Zen and the art of being the emperor of a jewellery business in India. The man from Thrissur in Kerala has set the gold standard for transparency in the industry
V Shoba | 24 Dec, 2014
Zen and the art of being the emperor of a jewellery business in India. The man from Thrissur in Kerala has set the gold standard for transparency in the industry
On mornings when a helicopter whirs above Punkunnam in the town of Thrissur, Kerala, residents of this old neighbourhood tend to mutter a prayer under their breath without so much as looking up. The chopper ratcheting overhead in a circle around the Sitarama temple belongs to their illustrious neighbour, billionaire jeweller TS Kalyanaraman, who never leaves town without first seeking the blessings of his family deity, albeit from hundreds of feet above. When the whirling noise stops, they know he is well on his way to Kochi, where his private jet waits in a hangar, ready to fly him to any one of his 77 stores spread across India and West Asia. Perhaps it will be a tour of the new showrooms in Andhra Pradesh today or an inauguration elsewhere, the people of Punkunnam speculate among themselves, revelling in the imagined thrill of a Kalyan Jewellery store launch, a dizzying affair with Aishwarya Rai or the local superstar in attendance.
But even amidst the snap of ribbons and the click of cameras —or the flash of all that gold for that matter—Kalyanaraman has the serene air of someone who isn’t overly wrapped up in his celebrity. The chairman and managing director of one of India’s largest jewellery empires is not a man in a hurry. In fact, he is two hours late to our meeting at the Kalyan Jewellers corporate office in his hometown of Thrissur. And when he does emerge, swinging a glass door, wearing a dark suit and an inscrutable smile, it is his younger son Ramesh Kalyanaraman who does much of the talking. Ahead of the simultaneous launch of five Kalyan showrooms in Kerala—in Attingal, Alappuzha, Adoor, Thodupuzha and Angamaly—Kalyanaraman senior is a picture of calm. “I consider business a pleasure. I don’t let it become a pressure,” he says, in a rare witticism.
With sagely equanimity, Kalyanaraman, 67, has scripted a dazzling, decades-long saga that, in the hands of a lesser auteur, could have easily lost its plot. It all started with a man’s simple desire to bequeath to his children the thread of entrepreneurship that had run in the family for three generations. In the early 1940s, TR Ramachandra Iyer, a Tamil Brahmin from Thanjavur, relocated to Thrissur to set up the district’s first spinning and weaving mill. Sitaram Mills, located down the road from Kalyan Jewellers’ present office, was later acquired by the state government, but Iyer’s son and Kalyanaraman’s father, TR Seetharama Iyer, would go on to open several textiles stores in town, one for each of his five children. In 1993, Kalyanaraman set out to do the same. “My elder son (Rajesh) was about to turn 18, and I thought I should open a store for him. People suggested that I should graduate from silks to jewellery, and so I did,” he says, disarmingly honest about his incidental foray into gold. “The next store, in Palakkad, was set up for Ramesh, though my wife wanted him to come home to Thrissur every evening. Later, when we had opened a few more stores, we decided to work from an office not far from home.”
Since the launch of its first 4,000-sq ft store in Thrissur, Kalyan Jewellers steadily climbed the slippery slopes of the trade to outdazzle much of the competition and close the last financial year with a turnover of Rs 9,400 crore. In October 2014, it raised Rs 1,200 crore from the private equity firm Warburg Pincus to fund its dreams of expanding to “every Asian city where there is a market for gold”. “We are a slow player. We could have afforded to take leaps, but we are not here to play the new kind of cricket match where you hit all your runs in the first 15 overs,” says Ramesh, 36, his eyes glinting like the Rolex watches he is fond of wearing.
Boisterous and self-assured, Ramesh handles Marketing and Human Resources, while his brother, a man of few words, is in charge of Finance and Purchases. “My younger son is good at spending,” jokes Kalyanaraman. “Rajesh is more conservative. By God’s grace, they grew into their roles.” Ramesh is quick to repartee: “My role is to light the wick. It is up to Rajesh to patiently tend the fire,” he says, switching to Tamil with a soft Malayalee lilt. All business decisions are balancing acts between their personalities, with the great equaliser in their midst. Months ago, when the brothers were losing sleep over diluting a small stake in the business to raise funds, it was Kalyanaraman who soberly likened it to marrying off a beloved sister and welcoming another member into the family. “Opting for private equity instead of jumping into an IPO was sensible, like writing a model test before the final exam,” he explains. “We have at least two years to prepare for this final.”
