Coimbatore – On a new course

LN Revathy | Updated on January 24, 2018

Gathering speed The Kari Motor Speedway in Coimbatore is one of the popular destinations for racers. The city is home to India's top racing drivers such as Narain Karthikeyan and Karun Chandhok MPERIASAMY

Changing face Despite a recent slowdown, the city's real estate sector is altering the topography. S SIVA SARAVANAN

Senior camaraderie At Soundaryam and Santhosham Comfort and Retirement Home. Coimbatore's pleasant weather has made it a retirement destination K ANANTHAN

Stitching entrepreneurship The city is an incubator for many aspiring entrepreneurs, including Vimala. The founder of Harsa Embroidery caters to the rich clientele S SIVA SARAVANAN

Young and happening The day no longer ends at 8.30pm in Coimbatore and weekends see youngsters hit the dance floor K ANANTHAN

The second-largest city in Tamil Nadu is transforming and is no longer defined by its textile legacy, writes LN Revathy

Sundarajan had wanted a peaceful retired life and decided on Chennai as his retirement home. But after a decade in the southern metro, the former Government employee was beginning to feel lonely. A widower, Sundarajan’s children were settled overseas. And now Chennai’s humid weather and increasing pollution were beginning to test him. That is when someone mentioned Coimbatore.

The 78-year-old moved to Tamil Nadu’s second-largest city in February 2014. “Climate here is wonderful, the city is peaceful, the crime rate is not scary and I am happy here,” says Sundararajan. He lives in a senior citizen’s home and has friends and relatives — who have settled in a similar community here — to socialise with. “The healthcare facilities are also good,” he adds. It also matters that Coimbatore is well-linked by air, with international flights to Singapore and Sharjah where his son and daughter are settled.

Sundarajan is among the many who, though not originally from here, now call Coimbatore their home. The city at present has 14 different retirement community projects, either operating or in the pipeline, overtaking Pune as the country’s “retirement destination.” And it is not just the retirees who are flocking to Coimbatore. Professionals in their mid-50s, and connected to the city in one way or the other (they might have studied here, had a relative or even availed of local healthcare) are also looking to settle here.

To be sure, the city is not new to outsiders making it their home. Over a century ago Naidus and Gounders and recently Marwaris and Gujaratis have come and settled down here. Coimbatore was one of the earliest industrialised cities in the State, or even in India.

But now, becoming a preferred destination for retirees and seasoned professionals is just part of Coimbatore’s metamorphosis over the past decade. In separate contexts, Coimbatore is called a hub of education and healthcare, or an incubator of entrepreneurs and the motoring capital of India.

Consultants from real estate and retail industries include the city on their list of second-tier markets in India that companies should look out for. Once the capital of the historical region of Kongu Nadu, the city’s ambitions are no longer limited within its rich textile legacy that gave it the title ‘Manchester of South India’.

There have been subtle changes in lifestyle too. While classical art, dance and music concerts during the Margazhi season (from September to December) continue to be well-attended, online portals also list out the best pubs in the city and the most ‘happening’ discotheques to go to. It might take some more time for the city to lose its ‘conservative’ tag, but “life no longer comes to a standstill by 8.30 pm,” says Achal Sridharan, who came to Coimbatore in 1995 and set up a real estate business.

Changing topography

The growth in its real estate sector might be the most obvious part of a changing Coimbatore.

When Sridharan took an early retirement from the Army in 1995, he headed to the city, instead of his home state Kerala. He was determined to make his teenage dream of becoming an entrepreneur a reality and decided that Coimbatore was a better bet. The initial years were tough.

The retired colonel finally got his break when a plot of land was offered to him for development. It was 2004 and things were falling in place with the local real estate market starting to look good.

“I developed the land and built 48 villas for senior citizens. The idea was a huge success and there was no looking back. Thus was born Covai Senior Care Constructions,” says its Managing Director.

