Shortly after Titan Co Ltd (then Titan Watches) shares got listed in the mid-1980s, Tata Share Registry, the company that handled shareholder accounting for most of the listed Tata companies, realised that Rakesh Jhunjhunwala, then an up-and-coming stock market operator, was accumulating Titan shares in huge numbers and had, in fact, become the largest single individual shareholder, leaving Ratan Tata and other Tata directors far behind.
Tata and Titan executives had never heard of this man. They could not figure out what was happening or what he was up to and why. The company had not yet shown any signs of future commercial success in the watch market, leave alone any financial high flying.
An emergency conclave of concerned Tata directors and Titan executives followed. Nimesh Kampani, head of Titan’s merchant bankers, J M Financial Services, was tasked with informally approaching RJ and ascertaining his intentions. RJ said he was flattered by the Tata interest in his activities but had no intention other than to put his money into what he thought was much more than a mega multi-bagger. He said he was in it for the long haul and would stick with the stock through thick and thin.
This was more confidence in the company’s prospects than most insiders had at that time. His turned out to be one of the most brilliant early stock market calls of all time as Titan soared in the watch market, and its share price soared in the stock market. Within a few years, the share price rose from just over ₹10 to ₹200.
True to his word, he held on when the stock went from ₹200 in the early ’90s to ₹30 by the turn of the millennium; dragged down by Titan’s misguided European misadventure to conquer the West. It turned out that the Swiss and the Japanese competitors were cut from a different cloth than the hapless HMT and Allwyn. When confronted by real competition, Titan found it had no genuine strength and plenty of weaknesses. While the Indian public was taken in by the domestic success, the stock market reflected that the collective wisdom of money is unbeatable. Tatas also knew that the company shares had taken a dive caused by management hubris.
The Tata ethos, however, did not call for a drastic mid-course change of management. Eventually, when the change of guard happened naturally, Tatas quickly wound up international operations. They wrote off losses tucked away in a maze of Titan’s domestic and international subsidiaries and associates over the previous decade in brilliant financial management hitherto alien to Tatas. The gold price also took off, and the success in the jewellery business sent the stock soaring again, way beyond the wildest imagination of Titan’s founding team and the Tata Group. Through all this RJ stuck on; eventually reaping a bounty which he once admitted was even beyond his most optimistic expectation.
(Anil Manchanda is former Executive, VP, Titan Co Ltd, CEO, Tanishq, as well as former Director, Tata Share Registry)