As a veteran long-distance runner, hitting the road for dozens of kilometres is par for the course for C.K. Venkataraman. In November last year, though, he attempted something unusual: an astounding 71km that took almost a full day, a tribute to his brother, who had died of covid-19 earlier in the year.
As Venkataraman and I catch up for breakfast at the Four Seasons Hotel in Mumbai, the 61-year-old managing director of Titan Co., which runs one of the country’s largest gold jewellery retailers, is looking fit. Business, he tells me, remained largely stable through the pandemic years. The company rode out the storm, transforming its sales model, going digital.
Today business is looking up once again. Titan, which operates over 1,000 stores across categories such as watches, eyewear and jewellery, and brands like Zoya, CaratLane, Mia and Tanishq, has seen turnover grow in the last year, with sales for the year ended March 2021 at ₹20,602 crore, compared to ₹20,009 crore and ₹19,069 crore in 2020 and 2019, respectively.
Its net profit rose 91.24%, to ₹1,004 crore in the quarter ended December 2021, against ₹525 crore during the quarter ended December 2020. Sales rose 36.73%, to ₹9,903 crore in the quarter ended December 2021, against ₹7,243 crore during the quarter ended December 2020.
Venkataraman, who has been with the firm since he completed his Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Ahmedabad, degree in 1985, takes the longer view, believing his job is to look at the medium term (one year) and long term (two years and more). “Our business plan is what we are responsible for and that is what we should be focusing on.”
The daily ups and downs, like the 2.69% dip in company stock on the day we are meeting, do not worry him. “The stock price is not something a CEO should be looking at every day and be distracted by,” he says. “Short-term changes in stock prices can happen as a result of asset-class perceptions and FII (foreign institutional investor) inflows/exits. If a CEO is distracted by these and changes priorities to fix these, then the strategic direction gets compromised, and so is the ability to control the creation of sustained shareholder value.”
The strategy, clearly, is working. Titan has the second largest market cap, at around $30 billion (around ₹2.3 trillion), in the Tata group. “Sustained creation of value for the company, such as competitive advantage, growth prospects, profitability, cash flows will determine its market capitalisation,” Venkataraman explains, between bites of poha and sips of coffee.
This MD, then, keeps his eye on the ball. Venkataraman, who has always maintained that “good times or bad times, people always buy gold as a safe haven”, knows that the war in Ukraine and the resulting turmoil and uncertainty will work in favour of gold. Demand rose during the pandemic too, particularly since people with cash in hand couldn’t spend on travel and hospitality. But he also understands that rising oil prices will impact the company’s net expenditure.
Perhaps most importantly, he knows the company inside out. After all, he has spent his entire working life there. Venkataraman, whose grandfather was a well-known lawyer and father an HR professional, rose through the ranks at Titan, going on to become marketing manager, head of Titan SBU (strategic business unit) and then chief operating officer of jewellery in 2005. In 2012, he was designated CEO. In 2019, he moved into the managing director’s office after Titan’s long-time boss, Bhaskar Bhat, retired.
He has never regretted staying on with the company. There’s much to love about it, he says: the freedom to experiment and fail, the informal environment, the absence of ego, the sense of humour, the strong sense of duty to multiple stakeholders, the high ethical standard. “It is those qualities that I have imbibed from Titan and contributed to strengthening as well, I guess,” he says. “Almost as far as I can remember now, I have felt that I have had the best job in the world,” he adds.
Over the decades, Venkataraman has seen his share of highs and lows in business. The years from 2005-19 were about the highs, he says, “because we were constantly doing new things and growing in multiple directions (scale, excellence, product innovation, customer experience, stakeholder delight)”.
This despite the fact that the period from 2013-16 was one of significant challenge, for regulatory changes complicated operations and put pressure on sales. Import duties for gold bullion were raised at regular intervals during this phase, increasing ultimately from 1% to 10% and eroding margins. “But even that period was not a ‘low’ period as we all knew it was an external intervention beyond our control and just put our collective thinking behind the problems and dealt with them.”
The pandemic years forced more change, at a quicker pace than they may have anticipated. Historically, the jewellery trade has been a bricks-and-mortar one, driven by personalised relationships between managers and clients. Over the last couple of years, it has seen online sales grow strong with direct-to-customer brands—online brands like CaratLane. Titan chose to focus on customer acquisition, enabling a faster recovery post-lockdowns. “What helped Titan immensely was its deep knowledge (digitally amplified today) of its 20 million-plus customers and the close relationship its 15,000-plus retail staff have with millions among those people,” Venkataraman says.
Titan has worked hard on the digital front over the last year and a half. “Video-assisted selling has been a huge thing for us, for example. We have thousands of staff in our stores who personally know hundreds of thousands of customers. There is a solid, ongoing relationship. The salesperson sets up a video call at the request of a customer and showcases a dozen necklaces and then the customer finally chooses one. She may still come to the store to make the actual purchase but it would take far less time.”
Apparently, this worked well for families who were overseas and shopping for jewellery in India. “No one buys before researching any more,” says Venkataraman. Titan actually hit a high of ₹100 crore in sales for the month of July 2020; it’s usually much lower, is all they are willing to say for comparison.
For him, jewellery, unlike coins or bars, isn’t mere investment. “It’s a store of value. The primary reason for buying jewellery is cultural, emotional, event-led, all that, but it has got a store of value.”
His enthusiasm for the company, and his work, is unmissable. “Titan has always represented a family to me. I have literally grown up with hundreds and hundreds of employees and partners over three decades and spent more time with all of them collectively than with my own family. It’s a very special feeling and almost impossible to describe in a few words,” he adds.
It’s a tightly knit family in more ways than one, extending deeper into the countryside than one may realise. One of the beautiful things about Titan, he says, is the partners (franchise operators) it has across the country, in small towns one may not even have heard of. “Like Ambikapur (Chhattisgarh), which I visited three, four months back. I went there and discovered that near Ambikapur, in winter, it goes down to zero degrees.”
Over the last three decades and more, Venkataraman has been to the homes of many of their partners, cherishing the fabulous memories of great conversations and wonderful home-cooked meals.
That is actually Venkataraman, happiest with the simpler everyday choices in life, driving the same car for over a decade, to the point where some colleagues are teasing him that he should upgrade to something more appropriate. His favourite drink remains Old Monk rum, “my beverage of choice from college”, he says with a smile.
He loves spending time with family—his wife, two daughters, both lawyers, extended family—meeting as frequently as possible, vacationing together, and listening to music. This boy from Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu—where he was born and studied for a bachelor’s in maths, and where his family comes from—would karaoke to classic Hindi songs, even recording and sharing these with friends and colleagues. I sent him a Willie Nelson classic, Pancho And Lefty. Venkataraman tells me he actually researched the song, discovering it was written by Townes Van Zandt in the 1970s. “I am still learning to switch from genre to genre. An English song requires a totally different effort from a (Mohammed) Rafi’s. Not just the accent, but the style and the expressions.”
If you think a corporate honcho like him would be investment-savvy, you would be mistaken. “I don’t, actually,” he says, when I ask how he invests his money. So what does he do then— just spend it all? “Yes, I do spend it but it’s just that I am a fixed deposit guy…. I have been very bored with the whole idea of investing.”
Given his age, I cannot help but ask about his retirement plans. His target is to visit 200 small towns for business by the time he retires, he says. Then he plans to travel with his wife to a host of small towns, by car and by train—singing, of course. “I am my own audience,” says Venkataraman. “So I can keep listening to my voice for hours without getting bored!”
Pavan Lall is a Mumbai-based business journalist and author of Yes Man: The Untold Story Of Rana Kapoor.