I almost walked past the gentleman at the helm of a Rs.1,500 crore textile empire. Attired in crisply starched white shirt and dhoti, T.R. Dhinakaran, chairman of Shri Ramalinga Mills Ltd., stood praying under a neem tree in the factory compound at Aruppukottai. He turned around, smiling. “I am an agriculturist at heart. This tree will live.”
In his spartan office, decorated with religious pictures and a wall-to-wall plan of his factory, a dozen people wait to meet him with files, invitations and petitions. In between signing the letters and cheques and hearing them out, he takes a call to confirm an evening dinner with four blue-collar workers, a date he has kept every Friday for the last five decades.
The dapper septuagenarian with a full head of white hair explains the tree. “The neem tree you saw outside is more than 30 years old. It fell to a thunderstorm recently.” His secretary says, “It's amazing how the tree is growing again. That is our Ayya's dedication and magical touch to whatever he does. He gave a helping hand in lifting the huge trunk and grafting it back, tying creepers around its girth.”
Dhinakaran has endeared himself to his 25,000 strong work force, mainly because he lives by the golden rule.
Regardless of how vast or limited your resources are, says Dhinakaran, success is about the enormous potential each individual possesses to make a difference. He showed a way when the State was in the grip of a severe power crisis in the late 1960s. He operated his textile mill with power drawn from the engines of lorries and buses he owned. The fleet of vehicles encircled the factory and helped run the unit for three days without facing losses.
When the power cuts stretched over months, he used the down time to build the worker's colony. The white-collar staff joined him in the ‘shram daan', a practice which continues even now whenever there is a need to lay concrete, repair a building or clean the campus.
“Everybody joins voluntarily because he is always the first to plunge in for hands-on experience,” says Dhinakaran's daughter. “You will always find him here, looking into every aspect of spinning operations, packaging, loading, maintenance…. Irrespective of how much he earned, he always gave my mother Rs. 500 every month to run the house. It was his way to keep us rooted to the ground,” she says.
She recalls how he once reprimanded her for haggling with a small-time vendor over the price of flower strings. “Would you ever do the same in a showroom, he questioned me. But when I took over a textile unit and ran into losses in the initial years, he supported me, saying it is a learning experience.” When the seemingly unambitious Dhinakaran graduated in mechanical engineering from PSG College of Technology, Coimbatore, in the early 1960s, starting a small business was more a culture than a profession.
Stories were handed down and wisdom passed on from one generation to the next. But young Dhinakaran turned a small sick spinning unit in Rajapalayam into a profit-making modern unit in 1962.
Ever since, his story has offered guideposts and inspiration.
He set up 18 textile units in the next two decades in Aruppakottai, Sivagangai, and Rajapalayam at the behest of K. Kamaraj, the then Congress president, and R. Venkataraman, then Industries Minister.
He led the family company, Sri Jayavilas Group, into new areas like transport, ginning and oil crushing factories, roller flour mills and pressing factories. Ramalinga Mills was the foundation of his textile empire.
Dhinakaran believes in participative management and unfailingly extends his pride and loyalty to those who work for him. His business has flourished without labour disputes for the last 45 years. “I grow with my workers,” he says. “They are my family. Our system is based on people understanding the concept of savings and investment and achieving their dream.”
Staffers say Dhinakaran has signed as guarantor for their bank loans and sold second-hand machines at half price to workers interested in running small businesses. He encourages them with credit and recognizes innovative ideas. He never blames them if they make a mistake. Rather, he explores the cause of the error and tries to set it right.
Dhinakaran believes in learning how to give, not just money but time and ability. “It is something you have to keep working on,” he underlines.
“The more we can do to create a better society that benefits more people, the better its chances to grow and prosper.”
Above and Beyond
•Dhinakaran has exempted 3,000 women employees from time-bound schedules. They come and go when they wish, provided they finish their work on time.
•He has turned around the drought-hit dry belts of Virudhunagar, Sivaganga and Ramanathapuram districts through aggressive greening projects and brought drinking water to drought-prone villages in Aruppukottai.
•He has promoted educational opportunities and healthcare facilities and built an orphanage and a library.
•He has donated money and time to renovation of over a dozen well-known temples in Southern Tamil Nadu.