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Vol. XXX No. 8, August 16-31, 2020

N. Venkataramani – a Life Dedicated to Industry and Sports

by Sriram V

In the passing last fortnight of N. Venkataramani, Vice Chairman of the Amalgamations Group, India and more importantly, Chennai and Tamil Nadu, lost a corporate chief who in his quiet way did considerable work to help the city and the State remain an industrial hub.

Born on December 9, 1939 at New Delhi as the fourth son of Sarada and R. Narayanaswami Iyer, a senior civil servant, Venkataramani graduated with a Maths (Hons) degree from St. Stephen’s College, Delhi before securing admission at the Imperial College, London, from where he qualified with an Engineering degree. The early 1960’s was when the TVS Group was getting into manufacturing and R. Ratnam, one of the senior members of the TVS family was in England recruiting engineering graduates for the automobile electricals company Lucas TVS. Venkataramani was among those selected and after training at Lucas Birmingham, came to Madras, where he joined the Sales Engineering department of the Indian company. In 1966, he married Sita, the youngest daughter of S. Anantharamakrishnan, founder of the Amalgamations Group. A few months later, he joined the conglomerate and returned to the UK, where he enrolled at the Imperial College for his master’s degree.

Returning in 1969, he became Manager, Manufacturing Services at India Pistons (IPL), a constituent of the Amalgamations Group and the first automotive component company to be ever set up in India. He later rose to become its Managing Director. Life at IPL in those years was no bed of roses for the Amalgamations Group was then in the throes of severe union trouble. But this gentle personality was no pushover and he weathered the gherao-s and strikes, including on a horrible day in 1972, the brutal attack and murder of a DMK-allied Union member within the factory premises. Later in life, Venkataramani would on occasion reminisce about the various tough situations he had negotiated and the troubles he had surmounted but he never expressed any bitterness. He looked back on this era with much grace and some humour as well. In fact, most Unions came to regard him as a model employer and this was reflected in his serving at the helm of the historic Employers’ Federation of South India and later the Employers’ Federation of India also.

It was during this phase that he put IPL on a trajectory of technical advancement. The company built its in-house capability for R&D to such an extent that it became India’s first entity to receive accreditation from the Department of Science and Technology, Government of India. He introduced pioneering product designs in the piston and ring industry and also invested heavily in the automation of the manufacturing process. In the mid-1980s, he was one of the first to recognise the potential of Maraimalai Nagar as a manufacturing hub, at a time when it was nothing more than vast scrubland. IPL’s second plant came up there and shortly thereafter became the first Indian piston supplier to Maruti. All of this would lead a Union Leader to quip in appreciation that if Anantharamakrishnan was known as the Maharajah of Mount Road, his son in law was Maraimalai Mapillai!

In the late 1980s, Venkataramani saw the changing trends in the Indian auto industry wherein reduced emission and more fuel-efficient engines would be the future necessities. With this in mind, he began focusing on pioneering speciality steel-coated piston rings in the Indian market. The existing collaborators, T&N Piston Group Products Limited were not too keen and so he chose NPR of Japan for this. The new collaboration was nurtured even as the existing one with T&N continued- which was quite a feat. IP Rings Limited was formed with public shareholding in 1992, which was in itself a pathbreaking move for most entities in the Amalgamations fold remain closely held. AEIP and IPPL came up in the mid 1990s and together, all these new companies brought in cutting-edge technologies into India. With rapid changes happening in the auto industry from then on, more action followed – a JV with Mahle in 2007 and new factories in Sengundram in 1998 and 2001. He also oversaw IPL preparing itself for BS6 readiness. Within the Amalgamations Group, he remained a close associate of its late chairman A. Sivasailam and the present chairman A. Krishnamoorthy, and the trio functioned in a very coordinaed fashion when it came to matters concerning the conglomerate as a whole. In this context, Venkataramani developed relationships with Valeo of France for clutch assemblies, Stanadyne of the USA for fuel injection systems and Mahle for piston assemblies. Known for his skilful negotiations, he was always seen as a perfect gentleman who looked at benefits for both parties.

A past president of the Madras Management Association (1978-1980), his tenure as chairman of the Madras Chamber of Commerce Industry (1991-1993), was when this body, India’s second oldest, put in a strong pitch for Tamil Nadu taking a hard look at how it could attract investments. The country had just opened up and States were competing with each other to get a share of new business. The Madras Institute of Development Studies was commissioned by MCCI to do a survey and it came up with several findings as to why TN lagged – poor investments in infrastructure, lack of advancement in technical education, conservative thinking among industrialists, ministers and civil servants not interacting with industry and an abysmal power scenario. All of this was presented to the State Government in October 1992 by L. Lakshman of the Rane Group. The MCCI also released the study as a book. This led to much soul searching in State Government circles. A joint MCCI-Assocham meeting followed with the then Chief Minister, J. Jayalalitha. It helped that N. Sankar was then the President of Assocham and so the two representative bodies could coordinate well. Years later, in an interview to this writer, Venkataramani with characteristic modesty said that he could not state authoritatively that this step by the Chamber was the sole reason, but when Ford came calling, he did notice that there was a marked change in the way the Government responded. Then came Hyundai and the rest is history.

Outside of his business interests, Venkataramani was passionate about sport – almost every kind of it – and was of the school of thought where it had to be played and promoted for the love of it, not for money. He could watch almost any game with the same levels of interest, ranging from kabaddi to cricket. He played tennis almost till his last year and in the 1980s won the Merchants and Bankers tournament several times. He also served as the Vice President of the Tamil Nadu Tennis Association and he was happiest when at Wimbledon, visiting which was more or less an annual pilgrimage for years. He promoted sports with a passion as he felt they built character and taught everyone to play hard but fair and take defeat and victory with equanimity. The IPL cricket team, one of the few in the State to share the name of its corporate sponsor, has been in the first division for years. Over 15 international cricketers have represented the team over time and he also privately helped several players. In 1995, Venkataramani was one of the early enthusiasts to develop a cricket ground – the one at the Central Polytechnic campus in Taramani. It is a tribute to his love for the game.

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