Excerpts from different chapters of the book An Anchored Vision: Karumuttu T Kannan (1953-2023) by Uma Kannan and Shobhana Kumar

The Learning Curve: Kannan spent his undergraduate years putting theory into practice and feeding practice into theory. He was an astute observer and displayed a natural proclivity for business management. Kannan’s ability to recall numbers, data and facts, combined with his sense of ownership and deep empathy for the workforce, made him a very worthy successor.

Lighting the Path: Kannan was deeply committed to the founding vision of preserving the philanthropic model of education at both institutions. This is undoubtedly his greatest gift to students across socio-economic strata. In the 1980s, when the educational sector opened up higher education to privatisation, he chose to remain true to the sacred philosophy of vidhya dhanam, the imparting of knowledge as a service. This selfless move allowed young students and their families to not just dream of better days but realise them. This remains the very fabric that holds the ideals of both institutions —TCE (Thiagarajar College of Engineering) and TCA (Thiagarajar College of Arts and Science). There have been several instances where Kannan was asked why he had not followed the example of several contemporary institutions and opened the door to private donations. He always responded with his characteristic smile, “My father started these institutions to make education affordable and accessible to everyone. That has and always will remain our sole commitment.”

Language, Literature and Philosophy: Kannan’s contribution to Tamil also spans music. He was a connoisseur and patron of music. Ancient Sangam literature and the rich bhakthi tradition.

Thread by Thread: Early in his administration, he identified two factors that were critical to the success of the mills — efficiency and productivity. He was determined to grow the businesses steadily, brick by brick. During the long years of expansions, he ensured that he built sufficient internal equity, paid the first lot of the bank loans, and expanded the units only after the loans had been paid. His in-depth understanding of risk and reward helped in building robust internal structures. He was also not very keen on expanding spindleage or capacities. He was conscious of Return on Investments (RoI), ensuring that every investment ensured growth. He focussed on strengthening the infrastructure for the maximum possible output at the highest possible quality. He achieved this by driving optimisation in resource utilisation, bringing on board experienced professionals, and identifying the markets that each of the products could serve.

Open-end (OE) spinning was a concept that was unheard of in the Indian textile scenario in the 1980s. For one, it was a method that absorbed cotton waste. Kannan saw that it would be an ideal investment that could not only drive the sustainable vision he had for the mills, but could also help them serve a niche customer market. It was a risk to invest in a machine that had no precedent to assure success. And yet, Kannan was able to discern the numerous advantages it would bring. In 1982, Thiagarajar Mills became among the first in India to bring in OE spinning.

Pathfinder: At SIMA (Southern India Mills’ Association), he was one of the members who was most active with policy-related decisions and issues. He continued to play an active role in the leadership council long after his tenure as chairperson. Whether it was working on the anti-dumping duty or the quota system that hampered production, he was at the forefront, “helping us sort the issues.” He held the position of chairperson CII, Southern Region during 2002–2003, and as chairperson of its National Textile Committee in 2009. During his leadership tenure, he worked with the central and state governments and was instrumental in helping frame policies that promoted industrial development, employment and the promotion of exports. He contributed immensely to shaping CII’s work in the textile sector through many impactful interventions.

He was personally involved in envisioning and creating trends in the spinning, weaving and processing sectors, urging leaders to bring advancements in technology and move up the value chain. He was involved in facilitating the setting up of several centres of excellence by the government in the southern region for entrepreneurs. He served the Textile Committee as chairperson during 2009-2010 and was a member of the Economics Committee as well. Former colleagues remember him as a fine brain for maths and economics.

Uma Kannan’s Tribute — In Reverence and in Love: Writing his biography became much more than a literary exercise to honour his legacy and achievements as an educationist, scholar, industrialist and philanthropist. Tamil literature and Saiva Siddhantam, in particular, inspired him greatly. He was guided by the teachings of his favourite literary work, the Thirukkural. His path was marked by challenges and adversity, beginning with the loss of his father when he was just 21-years-old. Amid unimaginable personal setbacks, his resolve to succeed in business and serve society remained steadfast. Armed with inherent resilience and determination, he assumed charge of his father’s educational and industrial legacy, ensuring the well-being of all without any discrimination. (Uma Kannan was Karumuttu T Kannan’s wife of 46 years)

A Divine Calling: In the 18 years that Kannan held office, the temple (Madurai Meenakshi Amman) underwent a comprehensive renovation in administration, the ease of access to the public, and infrastructure development. Kannan brought his benchmark qualities of integrity, transparency and accountability to this position in the government institution. Among the most significant of the plans of renovation was the gold-plating of the entire gopuram of the sanctum of the Goddess, the Amman Sannidhi that Kannan had personally supervised. In 2011, Kannan led another record with the creation of the golden rishabavaahanam. Cleanliness drives have been an important facet of his contributions. On October 1, 2017, the temple was awarded the cleanest premises by the central government, in its Swachh Bharath mission. Notable amongst the numerous tasks was the work he led on the Pottramarai Kulam, golden lotus pond. In the seven decades of his life, Karumuttu T Kannan held fort in multiple spheres. He put Madurai on the world map. And in turn, he brought the world to Madurai and Southern Tamil Nadu.

Excerpted with permission from Thiagarajar College Publication Division