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Y C Deveshwar obit: ITC's never-say-die diversification strategist

Y C Deveshwar died on Saturday leaving behind an ITC very different from the one he inherited

YC Deveshwar
YC Deveshwar

Y C Deveshwar died on Saturday leaving behind an ITC very different from the one he inherited. Deveshwar donned the role of ITC's executive chairman in 1996. He slipped into a non-executive role in 2017.

During his tenure as executive chairman, the company's revenues grew ten-fold to Rs 51,582 crore and profit before tax, 33 times to Rs 14,958 crore; total shareholder returns grew at a compounded annual rate of 23.3 per cent.
 
But perhaps his biggest achievement would be that the consumer spend on the new FMCG brands today is more than twice ITC's size in 1996.

Today's ITC, therefore, is not just defined by its cigarette brands --- India Kings, Classic and Goldflake --- but is also identified by Sunfeast (cookies and biscuits), Bingo! (snacks) and Aashirvaad (staples and ready meals).

The iconic Wills brand has undergone a metamorphosis in less than a decade, as ITC wanted to dissociate the label from the cigarette business to promote the apparel retail venture, Wills Lifestyle, without any charge of surrogate advertising.

Deveshwar's philosophy was to grow the top line; his pride was in creating 'Indian' brands. He was often heard referring to ITC as India's Trademarks Corporation.

Diversification wasn't exactly new to ITC, but Deveshwar took it to a different level.

Since the late 1960s, almost every ITC chairman had tried his hand at diversification. But by the time Deveshwar took charge, most of the diversifications had failed or were faltering; the only businesses with some scale were paperboards and hotels. 

Deveshwar, of course, had more on his plate than just failed diversifications.

The Enforcement Directorate (ED) believed that ITC had inflated profits by over-invoicing imports. A retrospective excise demand of Rs 803 crore, amounting to three times the annual profit of the company was raised on the very first day that Deveshwar assumed charge as Chairman and CEO. 

The shareholders and the members of the board stood divided on the future direction of the company.

But Deveshwar responded with prompt rationalisation of ITC's business portfolio. It began with the exit from financial services (which was sold to ICICI in 1998), followed by exit from edible oils, overseas restaurants and real estate.

The options before Deveshwar were two: to focus on core business (tobacco) or to diversify. Deveshwar chose the latter, but it wasn't easy.

The backdrop was complex --- on the one hand was ITC's legacy of failed diversifications, on the other, BAT was upping the ante. After an aborted attempt at a bigger foothold in the company, and ITC's failed diversification, the single-largest shareholder wanted the Indian company to stick to its core business. But Deveshwar pursued diversification into non-cigarette FMCG and information technology stubbornly.

Today ITC is at number three in foods. In the next couple of years, it aims to have the top slot in the segment.

But there are bigger goals ahead of the company as cut out by Deveshwar, and that's to grow the FMCG business to Rs one trillion by 2030.