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J Srinivasan: The rubber baronnews
28 December 2006

Member of the Group board in charge of strategic planning of the Rs800-crore TTK Group, J Srinivasan shares personal memories of childhood deprivations and the desire to move on in life. By V Jagannathan

Chennai: "I wish I had Rs200 to settle my family's debts; get some rice and good clothes for my mother, brother and grandmother," used to be the fervent yearning of a forlorn nine year lad, while busy collecting fallen banyan leaves at four in the morning in Thirupukuzhi village.

He knew it was sheer wishfulness. His immediate priority was to return home at Damal village near Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu, bathe and walk barefoot the three kilometres to his school.

During the day while he was away at school, his mother J Saroja would stitch the leaves into plates, which the boy had to deliver to various shops on returning from school. The meagre earnings were just enough to buy a meagre ration of broken rice for gruel. On a bad day the family's dinner would be just boiled sweet potato.

Some sad stories do lead on to more cheerful events. The young lad is J Srinivasan, now a director of the Rs800-crore turnover TTK group.

As the head of TTK LIG Limited, it was Srinivasan who put India on the condom-manufacturing map of the world. Today, TTK is the world's largest condom manufacturer with an annual capacity of 1,065 million pieces.

"TTK LIG is the singular achievement of Srinivasan," asserts T T Raghunathan, group vice chairman.

The boy who walked barefoot several kilometres to school, today flies around the world in search of business opportunities and commutes in his Toyota Camry. But, at 66, he hasn't forgotten the days when the prospect of a square meal was an uncertain hope.

For Srinivasan life was comfortable till he turned nine. His father S Jagannathan, in those days was a schoolteacher His mother was in her seventh month carrying their last child, J Prakash, Srinivasan's third and youngest brother.

Srinivasan lost his carefree childhood when his father gave up his job at the school to join Brooke Bond as a sales representative at Vaniampadi. Later he set up a film distribution partnership with his brother.

The business made losses and the brothers differed in their views. One day Jagannathn walked away from his home and the family's burden ended on Srinivasan's shoulders. Overnight the family was forced into a hand to mouth subsistence, selling leaf plates for its subsistence.

The only silver lining was Srinivasan's innate brilliance, which enabled him to pass his eighth standard. Those were the days when passing the eighth standard qualified one for a company job. While Srinivasan would have preferred to study further, the family's need for financial security would have prevented him from carrying on.

Fortunately, one of his father's brothers along with Srinivasan's maternal uncle K V Narashiman contributed Rs55 per month enabling Srinivasan to continue school. Srinivasan also supplemented the income by working as an errand boy for a North Indian family and later at a local mandi (market). He also doubled up as a tourist guide at Ulagalandar Temple, Kanchipuram.

Years flew by and in 1957 Srinivasan passed out of school with a first class. He also passed typewriting course. Quitting his job at the mandi, Srinivasan sent an application to Tube Products, part of the Murugappa Group, for a typist's job.

"I was interviewed by A M M Arunachalam and D K V Raghava Varma, the top people in the group. Though satisfied with my interview performance, they were apprehensive as I looked far younger than the age mentioned in the school certificate," Srinivasan recalls.

When he did not hear anything from the company after the interview, the youngster wrote to the company enquiring about what had happened. Within 10 days, he received his letter of appointment.

"The monthly salary was Rs75 and I was asked to report at the Avadi office." Hi mother raised some money to get him new clothes and a pair of slippers. "For the first time in my life I wore footwear," he reminisces.

Out of his salary he sent home Rs40 and began saving Rs5 at the local post office. His own expenses were meagre - the monthly room rent was Rs9 and the remaining Rs21 took care of his monthly food costs.

Fate smiles
Once he was confirmed as a permanent employee, his salary jumped to Rs100. For the first time in his life he bought himself trousers. "Till then I used to wear a dhothi and a shirt to office." To save on costs, his mother and brothers came to live with him at Chennai.

Since he was clear about climbing the corporate ladder, Srinivasan studied on while working; he passed accountancy and shorthand courses. He also passed Bhopal University's pre university correspondence course and enrolled himself for Delhi University's correspondence course for a BA degree.

In 1968 Srinivasan finally became a graduate clearing 11 papers at one go. "During exams, I had a boil over my eye. K R Ramamurthy, the former CMD of Corporation Bank, used to read out aloud my study material for me to grasp and memorise," he muses.

The news of Srinivasan becoming a graduate delighted Arunachalam, who had a soft corner for the young Iyengar. Arunachalam saw to it that the news of his graduation was published in the company's house magazine. "That prompted around 200 people in the group to pursue degree course," recalls Srinivasan.

Prodded by his uncle Narashiman, whose financial assistance had enabled him to complete his school, Srinivasan enrolled himself for a 'company secretary' course. While life moving along at a comfortable pace, one day news reached Srinivasan that his father was alive and in in Sri Lanka. Assuring a job for his father in the group's tea estate Arunachalam asked Srinivasan to go to Sri Lanka.