In an industry that plays into bourgeois India’s affectation for gold, Kalyanaraman is that rare Zen master who has slowly but surely led his disciples to greater heights. Sometimes this has meant imposing absurd commandments on them: to start the day with an hour-and-a-half of physical training while he eases into a halasana, to wind up work by 8 pm without taking any of it home, and to “never take shortcuts”. Ethics, family values and a granular understanding of the market have been embedded in Rajesh and Ramesh, both executive directors of the company, like the 916 seal on an authentic piece of jewellery. “The average Indian buys gold twice in a year, spending a big chunk of his earnings on it. Father taught us the importance of selling him what he needs instead of what we need to sell. We are also against the idea of selling a product at Rs 9 to one customer and at Rs 11 to another; both should pay Rs 10. This is why we never offer discounts,” Ramesh says.
When people who have known Kalyanaraman all his life defer to his simplicity and wisdom, you can scarcely fault his son for lapsing into hagiography. “Everything he touched turned to gold,” says Kalyanaraman’s cousin and neighbour in Thrissur TS Balasubramanian, a professor of mathematics. “I still remember the day Kalyan’s first jewellery shop opened. It was 8 April 1993. I was anxious and unsure if it would do well in a town where there were already many well-established family jewellers like Alukkas,” he says. “But before you knew it, Kalyan had opened stores all over India, as if in the blink of an eye.”
That is not how Kalyanaraman tells it. Those were times when the customer was still naïve and most jewellery was made to order. It would be seven more years before the practice of hallmarking came into effect. Kalyan began to stock a wide selection of quality ornaments in capacious stores where salesmen talked about the importance of verifying the purity of gold instead of the normal practice of haggling with customers. For the first time in Kerala, there were detailed rate tags on gold ornaments that clearly spelt out the making charges involved. Other jewellers gritted their teeth against the sabotage of an industry built on their shenanigans. “There was a lot of resistance from those who weren’t transparent in their dealings. I was clear about one thing: that we would never compromise our ethics. Eventually, the other jewellers had to change their ways,” Kalyanaraman says. Ramesh is more emphatic. “It was as if the salesmen’s mouths had been clamped shut and taped. The message was clear: the rate tag and not the salesman will decide the making charge,” he says. “In many ways, Kalyan was like the Aam Aadmi Party fighting against cheating.” It is not an analogy I expect to hear, after spying a photograph of Kalyanaraman and his sons with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The perceptive visitor to the Kalyan corporate office—a modern building furnished with plush leather couches and solid wood tables—is likely to be dismayed at its bare, impersonal walls. There is no family portrait or art to be found here, only a couple of dubious abstracts by nameless artists. If at all they convey something, it is the brand’s wilful detachment from its traditional roots. “The interior decorators picked them,” says Rajesh Kalyanaraman, 39. “We had several statues of Rama and photographs on display earlier, but we realised it was better to maintain a corporate atmosphere.” In an effort to appeal to pan-Indian sensibilities, Kalyan switched out its old logo—a Kerala elephant inscribed in a ‘K’—a few years ago for a slick gold leaf. More recently, the ambiguous provenance of the name Kalyan worked well for the brand when it opened stores in Punjab and Mumbai. “We have always tried to stock as many designs as possible, but we are not trying to change people’s tastes. The jewellery that people in Tamil Nadu wear is entirely different from what Delhi wants, for instance. We try to be as local as possible, sourcing designs from a large network of artisans (Kalyan has 1,800 contract manufacturers working for it). But we want to be seen as a global brand,” Ramesh says. Hence the Armani suits and the Louis Vuitton belts, even if, at the end of the day, Kalyanaraman may change into a breezy mundu and shirt to hop into a Jaguar XJ waiting outside his office. “When we travel abroad, we shop for the best clothes and buy at least two watches a year—not for the luxury [of it], but to dress like our contemporaries in the business. There is a degree of confidence that comes from being well-dressed,” says Ramesh, quite obviously the designated shopper in the family.
