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Vol. XXVIII No. 7, July 16-31, 2018

A corporate story that grips

by Sushila Ravindranath


I discovered the TTK Group and T.T. Jagannathan more than three decades ago. This sounds strange from someone who was born and brought up in Madras and who had met many family members. Till I started working for Business India, the country’s first business magazine, and moved to Madras after living away for several years, I never thought of TTK’s as a pioneering business family. I did a cover story on them and we gave it the title, ‘The Dark Horse from the South’. I was to learn many things about the Group, like they offered an astonishing variety of products, tooth brushes, shoe polish, mixers, undergarments, gripe water, condoms and, of course, pressure cookers. They not only sold them but also manufactured them.

Everyone knew T.T. Krishnamachari, the Finance Minister who worked with the country’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and levied such high taxes and imposed such restrictions on trade that he almost killed industry and business in the country.

This is the man who started life as a businessman. In 1928, he took over an indenting agency he was working for, which was distributing Lever Brothers’ products in South India and T.T. Krishnamachari & Co came into existence. He had a great flair for business and established a vast network of dealers in the South. He introduced the concept of redistribution and made sure that soaps, oils, toothpastes, and many other consumer products reached every nook and cranny. In 1940 he decided that politics was his calling, quit business and left it all to his 17 year old son T. T. Narasimhan, Jagannathan’s father.

Narasimhan was a visionary who introduced many new products to the country, pressure cooker being one of them. He realised that the companies cannot just be marketing products but should also manufacture them. He entered into many collaborations and they were mostly British, a reflection of those times.

The struggles of the group and how it survived in spite of facing crisis after crisis is a story by itself. Disrupt and Conquer* looks at one part of the story, how Prestige pressure cooker became the most valuable company in the group, how Jagannathan built it up to be the market leader and made it a company which is valued at a billion dollars.

T.T. Jagannathan

T.T. Jagannathan.

Jagannathan was a most reluctant businessman, who was all set for a brilliant career in the US. After emerging a topper from IIT, Madras, he went to Cornell University to do his masters in Organisation Research. Again, after a shining academic career, he was planning to take up a job and do his PhD in the US. He was not thinking of coming back to India. Nor was he thinking of joining the family business.

Things changed dramatically when his parents came to the US and his father told him, “You need to come home now, the family business is collapsing. You have to come back and do something to save us.” Many of his assumptions fell apart. His elder brother Ranganathan who was supposed to take over had fallen ill and younger brother Raghunathan was far too young at that time. Young Jagannathan seriously believed that he could go home, sort out all the problems and then get back to the US to finish his PhD. He had to wait for 20 years when Cornell decided to honour him with a doctorate.

In the chapter aptly titled ‘A Thorny Baton’, Jagannathan says, “What awaited me in Chennai was catastrophe, and was of such magnitude that I thought there was no way I could fix it. My first instinct was to sell the entire business for a single rupee.” There were no willing buyers for the near bankrupt company. Jagannathan had no choice but to fix it.

It has been a roller coaster ride since. What Jagannathan decided to do was to rebuild the Group, to turn around one company after another. He did something unusual as well. He persuaded his mother Padma Narasimhan to help him out. She, a Vedic scholar, entered the business in her 40’s and turned out to be a great asset. She had an eye for detail and was part of every major business decision the family took.

In 1975, major problems erupted in TT Ltd., the then name for TTK Prestige, and Jagannathan was asked not to waste any time but to go to Bangalore (where the pressure cookers were manufactured) instantly and take care of it. This was one of the better performing companies in the Group. However, its managing director had to be replaced and Jagannathan was sent to take his place and face hostile employees. He was not allowed to enter the factory, was not allowed to sit in the managing director’s chair, and his ideas were not accepted.

For a 26 year old, he exhibited great patience, relied on his inner resources and won their trust by solving a major problem one year down the line. “Aluminium was the critical metal that we needed to make pressure cookers, and its supply had come to an abrupt stop, leaving the machine and men idle.” Those were the days of license raj. Price and distribution were tightly controlled by the government by the draconian Aluminium Control Order.

By a faulty representation to the government by Jagannathan’s predecessor, the company was allocated a very small quota of aluminium. Jagannathan had to cool his heels in the corridors of power in Delhi for three months to meet the Aluminium Controller before he got 35 tonnes of aluminium per month for the company. Today they use 700 tonnes a month.

There were many trials by error. Jagannathan had to turn inventor as he had to prevent the cooker from bursting because of spurious parts. The Gasket Release System, which has prevented these accidents is his brainchild. “A series of innovations in product design and service and buying of the ‘Prestige’ brand from the principal put the company on a steady course.

Prestige and Mumbai based Hawkins both started manufacturing pressure cookers in 1959. Hawkins has been market leader and then both companies have run neck to neck and today Prestige has comfortably left competition behind. Every third pressure cooker sold in the country comes from TTK Prestige.

The company went public in 1994 with the issue being oversubscribed 13 times. There were many more hair raising adventures to follow. The book is written in a racy readable style. Sandhya Mendonca, the co-writer and Jagannathan have made sure that the Prestige story does not miss out on facts, figures and events. It is also an honest book.

Even if you are not interested in corporate history, this is a must read because Disrupt and Conquer is truly a thriller.

* Disrupt and Conquer: How TTK Prestige became a billion dollar company, Penguin.

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