Luck by Chance: The story of Titan watches began with correct timing of some talented honchos coming together
It was a hot and humid day in May 1975, and Xerxes Desai was irked with himself. He had just visited Naval Mody, the head of Tata Inc., New York, then on a visit to Bombay (now Mumbai), only to discover that he had called on the wrong Mody. Xerxes needed to speak to Minoo Mody, who had recently taken over as the first chief executive officer of Tata Sons, the Group’s holding company for its multifarious businesses.
Minoo, much younger than the other directors on the board of Tata Sons at the time, had moved to the Tata Group from the audit firm, A.F. Ferguson. Bright, resolute and flamboyant, he would come to play a decisive role in Xerxes’s future, a fact unbeknownst to the dapper Parsi as he placed a call to Bombay House, the headquarters of the Tata Group, for an appointment with the right Mody. Neither of them could have imagined that the call would set in motion a chain of events that would bring together a group of remarkable people who would create Titan Watches (later Titan Company Ltd, revenues of ₹15,656 crore in the financial year 2017–2018 with a net profit of ₹1,163 crore).
Back then in the mid-1970s, 38-year-old Xerxes was just coming to the end of an assignment with the City and Industrial Development Corporation of Maharashtra (CIDCO) to whom he had been on loan from the Tatas for his project management expertise. The project was the development of New Bombay(now Navi Mumbai), a massive town planned by the government of Maharashtra on the mainland across from the seven islands of the old city. The promoters of CIDCO had put together a remarkable team of town planners, architects, transport planners, economists, educationists, sociologists and operations research specialists, apart from civil, mechanical and electrical engineers for the purpose. It was this eclectic mix of people that Xerxes had been working with.
Xerxes spent two-and-a-half years at CIDCO, where he worked with legends such as architect Charles Correa, urban planner Shirish Patel and managing director J.B. D’Souza, an IAS officer highly respected as an administrator. There was also Anil Manchanda, an operations research specialist and industrial engineer, ten years his junior. With a Master’s degree in statistics from the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI), Calcutta (now Kolkata), Anil was in the operations research and systems task force and was executive assistant to Shirish Patel who was the technical advisor on the project. Although Xerxes and Anil didn’t know it then, over the next 25 years their lives would be inextricably entwined.
Towards the end of his third year with CIDCO, he was under pressure to return to the Tata fold while CIDCO wanted him to quit the Tatas and become a full-time public servant. ‘Quite naturally, the Tatas offered a working environment that no other organization in India could equal,’ said Xerxes.‘And there was also the sobering fact that after working for 13 years, I had no savings whatsoever; in fact, I was in debt!’ The question then arose about Xerxes’s next posting in the Tata Group. Indian Hotels, which owns the Taj Group and where he had worked earlier, didn’t have a vacancy for him at the time. The National Radio & Electronics Company (NELCO), then run directly by Ratan Tata, the future chairman of the Tata Group, had an opening but a brief meeting between Xerxes and Ratan didn’t yield much. Jamshed Bhabha and Minoo Mody were the chairman and vice-chairman respectively of Tata Press, a wholly owned Tata company, and at that juncture headless and lossmaking. They secured the approval of J.R.D. and Nani Palkhivala to task Xerxes with turning around the ailing Tata Press, one of Minoo’s direct charges.
At the time, Tata Press was an obscure and poorly performing company, printing art and culture magazines, calendars and diaries, annual reports, computer stationery and books. The assignment did not appeal to Xerxes. However, he had not reckoned with Minoo whose financially savvy chartered accountant’s mind had always chafed over the fact that Tata Press was wholly Tata-owned while other Tata Group companies leveraged public funds through the equity market to grow. He laid the bait for Xerxes, spelling out a vision of taking Tata Press public and using the money thus raised to do something that was bigger and hopefully more interesting. Xerxes was immediately taken with the challenge. Besides, what choice did he have? So he told Minoo, ‘If I am to be strong-armed into joining this company, I’ll join it if it can be used as a springboard to venture into new areas.’
When Xerxes discussed his situation with Anil, by then a friend from their CIDCO days, and confessed to his apprehensions regarding turning around Tata Press, the irrepressible Anil assured him that although it called for detailed work, method studies and efficient management of operations, it wouldn’t be difficult. Before joining CIDCO, Anil had been in industrial consulting and had been trained in work study, method study and efficiency management. ‘Would you like to join Tata Press, then, along with me?’ Xerxes asked Anil. It was tempting. The New Bombay project had started off well, the master plan had been presented to the government, and CIDCO had already built the first phase of around 1,000 houses in Vashi. The next phase would involve expanding it, and that would mean more of the same. By then, Anil was also wary of the bureaucracy beginning to take hold of CIDCO. ‘Let’s give five years to turn [Tata Press] around and also start anew project,’ he told Xerxes.
It took just one meeting for Minoo to warm to Anil. Xerxes joined Tata Press in mid-1975 as general manager; Anil followed a few months later as systems manager. ‘Minoo and I got along well, but he was not sure of what Xerxes and I could do. He told me as much. “Xerxes seems to think you guys will make a good team to take it on, so go ahead,” he told me,’ Anil recalls, while speaking about the three years it took to overhaul the company, both in terms of personnel and machinery.
With Tata Press well on the way to recovery, the trio of Minoo, Xerxes and Anil began scouring for interesting projects to diversify into. Xerxes and Anil rejected many ideas that came from Minoo; he, however, took this in the right spirit because he always got a detailed note on why a particular idea wouldn’t work. Among the projects suggested were the manufacture of shipping containers, gelatin and carbon black.
It was at this juncture, in the late 1970s, that the extraordinary bureaucrat-scholar Iravatham Mahadevan came into the picture. At that time, Mahadevan, an IAS officer of the Tamil Nadu cadre,was a joint secretary in the Ministry of Industrial Development in New Delhi. One day, over a lunch of sandwiches and tea, Xerxes and Anil mentioned to Mahadevan their hitherto unsuccessful search for a new project. ‘Look, why doesn’t Anil come up to Delhi and we will help you identify some projects that the Tatas could consider,’ said Mahadevan.
The offer was accepted almost before he had completed his sentence, and as soon as Mahadevan went back, Anil set off for New Delhi. For three days he parked himself on a sofa in Mahadevan’s cavernous office in Udyog Bhavan while a steady stream of visitors went in and out of the room. The drearily furnished office was enlivened by endless cups of excellent coffee from the canteen run by India Coffee House and the gossip and chatter of bureaucrats at work. ‘In between Mahadevan’s other tasks,’ Anil recalls, ‘we discussed various projects. I showed interest in four or five areas, and Mahadevan called [in] his people from various departments with their files and I pored over the data, which were basically industry snapshots.’ There were reports for all kinds of projects, from ophthalmic glass to granite tombstones to mechanized fishing boats. And then there were watches. According to an introductory note penned by Xerxes for the Titan staff newsletter, on the fourth day, 21 March 1977, at about 10 p.m., Anil phoned Xerxes and laid out the options. ‘There are five projects I’ve shortlisted. The best among them is watches,’ he said.
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