Women in Kerala derive confidence from owning and wearing gold, says Jacob John Kattakayam, a sociologist and a professor at the University of Kerala in Thiruvananthapuram. “They consider it a personal asset, something that cannot be taken away from them. Gold is the easiest way to empowerment in a consumerist state,” he says. With a roaring appetite for about 800 tonnes a year, India is the world’s second-largest consumer of gold, after China. Indian households spend 8 per cent of their family budgets on gold, according to a recent report by FICCI and the World Gold Council. They hold a reserve of about a trillion dollars—almost half of India’s GDP—in gold, locked away in banks and swathed in innocuous cloth pouches. “I won’t pretend that it is our rainy-day fund,” says Alisha B Thomas, 32, a housewife from Kozhikode whose parents gave her 750 gm of gold when she got married eight years ago. “Gold is about status. It is an ancient indulgence, and we hold on to it because we don’t know what else to spend on.” Every region has its trusted jewellers, she says, but increasingly, the paradigm is shifting in favour of big retail. “When it comes to gold, Keralites will throw caution to the wind and put all their eggs in one basket,” Thomas says. So whose basket will it be? Certainly not the small-time jeweller’s, says B Govindan, chairman, Bhima Jewellers, another leading chain with stores in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. “Kerala is an intensely competitive market. With a high VAT of 5 per cent, it is next to impossible for players from other parts of the country to set up business in the state,” he says. This is gold’s own country, where the adornments on a bride can tip the scales anywhere between 250 gm and 1.5 kg. “In the lean months, old gold is constantly being exchanged for newer designs. The margins, however, are extremely low,” Govindan says. Even as jewellers who rely on volumes are in a constant race to whittle down making charges to 5-7 per cent, small players—and 95 per cent of the 5,000-6,000 jewellers in the state are small, holding just about a kilo of gold—increasingly find their margins melting away. “Only big fish can thrive here,” Govindan says.
The waters get even more viscous in Thrissur, a wellspring of Kerala culture that nurtured eminent home-grown businesses like those of the Alukkas, the Catholic Syrian Bank, the Muthoot Group and the South Indian Bank. When Kalyanaraman crashed the billionaires’ club riding a meteorite of gold, the world around him paused to take note, but he says he didn’t stop to count his wealth. “The fame and the money haven’t changed him,” says B Anandanarayan, the Thrissur zilla secretary of the Kerala Brahmana Sabha of which Kalyanaraman is a member. “The family has donated a golden chariot and a dwajasthambam (flagpole) to the Sitarama temple. They organise a classical music festival here every year, inviting top artistes like Shankar Mahadevan, but they don’t talk about any of this,” he says. Anandanarayan attended the same college as Kalyanaraman—the Sree Kerala Varma College in Thrissur— and the two spent their evenings swimming in the temple pond and talking endlessly. Odd bits of memoir surface when I talk to people who have known Kalyanaraman for decades. They called him Peter May, after the lanky English batsman. “Ramani, as he is known to friends and family, had style and played well. We gathered at the temple grounds and there were matches played between the married and unmarried camps, the employed and the unemployed,” says Balasubramanian. “He was a jolly man who cracked jokes, he still is among friends. But more than that, it is his humility that wins hearts. He never says ‘my shops’; it is always ‘our shop’, ‘our home’, ‘our temple’.” A story goes that when Kalyanaraman heard a distant relative lived not far from the new Kalyan store in Thodupuzha, he said, “Good, then lunch is settled.” The man who stays and dines at the Four Seasons on his visits abroad is equally at ease sitting cross-legged on the floor and singing along to bhajans. He doesn’t tolerate loose talk at the workplace but has been known to recommend yoga and relaxation techniques to his salesmen. He resolutely refuses to multitask, but does not shy away from technology: in fact, he is setting up an online store with a select catalogue of sophisticated lightweight pieces. In many ways, Kalyanaraman is a study in contrasts.
Family is everything to him. It is the muse that inspires and the gravity that tugs at his heels. It is why his store launches are like wedding soirees with all the relatives gathered around— his sons and daughter-in-law, a daughter and her husband, five grandchildren and several brothers, nephews and cousins. Every day, the most important meal, a vegetarian brunch, is had together at the Kalyan residence at 10.30 am. “I have always maintained that a proprietor must give one per cent more importance to the business than to his family,” Kalyanaraman says. “The family has made a lot of sacrifices in terms of the time we spend away from them.” The father-son trio spends at least 50 hours a month travelling, visiting each store once in five months, enlisting manufacturers and constantly adding infrastructure. “We are planning to set up another manufacturing facility in addition to the existing ones—two in Thrissur and one in Hosur. It will be a big unit, located either in Gujarat or Hosur, and it will help bring down costs,” he says.
The first signpost that marked Kalyan’s transition to a big brand was the rather bold move, in 1995, to an office space, says Rajesh. “At a time when customers wanted to personally receive the jewellery from no one but the proprietor, we were faced with a problem: the proprietor could not be at all the stores at the same time.” But a brand could be omnipresent. The jeweller now employs 8,000—there are 120-130 people behind every store—and some of them, including Rajesh and Ramesh, were personally groomed by Kalyanaraman. “As children, we would be treated to masala dosa if we went to the shop with our father. Growing up, we were trained to be good salesmen first and businessmen later,” Rajesh says. He has memories of customers hesitating to hand over large sums of money to him because he was so young. “People don’t realise this is a service industry. Father always said, ‘Anticipate what the customer will ask for.’ At our stores, we slowly began to understand the customer: we knew, for instance, that a man would hesitate to tell us his budget was only Rs 10,000 in his wife’s presence,” Ramesh says. Kalyan also has a network of 650 mini-stores or relationship centres that engage at a personal level with potential customers in smaller towns largely untouched by the gold rush.
