In the early 1960s TVS made its foray into the auto components sector. T S Srinivasan, the youngest son of founder T V Sundram Iyengar, acquired a large tract of land of 300 acres in Padi, a western suburb of Chennai to set up a series of manufacturing units. I was present at the formal inauguration of the auto component units–Wheels India, Brakes India… in quick succession from September 1962. The large land area and the quick success of the units paved the way for newer units. These provided rich opportunity for the scions of the TVS family, of the second, third and succeeding generations, to lead the sector. The expertise, experience and reputation earned by TVS facilitated tying up new collaborations with established multinationals. Sundaram Abex, set up in the late 1970s, was unique in starting with public participation. I was present at the public issue for a modest Rs.25 lakh for producing brake linings. The amount involved was small and was instantly over-subscribed.
In the press conference I pointed to the brake lining technology already well-established: “we had Hindustan Ferodo with British collaboration, Bremac Suri with German collaboration. What is new and special about Abex?”, I asked. I remember T S Srinivasan was not quite happy over the government forcing him to go public, to face such questions!
The management was entrusted to K Mahesh, youngest son of T S Krishna and an IIT-M graduate in Metallurgy. In line with the TVS practice, Mahesh was put on training at factories in the UK and India for around five years. He was mentored by T S Srinivasan.
The collaboration did not last long. I think it is an American trait. Remember Amoco quitting Madras Refineries? Or Chevron moving out of EID Parry? Or DuPont pulling out of Thapar DuPont? All after the hype and expectations aroused.
In 1995 Abex left the joint venture, the company became Sundraram Brake Linings Ltd (SBL). Mahesh built on the strong base laid and like his other neighbours in Padi, focused on total quality management and total productivity management. SBL emerged soon a major supplier to OEMs and also as a large exporter.
Mahesh worked on constant improvements to productivity. Once he took me around his plant and showed me the rearrangement of a dozen automated workstations to be manned by a single operator!
Mahesh suffered indifferent health and left management to his son Krishna in 2014, who joined SBL over a decade earlier.
Dr Bhamy Shenoy, our expert contributor on energy issues, was a classmate of Mahesh at the IIT-M and remembers him as friendly, unassuming and likable. “With the exception of a couple of my classmates, all were from middle class. But we never felt that Mahesh was from one of the leading business families. He was down to earth. As a student he developed a go-cart and I recall his driving that. Later in life whenever his classmates visited him, he used to narrate with passion his implementing the total quality concept in his factory. We were happy when he got the much coveted, Deming Award,” said Shenoy.