The bustling temple town of Thrissur in Kerala was in the news recently as it was ranked the wealthiest among the small towns of India with ₹40,000 crore touted as the combined wealth of the rich (net worth over ₹1,000 crore) according to IIFL Wealth Hurun India Rich list.
We were here to meet one of India’s richest jewellers TS Kalyanaraman — the founder of Kalyan Jewellers, whose net worth is over a billion dollars. It’s hard to imagine that a brand founded just 30 years ago with a single store in Thrissur today has revenues of ₹14,071 crore (FY23) and 194 outlets across India and West Asia, and we wanted to find out the alchemy behind Kalyan’s glittering growth. We, along with businessline Editor Raghuvir Srinivasan, are invited for breakfast at his son Ramesh Kalyanaraman’s residence.
It’s a lavishly appointed villa, oozing with all the trappings of luxury but the Kalayanarams themselves wear their wealth lightly. They are simple, down to earth and warm in their manner. Within minutes they put you at ease, slipping into the characteristic Tamil with a Malayalam accent of Kerala’s TamBrahms. “Our ancestors migrated many moons ago from Tamil Nadu to Kerala,” says Ramesh, describing how he is a fourth-generation entrepreneur. “My forefather was part of a textile mill by the name of Seetharaman mill — he did not own it but managed it. Even now my office is in Seetharaman mill lane,” he says. It was Ramesh’s grandfather who started the first textile retail store called Kalyanaraman Textiles. “He had five sons and two daughters. My father was the eldest son and from a young age — barely 12 — he would spend time at the shop,” says Ramesh.
When his father turned 21 years old, his grandfather made him sit independently in a textile store. “Grandfather had a view that every son should have an independent store. So, he put up five textile stores for five sons. Everybody independently grew their own store. These are today’s Kalyan Silks and Kalyan Sarees.”
The first step
But there came a time when TS Kalyanaraman was tempted to branch into jewellery. “It was at the urging of his customers with whom he had built a deeply personal relationship,” says Ramesh. People would come to buy sarees for the wedding of their children and tell Kalyanaraman to start jewellery too so that they could shop at one destination. So he decided to diversify. The first Kalyan Jewellers store was set up in a sprawling 4,000 sq ft area, opened in 1993 with a capital of ₹1 crore. He put in ₹25 lakh from his savings and took a loan for ₹75 lakh.
It was radically different from other jewellery stores in Thrissur. For, at that time, most gold jewellery retailers would take an order and then custom-make the jewellery. “But my father was thinking about it exactly like the textile business. He wanted to sell ready-to-buy stuff for which a larger display area was needed and also a car parking,“ says Ramesh.
“Some of my customers actually delayed the wedding of their children for over two months so that they could buy from my store,” says Kalyanaraman, taking up the tale and describing how humbled he felt. “When God is with us and customers are with us, there is no risk at all,” he adds.
How Kalyan struck gold in jewellery retail
This is also partly the reason that Kalyanaraman is fiercely consumer-focussed. He describes how he tells his employees to never push a sale to a customer. “We don’t want customers to buy what you want. We want them to buy what they want,” he tells his staff. “If you push a product, they may go home and not like it and this will reflect on the brand,” explains Ramesh, who says his father constantly tells employees that it’s the customer who is paying their salaries. “If the customer spends ₹10,000, then our profit is ₹100 and from that ₹10 is paying your salary.”
Back to the story of how they expanded from that one store to this vast chain — Ramesh describes how his father followed exactly the same precept as his grandfather. “When we completed our studies, he also decided to give both sons — me and elder brother Rajesh — one store each to manage.” Ramesh was asked to set up a store in Palakkad while Rajesh opened another in Thrissur.
The Palakkad store actually opened their eyes to the way consumer behaviour is different in different places — even in a town just two hours away. “We opened a replica of our Thrissur store in Palakkad — same 4,000 sq ft and exactly same products.” But after two years, the store and retailing approach had to be revamped. “In Thrissur culture, there is no bargaining. You don’t bow your heads too much. But in other places, especially Tamil Nadu, you have to give discounts,” says Ramesh.
The timing of the Palakkad store was rather propitious as at that time Coimbatore was in some turmoil after a bomb blast. “The Palakkad people used to go to Coimbatore to shop for gold and we providentially opened at a time when they were wary of visiting the Tamil Nadu town,” says Ramesh.
The learnings from the Palakkad store — to follow a localised retail and product strategy — were applied in other places where Kalyan expanded. At first the expansion was into neighbouring southern states, with Gujarat being the first geography outside the South that they ventured into. This was in 2012. For this, a high decibel marketing campaign with Amitabh Bachchan was launched (and till date the Kalyanaramans have an enduring relationship with the star).
“We are the only hyperlocal national brand in India,” says Ramesh, describing how a Gujarati thinks Kalyan is a local brand, a Maharashtrian thinks the same and so does a North Indian.
