A review of Disrupt and Conquer, by Sandhya Mendonca and TT Jagannathan
Many years ago, probably in the 80s, Business India (I think it was Business India) ran a cover story titled, “Why Is The South Lagging Behind?”
The point of this piece was that companies in Bombay (later, Mumbai) and Delhi were growing in scale and that companies in the south were not.
The article did not reach any conclusion or answer its title question tangibly. But one famous Madras industrialist was quoted in the piece as having said, “Give us a level playing field and we will give the north Indians a run for their money.” The industrialist was talking about the favouritism shown by the government to industrialists from Delhi and Mumbai who swung a bigger mace in a time of industrial licencing; they got to both cut the cake and choose the piece.
This sentiment drew justifiable derision for its naiveté. All’s fair in love and business, the trollers said; there would be no “level playing field”.
From my vantage viewpoint as a lobbyist in New Delhi, working for a major south Indian industrial group, (the Seshasayees), I found the general view of south Indian businessmen in New Delhi was benign, to use a kind expression.
The respect that south Indians roused, has always been towards our abilities in letters and sciences — academia and pedagogy that is — rather than for a cunning, rapacious, ball-bustin’ business acumen. For an educated south Indian, money never came in first in the roster of one’s accomplishment. Sadly, often the money never came in at all or, never stayed.
For example, my former employers, the Seshasayee group, were #16 in the top 20 business houses in India in 1951, ranked by assets. They were the only south Indian group on the list. By 1990, the four south Indian companies on the top 20 list were MA Chidambaram, TVS, UB and Kirloskar. And in 2016, only Infosys and Wipro were on the list from the south. (“Structure of the Corporate Private Sector”- RK Hazari.)
Not surprisingly, a study of the lists reveals that there was much more participation in the churn, also longevity and consistency, from non-south companies.
For reasons of newsworthiness and to be fair, impact on the economy, (and I dare add, the lack of flash, panache and media savvy among south Indians industrialists) much of the business news ignored the south and therefore, much of what was achieved by south Indian companies, was “quiet contribution”, of which, much virtue was made.
For this reason, any effort today to tell a south Indian business story is both a necessary and overdue chronicle of record.
In her book, “Disrupt and Conquer”, author Sandhya Mendonca, long time Bangalore journalist and now, media entrepreneur, tells the story of one of the better known south Indian industrialists, TT Jagannathan – more easily tagged as being from the TTK Group. (Read, Prestige pressure cookers.)
“Disrupt and Conquer” is the story of TT Jagannathan’s life as the head of the TTK group — from how he took over the company’s management and turned it around from being a debt-ridden money-sinkhole to a healthy and reputable corporation.
In a narrative that reeks of an experienced journalist’s proclivity to place research before rumination, Mendonca focuses on Jagannathan’s ability to see the light at the end of a rather gloomy tunnel. And his skill of driving the company through it.
The book is filled with interesting, “Hey, this ought to be a case study”, stories of a group that followed a British company to make pressure cookers and as time went on, generated a number of inset stories such as Kohinoor- and the multicoloured Fiesta condoms and when those did not work, Woodward’s Gripe Water for babies.
Jagannathan’s story reflects how these diverse business interests took the group to almost half a billion USD in the decades from the 70s through the 90s. (Forbes: https://explo.in/2GHXBmT). And then, by the book’s subtitle, a billion dollar company.
Drawing from descriptions of the man, we can gather that Jagannathan’s ingenuity in managing a diverse portfolio could be a result of his persona – tennis player, violinist, amateur chef, bridge maven, golfer; ergo, a man who is curious about everything.
While TT Jagannathan is listed as the author, presumably for first-hand authenticity, Sandhya Mendonca clearly succeeds in making the book sit neatly poised between being a biography and an autobiography – even if the book is written in the first person.
In this review, I choose to blow past stories of how Jagannathan was initially unwilling to take over the family business and how he did not “even” have an MBA, and how he was an “accidental” and “reluctant” businessman because I believe such (pardon my Swahili) boo-hoo sentiment detracts from his chops. Jagannathan’s story is one of managerial skill and competence with need for neither qualification nor apology.
To my knowledge, a good part of the north Indian businessman’s patronising opinion of the south has always taken such admissions of vulnerability into account. And this cycles back to the “given a level playing field…” disposition – typically the argument of entitled, second-gen progeny.
It was not until the tech revolution — and its freedom from dependence on government and infrastructure and also liberalisation, which spelled the end of licencing — that south Indian businesses hit the news.
And they stuck to the nation’s front page with a perpetual stream of tech consciousness, principally devoted to Infosys share prices and Premji’s standing in the world wealthy list. And also to every tree planted on the Infosys campus and to every utterance that was thus spake Narayanathusthra.
All this led journalist Allen Mendonca, (the author’s late husband), to label this new found south Indian dominance of the media and the stock market, “the revenge of the TamBrahm”.
I believe “Disrupt and Conquer” is compelling enough to lead to more such books on south Indian business successes. And, I hope, to the end of “quiet contribution”.