Xerxes Desai: passing of a Titan

Vinay Kamath Chennai | Updated on October 05, 2018

Xerxes Desai, former Managing Director, Titan Co. Ltd Photo: K. Murali Kumar   -  K_Murali Kumar

Xerxes Desai, who passed away in Bengaluru at the age of 79, will always be remembered as the man who brought fine-looking watches at reasonable prices to an Indian audience starved of substance and style.

Titan Watches, of which he was the founder and first managing director, was first conceived in the mid-1970s, when he was the MD of Tata Press, a struggling company of the Tata group.

With many serendipitous twists and turns along the way, Titan was born ten years later, in a tie-up with the Tamil Nadu Industrial Development Corporation. As Desai himself said in an earlier interview, “Titan is often cited as a remarkable example of corporate success, featuring even in management school case studies, but few know that we stumbled upon the opportunity to make watches almost accidentally and that it was after a long journey that we finally got the venture started.”

Once Titan launched its watches, its television advertising resonating with the notes of Mozart’s 25{+t}{+h} symphony, it took the Indian market by storm. To use Mozart was an inspirational move by Suresh Mullick, the creative director of Titan’s long-standing ad agency, O&M.

It appealed to Desai, Oxford-educated and a member of the elite Tata Administrative Service, who honed his strong sense of aesthetics building hotels for the Taj group.

In an interview to this writer, long after he retired, Desai said, chortling, “I don’t know if Mozart will turn in his grave or get up and applaud at the kind of things we’ve done to his symphony, using different instruments.”

But, to the strands of this symphony, Titan heralded a revolution in quartz watches, putting to shade HMT’s mechanical watches, which were virtually rationed in the 1970s and 1980s. Setting up its factory in Hosur and corporate office in Bangalore, Titan also raided HMT for technical talent. “We aimed to raid HMT and we did it. It turned out good for us and for them. HMT was grossly overstaffed,” he said in an interview to me in 1989.

Titan soon dominated the Indian market for watches and Desai, ahead of his time, wanted to take the ‘Made in India’ label abroad. Titan launched its brand across half-a-dozen European countries as well as the UK in the early 1990s, which proved to be disastrous and was a drag on Titan’s profits for years. The European business closed down in the early 2000s and Titan took a while to write off the losses. Desai would always be regretful that he couldn’t establish the Titan brand in Europe.

Likewise, the foray into Tanishq, now a successful jewellery business, struggled for years and, at one time Bombay House, the Tata group’s HQ, considered closing it down. But Desai was convinced it would succeed and stayed the course. He retired from Titan in 2002, when it was just beginning to turn around.

Bhaskar Bhat, Titan’s MD, and the company’s first employee hired in 1983, says the DNA engendered by Desai of aesthetics and refinement, humanity, quality and big-thinking runs deep.

“He was a humanitarian to a fault and an exceptionally great leader,” he says. Desai will be cremated on Thursday, June 30, in Hosur, a region which he played no small role in transforming into a precision engineering hub.

Published on June 27, 2016

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