Building a Golden Legacy

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MMA introduced a new series—”Pride of Tamil Nadu: Success Stories – How it was done!”—for showcasing business leaders in the region. In the inaugural session of this series, we had Padmashree Dr Nalli Kuppusami Chetty, Chairman, Nalli Silks, sharing his journey and success secrets in a free-wheeling conversation with Mr K Mahalingam, Sr Vice President, MMA.

I was born in Kancheepuram, a town in Tamil Nadu, famous for silk-weaving. My grandfather was a silk weaver and merchant in Kancheepuram, known for his high quality silk sarees. Though weavers in the town were clustered in a few traditional areas only, my grandfather decided to move out his outlet from conventional places to a busy area of the town. This was indeed a great turning point in our entire business. Many people who came to the town from Chennai (by train, which was the only convenient mode of transport then), would visit him and place orders for silk sarees, as he was in a prime location. Soon there was a regular demand from customers based in Chennai, especially Mylapore, and he decided to move his business to Chennai. He took a house in T.Nagar and started his business. T Nagar then was thinly populated and only residential. Till 1937, the schools were in English medium. But when I went to school in 1945, the government introduced Tamil medium and removed Hindi and Sanskrit. So I studied in Tamil medium. I was not even aware that there were private schools that offered English medium. Though I was a school topper and very fast in solving problems in Mathematics, I still regret that I could not be proficient in English and that I am not able to speak fluently in English.

The moral of it all

My school Headmaster was Mr Anna Subramanian, a great scholar and author of many books on spirituality. I have learnt more in the prayer hall of the school than in the classroom. We used to have moral classes every day for 45 minutes and Manjakudy Rajagopal Sastry and other eminent teachers taught us short stories, each ending with moral lessons, drawn from Ramayana, Mahabharata or Bhagavatham. They were all life lessons and had nothing to do with any religion. One day, Sastry did not come for moral classes and we requested our Headmaster to handle that class. Though he was not prepared, he told a very interesting story and we were all mesmerised. We, in fact, requested him to handle all moral classes. When I was studying fourth form (9th standard), my father at age 42 died. There were no medical facilities that exist now. My uncle took care of the shop. I had to discontinue my studies after completing SSLC and entered the portals of our saree shop in 1956. I am still in the business for 66 long years and I must be one of the very few who are in this trade for so long.

Industrialist Pollachi Mahalingam was my neighbour in T Nagar. He was a student of Loyola College. He was very studious, and whenever I saw him, he was reading his college books. Though I wanted to talk to him and become friends, his focus on studies and my own inferiority complex prevented me from making that move. BA (Bachelor of Arts) and BL (Bachelor of Law) were sought after courses then. I decided to take up BA (History). But my father’s death put paid to my educational aspirations.

Customer is always right

I was unfortunate not to learn business from my father, as he passed away at a young age. One of my uncles taught me the basics, including handling customer complaints. He asked me to remember one basic principle: The customer is always right! If a customer complained about a salesman, though I was 15 years then and the salesman at 40 plus age, in front of the customer, I had to address the issue with the salesman, so that the customer felt that she was heard. After she left, I would explain to the salesman politely that I had to question him, as customer satisfaction was a very important for the growth of the business.

When I entered the business, though I was from the owner’s family, I would report to the manager. The first job they gave me was to clean the floor every day. Two years later, we bought a car and went to TVS to collect the car. A young lad, looking very smart and dressed in khaki uniform, was cleaning and polishing our car and asked me if he can put a picture of a plane on the car. When I asked one of the employees who the smart lad was, he replied, “He is T S Rajam Iyengar’s son Ratnam.” I was taken aback at the son of a rich business empire cleaning our car. That was the way youngsters in family owned businesses were groomed then. Slowly, they made me in charge of cash section.

I took charge of the business in 1961. In the next year, we had 100% growth and we had exponential growth since then, thanks to God’s grace. One of my relatives even cautioned me that my stars as per horoscope were not in favourable position and I could bring trouble to the business and asked me to consult an astrologer, if I could continue in the business. I met a good astrologer and he advised me that there was nothing wrong and predicted I would be successful. His words were proved right. Nalli was the first shop in India to do one crore sales in silk sarees. Today we have 40 branches around the world and do a turnover of 750 crores.

Is it from Nalli?

Once a senior army official from Nepal came to Chennai on a special chartered flight to attend a high level meeting in Chennai. There was heavy police presence after he landed in Chennai. He visited our showroom, bought a saree and told me, “You know what! Before I left, my wife told me that I might even miss the official meeting but she would not tolerate if I missed buying her a saree from Nalli.”

Justice P S Kailasam, who was a High Court judge in Chennai, was transferred to the Supreme Court. And it was a courtesy that after joining, the judges would meet the Prime Minister. Indira Gandhi was the then the PM. Justice Kailasam had bought a saree without zari from Nalli and removed the packing. While meeting the PM, he handed it over to her. Mrs Gandhi at once asked him, “Did you buy it from Nalli?” He was surprised and asked her how she knew about it. She said, “Some of the MPs who came from Chennai would gift me sarees and say they bought from Nalli. That’s how I know of Nalli.”

A customer once shared an anecdote with me. She was in Paris, wearing a Nalli silk saree and on top of that, an overcoat. A French woman spotted her and asked, “Is this saree you’re wearing from Nalli?” She was so surprised and asked the woman how she found it out. The other woman said that as part of an exchange programme, she studied for some time in Chennai and during her stay, the only shop she visited was Nalli.