The Kalyanaramans hit their next crossroad when the time came for them to buy a helicopter. “We had to convince ourselves that it wasn’t a luxury. We calculated that we could save at least seven workdays a month if we had a chopper and a jet of our own,” says Ramesh. “You have to understand that in a small town like ours, a helicopter will raise eyebrows.” The family is apologetic about a Rs 40-crore chopper but owns three Rolls-Royce Phantoms (with extended wheel bases, each costing Rs 9 crore) and maintains for the company a fleet of about 150 cars. Kalyanaraman is urging his sons to move out of the old joint family residence in Punkannam to their palatial Rs 75 crore villas in Sobha City, a complex on the fringes of Thrissur that also hoata their helipad and a new office. With handpicked furniture from around the world and state- of-the-art security, the three houses—one each for the father and the sons—are some of the most opulent residences in town, perched alongside those of the Lulu Group’s Yusuff Ali and Sobha Developers’ PNC Menon. “We are sentimental about leaving the old house that has proved lucky for us, but father insists that we need the space,” says Ramesh. “He believes we will make our own luck wherever we go.”
The brothers are devout Hindus who recite the Gayatri mantra and frequent the Sitarama temple built by their great-grandfather—perhaps the only place where they don’t mind being shirtless and clad in a mundu. “They rarely socialise. They aren’t to be seen around town except at the temple, where they come dressed simply, like regular Brahmin boys,” says R Vijaya Kumar, a former insurance executive and a neighbour of the family. The constriction of life in a small town where everyone knows the family occasionally gets to them. “We would rather watch a movie in a Kochi multiplex,” Ramesh says. “And we enjoy our vacations abroad.”
Kalyanaraman hasn’t lived this life of celebrity. He is at once the forbearing patriarch and the exacting businessman. “When we were young, he would tell us, ‘You may go wherever you want; I have given you a lot of leeway, but remember that the rope is always with me’,” Ramesh says. Decades later, Kalyanaraman’s pithy wisdom would find an echo in the brand’s ‘Trust is Everything’ campaign. In the first of many commercials, a girl, all set to elope with her boyfriend, has a change of heart and returns home to her father. “We wanted to send out the message that even if our customers are attracted to other brands, they will eventually come back. That is the power of trust,” Ramesh says. “We have 16 lakh members registered under our loyalty programme, and they contribute to about 90 per cent of total sales.”
Kalyan’s choice of ambassadors and syncopated style of advertising have been hotly debated. The brand dispensed with the trope of the shimmering nymph draped in gold and burnished subtler—too subtle, some argued—themes of relationships and trust. When I ask Ramesh why Kalyan seems to favour male ambassadors, excepting Aishwarya Rai and Malayalam star Manju Warrier—could it be that buying jewellery is considered a man’s decision after all?—he denies this is the case. “It is because the stardom of actresses in the south does not last more than three years,” he says. Timeless appeal is key to a brand that represents lasting and important values, but there is something else, an undercurrent that unites many stories into the epic of Kalyan. Several of the brand’s ambassadors—Prabhu Ganesan in Tamil Nadu, Shivrajkumar in Karnataka, Nagarjuna in Telugu cinema—are sons of legends, and their shared legacy of greatness is the heartbeat that runs through Kalyan’s campaigns. “No one knows Rajesh or me by our first names alone,” says Ramesh. “Everyone knows Kalyan.”
Kalyan is a name that keeps turning up in Thrissur like corks bobbing in a restless sea. Splashed in stylised golden font across hoardings that dwarf narrow streets, the syllables seem somehow removed from the more prosaic businesses associated with them: the textile brands owned by Kalyanaraman’s brothers and his own new venture, a real estate development firm headed by his son-in-law. On the way back to the hotel, I ask my auto driver, Satish Babu, about Kalyan and he nods vigorously. “Years ago, Sami attended the wedding of a friend of mine who had worked for him for almost a decade,” he says. “He told me what a generous and kind employer he was.” Kalyanaraman wouldn’t care for Babu’s secondhand impression of him. A thorough professional, he would hand him a magnifying glass instead and challenge him to find the BIS hallmark of kindness on his person.