early 1990s. During the days of dotcom boom, city-based Sify (then known as Satyam Infoway) stunned the Indian corporate world by announcing the buy out of a little known dotcom outfit, India World Communications Private Ltd., for a staggering Rs.500 crore. In a cricket crazy country, N. Srinivasan-led India Cements surprised everybody by becoming the owner of the Chennai Super Kings, one of the teams in the largely popular IPL (Indian Premier League) circuit. With the benefit of hindsight, it could easily be argued that the decision to keep Chennai Super Kings as a division of the listed India Cements was a well-thought out exercise to give the game of cricket a corporate colour and management orientation. The ‘conservative' tag came off clearly when Mallika Srinivasan-headed TAFE of the Amalgamation Group bought the tractor business of Eicher in the middle of last decade.

Well, Chennai has always been a happening place. It sets the pace — not just of politics but also corporate India.

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