While Sridharan set up a successful business here, many have come back to stay, and also invest in the real estate sector. Ravindran Nagendran, completed engineering from the city’s PSG College of Technology.

Looking for better career opportunities – ‘I thought career growth would be limited if I stayed back’- Nagendran moved to Mumbai. Almost four decades later, and after stints across South East Asia, he came back to Coimbatore and booked a flat in an upcoming apartment in the posh Race Course neighbourhood.

He was dumbstruck by the skyrocketing property prices. “It’s unbelievable, but still makes sense investing here,” he says, having booked a flat for ₹3.5 crore. Nagendran, who currently lives in Hong Kong, plans to settle down in Coimbatore in four years once the flat is ready.

While Rajesh Lund, President, Confederation of Real Estate Developers Associations of India says that the real estate sector has been ‘slow’ for a year, it has benefited from the IT industry, the second largest in the state after Chennai, and the fast developing Coimbatore-Tirupur-Erode industrial corridor.

Looking at the opportunity, many of the textile mill owners pulled down old structures and have handed over the land to property developers. Local developers say that there is ‘huge demand’ for luxury flats that sell upwards of ₹2.5 crore. The Race Course area, which houses the city’s Collector, police chief and other administrative heads, now has new apartments dotting its neighbourhood. A ‘decent’ two-bedroom apartment costs not less than ₹80 lakh.

Building a legacy

Like the real estate sector, other local industries too have benefited from Coimbatore’s textile legacy.

Till the early part of the 20th century, Coimbatore was an insignificant town known more for its earthquakes and droughts. People feared coming to Coimbatore in those days. But things started to change after 1920, when the first textile unit was commissioned. Until the mid-1990s, life in the city functioned around the sirens of its mills. In the mornings, the siren of the morning shift would be the city’s wake-up call. In the evenings, as the workers spilled out of the gates after the siren went off, the rest of the city would also start winding up for the day. “Life was a luxury. After the eight-hour shift, we were relatively free. If we wanted an extra pie, we would work overtime and earn that bit. We were able to save most part of our earnings,” recalls Raja, an erstwhile mill worker.

But with the turn of the century, many of the big names — Lakshmi Mills, Pioneer Mills, Radhakrishna Mills — exited from business. A good number of them shut down when a recession (within the country and outside) pushed the textile industry in southern India into crisis. While many like Raja were rendered jobless, the more enterprising ones started out on their own.

Smaller and modern textile units have sprung up in and around the city. Thanks to the Government’s Technology Upgradation Fund Scheme, a new set of entrepreneurs have established themselves here. But from textile and textile machinery manufacturing, the city now excels in automotive components. Automotive giants such as Maruti Suzuki, Hyundai and Tata Motors source up to 30 per cent or even more of their automotive components from here.

While the real estate sector benefited when the huge land bank of the mills were sold, Coimbatore’s education field mushroomed, thanks to a largesse, or as other say, because of the competition among textile businessmen.

An education hub…

The story goes that some of the schools in Coimbatore were founded by industry captains for their children to study. The businessmen didn’t want their children to go to a school run by another textile entrepreneur. This ‘prestige’ issue between the textile businessmen resulted in schools and colleges mushrooming all over the city.

Coimbatore is currently home to seven universities, three medical colleges, about 80 engineering colleges, 150 arts and science colleges and 25 to 30 polytechnic institutes. A few of the famous names include PSG College of Technology, Coimbatore College of Technology and Sri Krishna Institutions that get students from all over the country.

The textile groups did not stop with promoting educational institutions, but diversified into healthcare as well. Coimbatore is a healthcare destination, with hundreds of multi-speciality hospitals. One of the oldest ones is the Arya Vaidya Pharmacy, which continues to attract patients from 52 countries. Newer hospitals are known to offer cutting-edge, specialised treatment.

