Companies

TV Sundaram Iyengar: A business leader with a socialist vision

TR Vivek Chennai | Updated on December 13, 2020

Automobile engine run by charcoal gas plant designed and developed by TVS and Sons, Madurai   -  UNKNOWN

A Charcoal Gas to Power Cars: A proposal for the mass manufacture of charcoal gas plants to power automobiles has been submitted to the Central Government by T. V. Sundaram lyengar & Sons (TVS). Photo: The Hindu Archives/Staff   -  THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Dr. A.L. Mudaliar, unveiling a bronze bust of T.V. Sundaram Iyengar, at Sundaram Motors, in Madras on November 22, 1958. Photo: The Hindu Archives   -  THE HINDU ARCHIVES

The business that TVS patriarch Sundaram Iyengar started with two buses is now a $8.5-b conglomerate

The formalisation of the agreement to splinter the $8.5-billion TV Sundaram Iyengar and Sons Ltd, popularly known as the TVS Group, into a clutch of independent firms free of a holding company, marks the end of an epoch for one of India’s oldest and most pre-eminent business families.

The foundations of the group that would become an industrial powerhouse in Independent India were laid by patriarch Thirukkurungudi Vengaram Sundaram Iyengar in 1911.

As a young timber merchant in Madurai, Sundaram Iyengar was fascinated by the gleaming new automobiles that used to whiz past his depot at what seemed a magical speed of 12 miles an hour.

He decided to import a couple of buses that could offer a larger number of people the experience of lightning-quick road travel. With two Dennis and Commer buses fitted with a chain-drive that needed frequent refitting and a top speed of 15 miles an hour, TVS started in 1912 what was perhaps the first passenger bus service in the country, between Madurai and Devakottai. The 64-mile ride cost a princely ₹4 but came with a free meal.

In the days before permits from Regional Transport Authorities and the Central Road Traffic Board, a chit from a local police officer was all that was needed to start a bus service.

Within a year, passenger bus rides had become so popular that several new operators rushed in and undercut fares to such an extent that TVS had to stop its operations and shift to a new route, between Pudukottai and Thanjavur.

First diversification

This necessitated TVS’ first business diversification. As the roads were not built for vehicular traffic, buses would wear out fast. To reduce its maintenance cost, the only option was for the bus operator to double up as a road contractor. By 1916, Sundaram Iyengar had started the import and distribution of Firestone tyres and Ford and Graford truck components. In 1923, he became a sub dealer for Chevrolet and that was when TV Sundaram Iyengar and Sons was established.

In 1929, TVS secured a direct General Motors dealership for Madurai, Tirunelveli, Ramnad and Pudukottai regions. Despite the economic depression, sales exceeded expectations.

Sundaram Iyengar’s four sons joined the family business even before they had finished school.

Of his three daughters, TS Soundram, a gynaecologist, was a renowned Gandhian activist whose legacy lives on in southern Tamil Nadu. In 1947, Soundram and her Dalit Gandhian husband G Ramachandran started the model rural settlement, Gandhigram, based on the Mahatma's social and economic vision, near Dindugul.

Engineering culture

World War II necessitated industrial innovations at TVS and it triggered an engineering culture that would help the group win accolades such as the Deming Prize more than half a century later.

As petrol became scarce during the war years, Sundaram Iyengar’s son TS Krishna (father of Sundram Fasteners Chairman Suresh Krishna) designed and developed a gas plant to help power vehicles with charcoal gas instead of precious petrol. At the time, TVS sold a whopping 12,000 units of the gas plant.

Similarly, to overcome rubber shortage and trim the tyre bills of its fleet, TVS opened a retreading factory in Pudukottai that would also make belts for Ford and Chevrolet. That business marked the beginning of Sundaram Industries.

Ethical business

The reputation of TVS’ transport services was such that its punctuality became the gold standard for a nascent industry, as did Sundaram Iyengar’s ethical business practices and thoughtful employee welfare programmes.

Means and ends

Not surprisingly, when TVS opened its new headquarters in Madurai on Janmashtami day in 1953, C Rajagopalachari, the then Chief Minister of Madras State, Tamil Nadu Congress chief K Kamaraj, and Finance Minister C Subramaniam were in attendance.

Speaking of Sundaram Iyengar at the inauguration, CP Ramaswami, former Diwan of Travancore, said: “Industrialists might be divided into two categories — those who looked for dividends and looked upon industry as a means to an end, namely the accumulation of more money, and those who regarded industry as both the means and the end, ploughed capital back into the industry and made it a thing of real significance for the country at large. Sundaram Iyengar, I submit confidently, belongs to the latter category.”

Published on December 11, 2020

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