In a welcome addition to business literature, Surge, a delightful debut by seasoned business journalist Sushila Ravindranath, provides a sneak peek into the industrial growth of Tamil Nadu in the last four decades. Taking an approach similar to a case study, the author seeks to break myths surrounding industries in Tamil Nadu. The reticence of men at the helm of some of the resounding successes in the State meant the national business press ignored, not only Tamil Nadu but almost the entire South India in its coverage in the 1980s. “The South simply was not on anybody’s radar,” explains Sushila, whose long stint in Business India enabled her to closely observe the industrial scene in the State.
The draconian licence quota regulations that stifled industrial growth across the country from the 1970s, had its impact on Tamil Nadu too. South Indian businessmen stayed conservative, not taking huge risks or seekingpublic markets in the 1980s.
Sushila sweeps over the range of businesses that shaped the industrial story of Tamil Nadu, decoding its black box in the 1980s. The really large enterprises, especially in the auto components sector, quickly scaled up as the Indian economy opened up in 1991. For well-established biggies — Amalgamations, MRF, TVS and Murugappa groups — liberalisation opened the floodgates of opportunities in export markets. She says the TVS group did not celebrate its centenary in 2011 and went about business quietly. For a story in Business India, the top men did not want to talk to her. But the younger generation now at the helm is not averse to media. Murugappa Group’s diversification and winning awards at the international level show the group’s steady focus on business ethics and sustained growth.
Popular and well-known faces from Tamil Nadu are given prominent coverage. N Srinivasan, till recently BCCI chief, brought passion and depth to India Cements, which grew multifold in the past few years on the back of his leadership, while the Marans-owned Sun group is facing rough weather, due to a host of reasons. Sushila doesn’t mince words in detailing the troubles, the Marans are facing.
The Shriram Group, CAMS, Apollo Hospitals, provide the diversity of successful businesses from Chennai. Some stupendous failures, and financial skulduggery that led to the astounding rise and ungraceful exit of some businesses in the 1990s are worth a read. Especially, the account on P Rajarathnam, who gobbled up one business after another in Chennai, much to the astonishment and amusement of everyone, only to vanish into thin air, reads like a racy thriller.
The chapter on Coimbatore traverses a breathtaking cocktail of businesses that have made the city stand out, as an entrepreneurial hub in India. Quiet excellence marks pioneering ventures such as LMW. The author dips into areas such as foundry, pumps, wet grinders, textiles, and a host of startups in Coimbatore.
In several regions, agriculturists took to various businesses and made it big. Tiruppur is a world leader in knitted garments; Sankagiri, Tiruchengode, Namakkal and Sivakasi are covered as well. The leather industry, says the author, is “one of Tamil Nadu’s well kept secrets in that it accounts for almost 50 per cent of India’s leather exports and 40 to 45 per cent of footwear exports.”
Prominent coverage of the IT sector’s early days gives due credit to the early players such as TCS and Cognizant. Chennai’s homegrown IT startups that have grown massively such as Polaris, Ramco Systems, Bharat Matrimony, Zoho Corporation, and Freshdesk, and new-age startups give a flavour of what is happening in the technology space, where Chennai is making a quiet but forceful impact.
Although the Chennai bias is largely seen, the book also sufficiently provides an overview of the State’s industrial activity by covering successful global and national businesses in other regions.