Ramesh also describes how Tanishq, the only other big national jewellery brand, serves a completely different audience set. “We are more traditional — wedding jewellery is 50 per cent of our business,” he says. To attract the younger crowd, he says, Kalyan’s designs are now getting lighter and trendier. “Candere (the e-commerce brand that Kalyan acquired in 2018) is there to bring that cool proposition,” he says.
Food, Family values and love for movies
By now we are invited to move into the dining hall for a sit-down breakfast, served in gleaming silver plates lined with banana leaf. The array of food has us reeling. There is soft-as-flower idli, appam, stew, melt-in-the mouth masala dosas, fruit salad, poha and filter coffee. Each item is beyond delicious and for a while there is silence as we savour the meal, prepared by the staff who Ramesh says has been trained by his mother and wife. He discloses that the only time his mother ever scolded him was when he was brusque with the domestic staff. “Amma is very strict about speaking softly to staff,” he says.
Both sons have absorbed a lot of values from their father, especially humility, and maintaining old relationships, and like him, they too started at a young age at the stores. “For us, the store was more interesting than the playfield, and we spent all our free time there,” says Ramesh, even though both went on to finish their studies, with Rajesh even acquiring an MBA.
The Kalyanaramans, who live in three adjacent villas, are a very disciplined family, waking early, spending time in prayers. They don’t partake a breakfast, instead having a heavy brunch in the morning and leaving for office only at 11 am. At office they have a light tiffin and returning home around 5.30 pm to have an early dinner.
All are musically inclined and have learnt classical music as well. “My father loves movies and has even produced one – fortunately, it flopped so that distraction did not last,” says Ramesh with a laugh. The movie Ashtapadi was produced by Kalyanaraman back in 1983. Every Sunday the close-knit family gets together to indulge Kalyanaraman’s love for films, watching one together. Since they have a very large extended family in and around Thrissur, a lot of time is taken up socialising with relatives as well.
Marketing has played a big part in Kalyan’s journey, with a star-studded line of brand ambassadors endorsing the brand. Apart from Big B, the brand has used a galaxy of regional stars in keeping with the hyperlocal strategy. “People ask us that you have such a good brand now, then why do you spend so much on marketing — to which I reply, it’s the same reason why a teacher teaches the same thing year after year. The content is same, but the student is different. Similarly, the audience keeps moving, newer customers come in, and we have to keep on educating through advertisements,” says Ramesh.
According to Ramesh, Kalyan spent 3 to 4 per cent of its revenues in marketing from 2013 to 2018. “We would have spent ₹2,500 crore for marketing over a period of five years. That was an investment for the brand. Now only 1 to 2 per cent we spend,” he says.
Once Kalyan had got a pan-India presence and also opened in West Asia, the brand felt it was time to list in the market. “Since 2013, a lot of investment bankers were approaching us advising us to go for an IPO. But we said no then as we were in the middle of expansions. If you list, then your journey becomes quarter to quarter and you lose out on your actual journey,” he says. In any case Warburg Pincus had taken a stake in Kalyan, investing ₹1,200 crore in 2014 and another ₹500 crore in April 2017, which after Kalyan listed in March 2021, it has slowly begun divesting.
Of course, expansions continue to happen, “We just opened a store in Jhansi,” points out Ramesh. Almost every week, two or three showrooms are coming up. In the next 60 days, we will have 60 new stores, he says. Interestingly in the South most of the stores are own stores, with franchisee model followed only in the north. Though the first franchise store will be opened in the South soon.
Now a professional CEO – Sanjay Raghuraman sees the day-to-day affairs at Kalyan. “If you ask me who runs the show, at the macro level, it’s the professionals, at micro level, it’s the 100-120 people who have been part of the company from the beginning,” says Ramesh. At this point Kalyanaraman describes how every weekend, he has meetings with the two sons, and gets a lowdown on what’s happening. His words on the business carry their weight in gold, says Ramesh.
The god-fearing and pious family has made significant additions to the pantheon of temples that dot Thrissur. Their Seetharama Swamy Temple is dedicated to Lord Rama and Seetha and the main sanctorum has two separate idols in standing position — both consecrated on the same pedestal. They urge us to visit the temple and when we did, we find it is a blend of Kerala and Tamil Nadu architectural styles. A towering Hanuman statue outside the temple with laser shows in the evening has become a public attraction in Thrissur now.
The banter between father and son is amusing, spelling the close bond. But the last word is always father’s says Ramesh, ruefully. “We try and needle our father saying that he just started the store and we are the ones who helped expand it,” says Ramesh, adding how at once they are put in their place firmly by their dad saying it’s the one who casts the boat into the water who does all the hard work, floating the boat is easy.” Well, this boat is cruising on a golden wave.