Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91
Vol. XXXII No. 2, May 1-15, 2022
Sankar was an institution builder in every sense of the word. Not only was this reflected in the way he ran his business, it also manifested itself in the way he shored up institutions that he was involved in outside of his business interests. The following article comprises extracts from three of my books – Integrity and Excellence, the Sanmar Story, Championing Enterprise, 175 Years of the Madras Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and 175, Not Out, the History of the Madras Cricket Club.
– Sriram V
The influence of Sankar was felt when it came to attracting Danish investment to India. He was quite active as the first President of the Indo-Danish Business Development Council. A decade later there were many Danish companies in Tamil Nadu – Veritas, Danfos, Grundfos, etc. K.S. Narayanan and Sankar played vital roles in their capacity as honorary consuls in arranging meetings with representatives of Danish companies with officials in Tamil Nadu and acting as spokespersons for the State. Take for instance FL Smidth which came into the State a little more than a decade ago – it was Sankar who convinced them to look at the fast-developing OMR to locate their regional headquarters, rather than in the city. FLS was so happy with the location that, against their original plans of a couple of hundred people, they had within a year of inception 2,000 people working in the Madras facility – a spanking, new, modern, European style building. Today it is their largest employment centre anywhere in the world. Later the Danish Government went on to appoint trade offices in various cities. In all over 150 companies from that country have now invested in India but the larger organisations are still in Tamil Nadu.
It was under Sankar and Prabhakar Rao, Executive Director, Corporate Affairs, Sanmar Group that the possibility of developing Tranquebar aka Tharangampadi, the erstwhile Danish settlement, as a tourist destination was first mooted and given considerable fillip. The tercentenary of Ziegenbalg was celebrated and much attention was given to getting foundations located in Denmark to invest in promoting infrastructure at Tharangampadi. Sadly for Sankar and Prabhakar Rao, there was very little action from the Government to help with these initiatives.
In 1981 Sankar became the Chairman of the Madras Management Association. It was then that he initiated the move to get premises for the Association, which had till then managed in rented space. He also began the practice of an annual convention, which besides giving the MMA a high profile, also brought it much needed revenue.
In later years, Sankar was to become an active member of the Madras Chamber of Commerce and Industry. He became the Chairman of the Chamber in 1985, the year that august body completed 150 years. A celebration committee was put together and a budget of Rs 6.5 lakhs was envisaged for the year-long festivities. It was decided that an additional year’s subscription would be levied on all members by way of their contribution towards the celebrations. In addition to this, the Chamber also decided to bring out a members’ directory, which would have details of the companies and also feature a few art plates that would highlight the art and culture of Tamil Nadu. Members had to sponsor their own pages and this publication also brought in the money for the celebrations on a suitable grand scale. Among the first decisions of this committee was the commissioning of a detailed documentation of the Chamber’s 150-year history. The senior bureaucrat R. Tirumalai, who had already written a biography of T.T. Krishnamachari was entrusted with the task. Tirumalai scoured the records, the annual reports and other sources and brought out The Voice of Enterprise, an exhaustive work on the Chamber’s contribution to the commercial growth of South India.
On 28th September 1985, the inaugural celebrations took place, presided over by the State Industries Minister K. Rajaram. The Governor S.L. Khurana inaugurated the celebrations. The British High Commissioner, Sir Robert Wade-Grey expressed his warm appreciation of the growth and activities of the Chamber and presented it with a set of reference volumes to aid it in its work. On 14th March 1986, the Rotary Club of Madras paid tributes to the Chamber and its work with eminent jurist Nani Palkhiwala being the Chief Guest. The AGM for the year was another grand event with the Union Minister of State for Finance, P. Chidambaram addressing the members. On July 12th, 1986, the Union Finance Minister V.P. Singh addressed the Chamber. It was later recorded as a scintillating address though it began rather ominously. “The FM pointed to a lady in the first row and asked her if she knew where she had got a bracelet she was wearing,” remembered Sankar. “He then went on to add, half in jest that he could raid her home if she did not!”
The Voice of Enterprise was ready for release in October 1986 and the Vice-President of India, R. Venkataraman was slated to release it on 9th October. The programme was combined with a two-day exhibition of the Chamber’s collection of photographs, trademark registers and artefacts, held at the Park Sheraton Hotel. The Vice-President did not make it but N.S. Bhat, former Chairman of the Chamber read out his speech and AMM Arunachalam of the Murugappa Group and also a former Chairman of the Chamber, released the book. The Madras Management Association honoured the Chamber with a citation in a silver scroll-holder. The Hindu and The Indian Express brought out special supplements on the occasion.
If he had a favourite among the clubs that he was a member of, it was the MCC. Sankar was one of the youngest to be elected President of the institution, a position he held between 1982 and 1984. To shore up its finances he created a new category– corporate membership. A hundred new members came on board and the club was back on a sound footing. In 1998, Sankar was invited to head the club’s 150th year celebrations committee. The historian and chronicler S. Muthiah was asked to put together two books – a detailed history and the second, a glossy one with pictures that was sponsored by various corporate houses of the city. That in turn brought in some much-needed money. To him, sport, and its financial well-being have been of equal importance.