The father and the son met nearly after one and half decades. Guilt-ridden, Jagannathan refused to come back to India. "A couple of years later he did come to India and stayed in an old age home in Trivandrum for some time. We didn't hear anything about him after that," says Srinivasan.

Even today Srinivasan nurses the hope that his father is alive somewhere. "While I perform the annual rites for my mother after her death, I believe my father is alive somewhere."

Was he ever angry with his father for his lost childhood? Pausing for a few seconds he answers, "No. I took it all as our fate."

In the meanwhile, time his brothers continued studying well and received scholarships. As the head of the family, Srinivasan did not impose any of his decisions on his brothers. For instance, his brother Prakash, vice president, marketing, Sterling Holiday Resorts Limited joined electrical engineering, while Srinivasan would have wanted him to study chemical engineering.

Meanwhile Srinivasan became a qualified company secretary. With a respected professional degree rounding off his education, he gave in family pressures to get married. Out of the 150 and odd responses to his matrimonial advertisement in The Hindu, he sent his horoscope to two.

He received a response from only one of the two families for Rukmini. A post-graduate, Rukmani came from a comfortable background though she had lost her father while only a baby. While Srinivasan's qualifications impressed her and the family, they were not quite happy with his steno-typist's job in a private company.

The stars in both their the horoscopes were benign. Recalls S Balasubramanian, the present chairman, Company Law Board and an elder relative. "The horoscopes matched well and Srinivasan's qualifications were impressive. I decided to meet him in person to find out his future plans."

Srinivasan's enterprise and the drive to come up in life quickly became evident to Balasubramanian. "That impressed me very much and I convinced our other family members that Srinivasan had a great future ahead. My belief was not belied."

Soon Srinivasan and his family were invited to see Rukmani formally. The lanky Srinivasan immediately liked the fair, tall and the wide-eyed girl and the marriage was formalised.

Was there any pre marriage romancing? "Unfortunately no. After the Nichiyadartham (betrothal) I saw Rukmani only on the wedding day," responds Srinivasan.

His attempts to meet her didn't succeed, either. "Once I had been to her place on the pretext of showing the marriage invitation card design. It was her sister-in-law who spoke to me and she took the card inside for Rukmani to see. Even the coffee was served by the sister-in-law," laughs Srinivasan.

Settling down
After the marriage the couple hit it off well. A good cook Rukmani found her way into Srinivasan's heart through the traditional route of pandering to his stomach. "I like cooking and he likes good South Indian food," she remarks. She also moved well with her mother in law. A year later their son was born followed by another five years later.

Soon after the wedding Srinivasan was put in the secretarial department of Tube Investments of India Limited (TI). "It was the first time at work that was not sitting in front of a typewriter."

Speaking about his stint at Tube Products, he says, "I learnt two important tenets of life (a) making decisions quickly without procrastinating and (b) appropriate job delegation."

Recalling an incident, he says, "At Tube Products, I also looked after the purchase function. One of my decisions resulted in a loss of Rs9,000 - a very big sum in those days."

When he told Arunachalam about the loss, expecting to a stiff reprimand, he was relieved to hear his mentor's words, "Out of ten decisions one or two may turn bad. What is important is to taking decisions. "

Lacking growth opportunities in the Murugappa group, Srinivasan decided to look out for opportunities. His first interview for the post of company secretary at Roche Produces was a fiasco. "The interview was an eye opener for me. I read company law again to understand the principles behind the provisions."

He succeeded in his second interview and was appointed as the assistant secretary and legal officer at Agro Cargo Transport Limited (now ACT Ltd). There he successfully completed the company's initial public offering (IPO) despite several hiccups like the government changing the dividend rules and the underwriters backing off at the last moment.

With nothing much to do post issue, Srinivasan switched over to Karnataka-based Mandya Paper Mills Limited as company secretary.

It was a challenging job for him as he also had to look after marketing the manufactured stocks piling up. He disposed of the unsold stock. At a time when paper exports were banned, he successfully convinced the union industries ministry about the foreign exchange opportunity in exporting paper to Iran. Paper exports were permitted at the instance of Mandya Paper Mills.

The company had also started the initial work for capacity expansion by 73,000-tonne per annum (tpa) to 1.10 lakh tpa. The company faced the prospects of a hostile takeover from a Kolkata-based group, which was thwarted. Finally, the Kolkata group sold its holdings in the paper company to the Karnataka government. And, overnight, the company became a state undertaking.

While the job was challenging, it took a heavy toll on his family life. Working nearly 20 hours a day, Srinivasan was not able to spend time with his family. His elder son started missing his father.

"With the change in ownership pattern, I decided to quit as it was not possible for me to work in a state-run organisation," he explains. He then joined the Mumbai-based Garware group as deputy secretary. Four years later Srinivasan decided to come back to the South to join the TTK group as group secretary.

also see : The making of the rubber baron

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J Srinivasan: The rubber baron