Growing beyond Chennai

It is my son who expanded the business beyond Chennai to overseas countries. In the early days, a silk saree costs Rs 12 or Rs 18. Now we have sarees costing even 2.5 lakhs. We keep high value sarees also, not to disappoint some customers who specifically want top-of-the-range sarees, exclusively from Nalli. We now use computer aided design and we can weave three sarees, each one in a different colour. In manual weaving during earlier days, at one stretch, we can weave three sarees, only with the same design and colour. My granddaughter studied in Harvard, worked in McKensey in the US and later moved to India, joined Myntra and left after a few years to focus on online sales of our brand. During Covid, she could do online sales for more than a crore of rupees.

Books that changed my life

One of my Tamil teachers advised me to read books from the library to broaden my knowledge and improve my vocabulary. Two books that laid the foundation for my life are Mahatma Gandhi’s ‘My Experiments with Truth’ and a book containing the quotes of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa. I derived Truth and Honesty to be my guiding principles in business based on Gandhi’s autobiography.

Our business was already following these, when I took over. When we recruit staff for our shop, we instruct them not to tell lies and to be honest. In our sarees, we clearly provide the details about the saree, if it is with pure zari, German zari and so on. Based on this, the customer can take an informed decision. Can you run a business without telling lies? We are a standing example, running it for 94 years, right from my grandfather’s days. We do not believe in offering discounts. We ensure quality and stick to our fixed price policy, though other shops around us offer Aadi season discounts and such other things.

When Cash or Cheque didn’t matter

Some of the VIPs who visited our showroom are Dr Rajendra Prasad, when he was President of India, PM Dr Manmohan Singh, PM Chandrasekhar, the Shah of Iran, the Princess of Greece and Finland, Jacqueline Kennedy, former first lady of the US and Thomas G Bata, Chairman of Bata Shoe Company. We still have the image of the cheque signed by Dr Rajendra Prasad, neatly framed, as a display in our showroom.

Dr R N Malhotra, when he was RBI Governor, visited us and bought a saree. At the cash counter, he asked me, “Shall I pay by cheque or in cash?” I replied, “On both cash and cheque, your signature is going to be there. So it doesn’t really matter if you pay by cash or cheque.”

Prema Srinivasan of TVS family had brought a foreign lady with her to our showroom. I saw that lady walking outside casually. Before leaving, Prema Srinivasan asked me if I knew who the foreign woman was. I said, “No Ma’am.” She said, “It’s Jacqueline Kennedy.” It was a surprise that nobody noticed her.

Another day, a foreigner who went past our shop in a car, came back walking. He entered and visited our showroom. While he was leaving, I asked him who he was and he said, “I am the grandson of Bata, the founder of Bata Shoe Company.” When I asked him, why he went past us and came back, he said, “I was going to visit our Bata outlet in T.Nagar. On the way, I saw ‘Nalli’ board. I knew it’s a global brand and so wanted to have a look at your showroom. I asked my driver to stop. As it was one way, we stopped and I walked back.”

Lost in Music

Those days, T Nagar used to be very calm in the evening hours, especially after 7.30 PM. Krishna Gana Sabha was started in T Nagar and in the evening hours, soulful Carnatic music, sung by musicians from there would reach my ears and it would give me immense peace and bliss. Thus I was drawn to the world of Carnatic music.

When they wanted to shift the venue, the Secretary of the Sabha collected a loan from a few individuals. I loaned out Rs 3,000. Later when he came to repay the loan to me, I told him to keep the money with him as my donation, the reason being the solace that I derived from music. He thanked me profusely and made me Vice-President of the Sabha. This gave me an opportunity to attend music concerts of several popular singers like MS Subbulakshmi, ML Vasantha Kumari and so on. It was A.Natarajan, former Director of Doordharshan, who gave me some training in understanding the ragas and nuances of music.

Music lovers who organised a function to honour legendary singer MS Subbulakshmi wanted to present her a saree and they approached us. We got a specially designed blue colour saree for her. After she wore that, the colour became very popular as ‘MS Blue.’

Writing Books

I have written 80 books. It all started in 1983 when Arunodhayam Publishers, who were near our showroom, approached me to write a book about the secret of my success. I told him that I am very poor in writing. He said, “Don’t worry. I will send two people.” Writer Masilamani and Mr Natarajan, former DD Director, tape-recorded my conversations in Woodlands Hotel, transcribed and edited them. I have since written books for sales people and on many other topics such as management and spirituality. One of my books won the best book award given by Tamil Nadu government in the management category.

Role in Education

After completing high school, though I wanted to pursue college education and we were well off at that time, I could not continue my studies, due to my father’s untimely death and the need to step into the business. Till now, I feel sorry I could not do higher studies.

I desperately wanted my son to do well in studies and so when he applied for admission in Don Bosco School, every day I would go to the school and wait there to meet the concerned people. After a month, they called me after observing that I came to the school every day and admitted my son.

Once a life imprisonment convicted prisoner, named Madhan, after reading in Kalki magazine about my support for educational causes, wrote to me a letter requesting financial help for his daughter, to do engineering in College of Engineering, Guindy. I arranged funds for her education. Later, when he got released from prison, he came with her daughter, met me and thanked me profusely.

When I was in school, Sadagopan, one of our classmates was in a crisis. He could not pay Rs 5 which was then the school fees for SSLC even on the last date and was about to be expelled from the school. My friend and I pitched in and helped him pay the fees. We met after four decades. He recalled our help in his completing SSLC, which changed his entire life trajectory.