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Vol XXXI No. 19, January 16-31, 2022

The Way We Were

Beginning an occasional series by Sushila Ravindranath.

As one of the senior-most business journalists of South India and author of the book Surge, Tamil Nadu’s Growth Story, Sushila Ravindranathhas several interesting stories to relate about how business was once run, in this, our city. We have therefore been able to persuade her to start putting these accounts down in writing for us. And here is the curtain raiser that she has sent.
– Editor

The cover of the book.

The cover of the book.

India Today magazine has been publishing state surveys for many years. It is a much researched and respected survey based on several criteria and parameters. Tamil Nadu has been winning the best performing large state award in the country for four years in a row. According to data published by Niti Aayog too Tamil Nadu has maintained a lead position under many headings. Kerala and Tamil Nadu are the two larger states which have shown very low poverty levels compared to others. When Chief Minister Stalin says that he aspires to make Tamil Nadu a trillion dollar economy, nobody sneers as they would have several years ago.

Tamil Nadu gets frequently mentioned in the national media now, unlike in the past. Recently Shekhar Gupta in his Cut the Clutter talks about Pakistan economy, casually mentioned that Tamil Nadu’s GDP is higher than that of the neighbouring country. TN Ninan in one of his recent articles has said how Tamil Nadu has gone way ahead of others. These are two of the most respected journalists in India in whose psyche Tamil Nadu barely existed till recently.

It was not like this when the magazine I worked for was launched almost 40 years ago. It’s promoter/publisher genuinely wanted it to be an all-India magazine. He wanted readers to know who are the people driving business and industry in the country. But most people did not think beyond Bombay. I had joined the magazine few years after it was launched and I found Madras was a completely alien territory to most. During editorial meetings, my boss used to ask me, “We find so many South Indians holding top positions in all-India companies. Why are they hesitant to start anything on their own ?” Nobody had an answer. When people wrote on Southern companies, there was always an air of condescension.

In the first year of the magazine the editor decided to do a cover story on the Murugappa Group, then known as the Tube Investments Group. In his introduction he says, “In the current issue we feature our first cover story from Southern India – especially in the environs of Bangalore and Madras – the region is industrialising at a rapid pace.” Bangalore was many years away from becoming the IT capital of India. Madras was already full of industries and rapid growth was to happen several years down the line. Just saying. 

Another paragraph from this feature. “In Southern India big business is relatively small when compared to the big houses in the rest of India. But in the small pond that is Industry in the South, the TI Group of companies or more specifically the Murugappa family which controls the group, are very big fish.” This is what they said about the low key family which was a pioneer in so many ways. The first bicycle in the country was manufactured by them. The feature concluded with a question mark about the group’s future. I don’t think anybody could have ever thought then that the Murugappa Group was going to grow to be the second largest family group in India ( the first is Godrej) with a turnover exceeding Rs 40,000 crore. Incidentally it was many years before the group would talk to media again.

The V.G. Panneerdas story was featured in 1978 and was quite a surprise. In the publicity averse city, the Panneerdas brothers were welcoming of journalists wanting to talk to them. The English media ignored them for many years. Panneerdas came from a poverty-ridden family in Alagappuram village to Madras at age 12 as the sole breadwinner of the family. All he had was burning ambition and Rs 25 in his pocket. He brought his brothers to the city and they worked their way up to launch a small business. 

After many hits and misses they decided to start selling table clocks and time pieces. The purchasing power of even middle class families was so low at that time that people were finding it difficult to put down Rs 10 to buy a clock. Thus was born the idea of hire purchase. The Panneerdas brothers introduced that concept in the country. The first clock was sold for Rs. 5 and the rest could be paid in installments over the next few weeks. Then other products were added on. Gypsies were among their customers. They took their products in Vans, held mini fairs, and sold them in rural markets. VGP sold the largest number of radios for Murphy and it was such a happy association that one of the children in the family was named Murphydas.

The Panneerdas brothers were pioneers in more ways than one. They invested so much in land and launched possibly the first beach resort in the city before the coastline got dotted with many more. They have also set up theme parks inspired by Disney. VGP continues to be a big name, with branches sprouting all over South. The brothers were among the pioneers who made Chennai the largest retail hotspot in South East Asia. Not many people realise this.

There is another businessman from this era, who was a celebrity for many reasons but was never celebrated enough for his daring entrepreneurial moves. M.A. Chidambaram scion of an aristocratic Chettiar family , son of Raja Sir Annamalai Chettiar, is well known for his contribution to cricket. M.A. Chidambaram Stadium bears testimony to that. Very few know that he introduced scooters to the country. Lambretta Scooters was launched in the early 60’s. He had bought over Bombay based API Auto which was a British company, which also made three-wheelers. He was a major shareholder in the company along with financial institutions. MAC as he was known was more daring and entrepreneurial than many Madras based businessmen of those times. He was willing to invest in fertiliser industry when no one in the South would think of touching this highly government-controlled business. For many years, SPIC the company he promoted with Tamil Nadu Industrial Corporation to manufacture fertilizers, which was run by his son A.C. Muthiah, was one of the largest corporations to emerge from the South.

The state must have done something right to reach its current position. Let us look at some of the people and events of the early years. 

Comments

  1. R Gopu says:

    Fascinating nuggets
    In 1950, South Korea looked around the world for an national economic policy and they chose Pakistan as their best role model, I heard. I wonder if they changed their minds, because South Korea’s story is quite different from that of Pakistan. To see this comparison, that Tamilnadu also has surged past Pakistan, is fascinating

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