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He made ITC not all puff and smoke…

Y C Deveshwar (YCD) was associated with ITC for 51 years. Of these, he headed the company for 23 years. He helped it emerge as a flourishing conglomerate engaged in financial services, edible oils, hotels, paper boards, real estate, a range of FMCG and lifestyle retailing businesses.

The declining fortunes of the tobacco business, which used to contribute in the earlier decades to the strident growth of the company, was more than made good by this diversification. Look at the robust growth of ITC’s hotels business (17.5 per cent in revenue and 27.1 per cent in profits), a 19 per cent growth in the paper boards, paper and packaging segments in which ITC is the leader and trading opportunities in wheat, coffee, oil seeds and spices that spurted the revenue of agri-business in 2018-19.

I witnessed the foray of ITC into hotels in the early 1970s. ITC jump-started the diversification by acquiring a hotel property under construction at Cathedral Road, Chennai, spent impressive amounts on modifying and reconstructing the work in progress and inaugurated Hotel Chola Sheraton as its first-star hotel in India in a short time. Maurya in Delhi and Mughal in Agra followed later.

This IIT and Harvard Business School product actively participated in the several meetings of CII which he later headed as President. Over two decades ago, in an interview at Hotel Chola for IE, YCD talked with a great passion for the e-chaupal initiative that helped villages benefit from the IT revolution. 2000 computer stores had been set up to provide access to information, products, and services in 35,000 communities; an estimated 40 lakh farmers were helped to benefit from information technology. Valuable details relating to weather, agronomical practices, market info on prices, etc were provided.

Post-liberalisation ITC availed of opportunities that unfolded for expansion in several directions, notably paper boards and packaging, hotels, and agri-products. The earlier foray it made in agri-business was constrained by lack of protection to contracts. The company sold off this part of the business to American ConAgra. Post-liberalisation, YCD re-entered agriculture and consumer products businesses with a bang. Look at the flourish of the ITC brands: Aashirvaad, Sunfeast, Bingo, Yippee, and Classmate notebooks.

Even while the liberalization era was opening up opportunities, YCD also had to steer the company out of charges of FERA and excise duty manipulations. The rapport earned by him through CII endeared him to policymakers. In 1991 he was invited to head Air-India as chairman. Over the next three years, he improved the airline’s operations substantially.

In the first decades post-independence, multinationals like Hindlever and ITC were the nurseries for grooming the executives in management. While dozens of these headed several flourishing divisions of ITC with distinction, the company was also a supplier of such abundant talent for other companies

YCD, the longest serving chairman, who breathed his last on 11 May, was a legend in his lifetime.

He batted for railway security and cricket

In March 2012 IE presented the business excellence award to four southern corporates in different sectors – Coromandel International, City Union Bank, Opto Circuits (India), Shriram Transport Finance Company Ltd. Former Governor of Tamil Nadu P S Ramamohan Rao, IPS (Retd) presided over the function. Rao was a former Director General of Police, Andhra Pradesh.

Another senior police officer, a batchmate of Rao, S Ganesan, was active at the meeting. Ganesan is well-known in the social circuit of Chennai. A former chairman of the Railway Recruitment Board, Chennai, he was also a former chairman of Tamil Nadu Cricket Association. In his demise on 24 May, Chennai will miss one of its familiar faces.

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