…an incubator of entrepreneurs

“If you come here with a suitcase and an idea, Coimbatoreans will conspire to make you succeed,” says Hemalatha Annamalai, Founder and CEO of Ampere Vehicles. After completing her degree in Computer Science from Government College of Technology here, Hemalatha went to pursue higher studies abroad, lived for close to 20 years in Singapore before returning to start a venture. Ampere designs and manufactures electric vehicles.

The city’s increasing prosperity has given birth to another set of entrepreneurs who are catering to the Coimbatoreans’ changing tastes and lifestyles. Vimala, founder of Harsa Pattu Lehangas and Naga Apparels, latched on to one such opportunity — making customised dresses for festive occasions, including weddings. Opulent weddings, unlike before, are becoming common in Coimbatore and Vimala dresses up the women in the latest fashion, with the blouses alone costing ₹10,000.

Vimala employs artisans from the North-East to do intricate design and hand embroidery. “They are experts. You only have to give them the dress material or saree, they will copy the design on the blouse material to match the saree print. As the wedding date nears, brides and youngsters queue up. It's exciting,” she says, and shows off some of the lehangas tailored for princely sums.

Rising popularity of grand weddings has turned the Codissia Trade Fair Complex into a marriage destination. The Complex, brain-child of Coimbatore’s small industries association is a hallmark of the city's business ecosystem.

Limca Book of Records has acknowledged it as the largest pillar-free hall. Of late though, industry chieftains, who earlier used to book the smaller Kalyana Mandapams for weddings in their families, now prefer one of the palatial halls in this trade fair complex.

Evolving lifestyle

While the richest among the elite may prefer to fly to the metros, or even abroad, to spend their weekends, the local milieu is fast changing.

Youngsters are losing their inhibitions, and come Saturdays, they can be seen crowding the pubs and discotheques in the four-star hotels. Online travel search engine includes two pubs — Bike and Barrel and Under World — in their list of ‘11 Things to do in Coimbatore’. Cycling and marathons have become common. Gyms and spas have mushroomed.

But not everyone agrees that the city’s people have changed. “We are still conservative in our outlook and habit. Those that come from outside party and their lifestyle seem to indicate that the city has transformed to a ‘modern’ township. It is not actually so, not yet,” says R Nandagopal, Director, PSG Institute of Management.

Still, when it comes to luxury cars, Coimbatore has become a competitive market with the top three brands — Audi, BMW and Mercedes — fighting it out. “It has been a good market for us. We have sold 670 cars in three years,” says CR Anandakrishnan, Managing Director, Jahnvi Motors Pvt Ltd, which runs the Audi showroom in the city. He claims that Audi has up to 38 per cent share of the local luxury car market.

Motoring town of India

The Coimbatore Golf Club’s 18-hole course has been a popular destination for the local rich.

There is also the 114-year-old Cosmopolitan Club with its lawn tennis and badminton courts, swimming pools and billiards rooms that have attracted the more sporting kind. But of late, it is the race track that have dominated the minds of the locals.

Here again, the men who mastered the textile industry were the ones who weaved new designs for the motor sports. Passion-driven men like the late Sundaram Karivardhan (after whom the local Formula 3 Category circuit is named) changed the image of motor sports. India’s biggest names in motor sports — Narain Karthikeyan, Karun Chandhok and Armaan Ebrahim — hail from the city.

And so do some of India's finest car tuners such as J Anand and Leelakrishnan. When Karivardhan died in a plane crash in 1995, B Vijayakumar, Chairman of L G Balakrishnan & Bros, one of the biggest auto spare parts manufacturer from the city, took over.

“We have a lot of veterans. This in fact prompted me to take to motorsport,” says Arjun Narendran, a national-level racing driver from the city.

Today, the city hosts many races such as the Scissors Action Rally, Asian Zone rallies and karting events. The latest addition have been the Off Road Adventure track, built on a 5.5 acre land on the Sulur Pirivu Road, and a specially designed track for racing radio-controlled cars.

Published on March 30, 2015

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