In Chennai, the Sanmar Group is closely involved with the Indian Education Trust (IET), that runs two very well-known schools – The Sri Sankara Senior Secondary School, Adyar and the Sri Sankara Vidyashramam Matriculation Higher Secondary School, Tiruvanmiyur.
The Sri Sankara School was begun in 1970 with the blessings of Mahaperiyava of Kanchi, Chandrashekharendra Saraswathi. The Indian Education Society (IES) was formed in 1972 to administer the gradually expanding entity and P.R. Pattabhiraman, N. Kumar’s father-in-law, became the General Secretary. He shouldered the administrative responsibility of the Society from 1972 to 1977, by ably organising funds, instituting cost-effective measures and procuring necessary material. In 1972, the school shifted to land purchased in Adyar.
The Society was revamped in 1977 when Pattabhiraman left for Bombay on transfer. R. Venkataraman (RV), former Minister in the Government of Madras, then a Member of Parliament and later to become a Union Minister and still later Vice President and President of India, became the President of the Society. V.S. Dhandapani, a businessman and brother-in-law to KSN, became the General Secretary. R. Venkataraman was able to bring in much-needed funds through personal donations as well other sources. Dhandapani’s nuanced and disciplined administration was responsible for ensuring the school’s smooth functioning.
KSN began taking an active interest in the school from 1978 onwards. As funds were coming in through donations, the Indian Education Trust was formed in 1986 to replace the Society. KSN became the Trust’s founder Chairman and Dhandapani the founder Managing Trustee. N Kumar, who was to later take over from Dhandapani, became the Treasurer in 1979.
In 1988, the Trust purchased a huge tract of land at Tiruvanmiyur. It’s second school – the Sri Sankara Vidyashramam Matriculation Higher Secondary School, following the Tamil Nadu state’s syllabus, came up on at this site in 1989. With V.S. Dhandapani and KSN passing away in 2012, the Trust saw N. Sankar taking over as Chairman and N. Kumar as Managing Trustee.
With V.S. Dhandapani and KSN passing away in 2012, the Trust saw N. Sankar taking over as Chairman and N. Kumar as Managing Trustee. A couple of years ago, a new and third institution, the KSN School was begun in Tiruvanmiyur. Another institution that Sankar took great interest in though it has essentially been Kumar’s pet project, is the Madhuram Narayanan Centre for Exceptional Children.
Apart from these, Sankar was also associated with the Chennai Willingdon Corporate Foundation (CWCF). This is a historic body, set up in 1921 as the Lady Ampthill Nurses Institute and the South Indian Nursing Association, its primary purpose then being the running of the Lady Willingdon Nursing Home. It had as its members executives from several of the British-managed companies in Madras. With Independence the composition changed, both in terms of its management and usage, with many Indian corporate houses becoming interested. This continued till the 70’s, and many well-known personalities of today saw the light of day at the Willingdon Nursing Home.
However, thereafter with the advent of modern private medical institutions, Willingdon was no longer the maternity home of choice and, gradually fell on difficult times, its woes compounded by an aggressive Union. It had to depend on several industrialists for donations whenever the hospital ran short of funds, which was quite often. M.K. Kumar, who worked in a senior capacity with several British-owned business houses of Madras, was active in mobilising support from different businessmen and corporate houses. At different times, he enlisted AMM Arunachalam, KSN, K.M. Mammen Mappillai, V.L. Dutt, and T.S. Santhanam, etc, both for support and help in managing Willingdon’s affairs.
Many of these businessmen were co-opted as Trustees. N. Sankar and M.V. Subbiah, although not Trustees, were also actively involved in the management of the hospital and in working out a plan for its future. Several attempts were made to revive the hospital. One such thought was that perhaps, as was the flavour of the day, it might be appropriate to convert it into a joint venture with a professionally-run hospital chain from overseas. To assist in this, the Lady Ampthill Institute was restructured as a not-for-profit company limited by shares with its equity holders being the erstwhile patrons and donors, all of whom got shares in proportion to their donations over the years.
However, the effort to induct a partner did not succeed and in the second half of the 90’s, it was decided to shut down the hospital. In 1998, the hospital was closed and the property sold through a competitive bidding process to Sankara Nethralaya. The Trustees decided that the proceeds of the sale amounting to about Rs. 24 crores would be utilised for charitable purposes in and around Chennai. The institution was renamed ‘The Chennai Willingdon Corporate Foundation’, in line with its new objectives. It has since put the funds available to good use through a whole host of social projects. CWCF’s Board represents the diversity of its promoters and reads like a Who’s Who of the Madras business landscape. AMM Arunachalam, the Chairman at that time, was succeeded by V.L. Dutt in 1999. Thereafter, Sankar, who had joined the Board when KSN stepped down, was the Chairman of the Board from 2013 to 2020 and was succeeded by L. Ganesh of the Rane Group. The Foundation currently has its offices at The Sanmar Group headquarters from where it is administered.