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The golden rule of Kalyan Jewellers

T S Kalyanaraman of Kalyan Jewellers owns two aircraft and a fleet of Rolls-Royces, and counts the Bachchans among his friends. The author explores his world

T E Narasimhan 

Recently, Kalyan Jewellers got into a bit of hot water. Its advertisement showing Aishwarya Rai as royalty attended by a dark complexioned page was savagely attacked on social media for perpetuating stereotypes. The gold seller immediately had the ad withdrawn. The negative comments against the company must have hit T S Kalyanaraman pretty hard, for the 67-year-old chairman and managing director is known to take criticism seriously.

The first impression that Kalyanaraman gives is that he is not interested in business. Vishal Mahadevia, managing director (Mumbai), Warburg Pincus, the US-based private equity fund that recently picked up a minority stake for Rs 1,200 crore in Kalyan Jewellers, recalls the negotiations with the man who has been in the Forbes billionaire list for the past three years. Mahadevia says, “During our first meeting in Mumbai, we didn’t speak about business. It was just about culture and philosophy, subjects close to his heart.” He then adds that as far as business goes, Kalyanaraman “knows his business and can take quick decisions”, factors that helped Warburg Pincus decide to invest in the jewellery company, which logged a turnover of Rs 10,000 crore in 2014-15..

T S Kalyanaraman, Chairman & MD Kalyan Jewellers
Kalyanaraman says that business should be pleasure, not pressure. And he lives his belief. His office on the third floor of the company’s new showroom at Chennai — he maintains it is the largest jewellery showroom in the world — doesn’t have computers, files or phones, not even a landline. All it has is one big table, some chairs and a comfortable sofa set to lounge on. While he favours a traditional dhoti and a shirt, today he is dressed in a brown shirt, black trousers and ordinary sandals. He is a reluctant speaker, and normally it is the younger of his two sons, Ramesh Kalyanaraman, who acts as the spokesperson for the family.

Kalyanaraman, who ran a number of textile stores, started Kalyan Jewellers in 1993 in Thrissur, Kerala, but does not take credit for it. “Frankly,” says the sexagenarian, “it was not my idea to diversify; it was our customers’ idea. They wanted a trusted gold jewellery brand.” So he put in Rs 25 lakh from family funds and borrowed Rs 50 lakh from banks to start the venture. Today, Kalyan Jewellers is a chain of 81 showrooms, of which 12 are in West Asia and the rest across India. And he has no less than the Bachchans, Amitabh and Aishwarya, as brand ambassadors. For the company that claims to be the largest jewellery chain in India, it makes sense to have the Big B of Bollywood on board, considering that India is the world’s leading consumer of gold.

Aishwarya Rai, brand ambassador, Kalyan Jewellers
Kalyanaraman’s journey as a businessman started at the age of 12, when his father took him to the family textile shop to learn the basics. His grandfather, T R Ramachandra Iyer, a Tamil Brahmin from Thanjavur, had relocated to Thrissur and set up a spinning and weaving mill called Sitaram Mills. The mill was later acquired by the state government, but Kalyanaraman’s father, T R Seetharama Iyer, went on to open five textiles stores in town, one for each of his five children. Kalyanaraman spent most of his non-school hours at the textile shops and learnt how to cut cloth and handle cash at the counters. “Our blood is full of business,” says Kalyanaraman.

“My biggest role model is my father — he is the one who taught me to be systematic in my plans and disciplined in my life,” says Kalyanaraman. “He taught me not to indulge in unfair practices.” He wants his sons to imbibe these values too. “Growing up, we were trained to be good salesmen first and businessmen later,” says Ramesh, who is the executive director of the company.

Kalyanaraman started his jewellery business at a time when “there was no gold standard and no hallmarking”. Driven by the need to win customers’ trust, he wanted to change the ethics of the jewellery business. “I wanted to educate people on how to buy pure gold, and ran a campaign called ‘My gold, my right’,” he recalls. Ramesh claims that the company introduced BIS certification, rate tag, and loyalty programme and other incentives, and soon outgrew the competition, which is mostly from Kerala and included Malabar Gold, Chemmanur, Josco and Alukkas, and is today among the biggest jewellery chains in India.

Success has brought about some changes in Kalyanaraman’s lifestyle. His day starts with yoga and prayers at 6 am in his two-storey house on Gramam Road in Thrissur, styled after his ancestral home there. He then drives to his office in a Rolls-Royce Phantom (both his sons also own a Phantom each). The corporate office, unlike the house, is a plush modern building, though you won’t see family portraits that are ubiquitous in family-based corporate offices. Instead, the offices of the three Kalyanaramans have diamond-studded statues of Ram, Sita and Laxman.

Like most businessmen with high stakes, Kalyanaraman says, “we don’t ride in the same car, we don’t fly in the same aircraft, we don’t stay in the same hotel, and if we do stay in the same hotel, we don’t take rooms on the same floor”. And like most high-flying businessmen, he too has his private jets — two Embraer Phenom jets and two Bell 427 helicopters (a new 13-seater Embraer Legacy 650 aircraft will join the existing fleet). Even vacations are strictly taken separately by each man’s family. Recently, when Kalyanaraman, who continues — distinctly unlike a Forbes magnate — to have tea from a roadside stall on Bazullah road in Chennai, and his sons were in the city to launch a new store, they stayed in the same hotel, but on different floors in different towers. “There are about 25,000 families that depend on us for livelihood. If something happens to one of us, others can carry forward the work,” he explains.

The entire family, however, including the parents, the brothers and the sister, sits down at least once every day to have a meal together. The conversation at the table steers clear of business. The family head is not too enamoured of social engagements and would rather spend his time with his grandsons and granddaughters. None of the Kalyanaramans uses a mobile phone after office hours till 10 the next morning. Urgent calls are handled by secretaries, who pass on messages on the residence phones.

Kalyanaraman is urging his sons to move out of the old joint residence to their palatial Rs 75-crore villas in Sobha City, a complex on the fringes of Thrissur that also has a helipad and a new office. With handpicked furniture from around the world and state- of-the-art security, the three houses there — one each for the father and the sons — are among the most opulent residences in town.

As for the future, Kalyanaraman says, “We want to be the number one jewellery chain in the world.” He will have to compete with companies like Chow Tai Fook of China that has about 2,000 outlets and revenues of $10 billion. He is also eyeing the real estate business and has lately started Kalyan Developers, with himself as chairman, his son-in-law as chief executive and the two sons as directors. The new company has completed four residential projects in Kerala and is now planning six others. Over the next three years, it is targeting revenues of Rs 25,000 crore. But amid all this, Kalyanaraman sticks to his well-tested golden rule: “Whether national or international, customer satisfaction is most important for us.”

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First Published: Sat, May 23 2015. 00:29 IST