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How Titan built a community of fine watchmakers in a village

In the 1980s, there were few watchmakers in India. So Titan trained youth in rural Tamil Nadu, as this excerpt from a book of stories about the Tata Group narrates

Watchmakers at the Titan factory at Hosur.
Watchmakers at the Titan factory at Hosur. (Getty)

Xerxes Desai, founder of the Titan Company, is one of the most fascinating business leaders of our times. A graduate of New College, Oxford, where he had studied philosophy, politics and economics, he joined the Tata Administrative Service, the central management cadre of the Tata Group, in 1961….

Before he founded Titan in 1985, he had already worked with the Tata Group for over two decades, initially with the Taj Group of Hotels. Here, he had led the construction of the new tower of the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai. He had also spearheaded the development of the Taj Fort Aguada Resort in Goa, well before Goa had been discovered by the world at large. Thereafter, he had been deputed to CIDCO (City and Industrial Development Corporation of Maharashtra), where he had served as a project manager for the Vashi township. Post this stint, he had also served as managing director of Tata Press.

But it was in Titan that Xerxes Desai came into his own. He scripted the extraordinary launch of Titan watches, which took India by storm in 1987. This was a transformational event in Indian marketing history. With a dazzling range of new timekeeping designs which Indians had never experienced before, and the new technology that accompanied them, Titan soon established clear market leadership and won over the hearts and wrists of millions of Indians.

At the heart of this success were Xerxes Desai’s vision and courage. He decided to launch only quartz watches in a market that knew mechanical watches, because he believed that quartz was a superior technology for accurate timekeeping. Quartz watches contained fewer components which allowed them to be slimmer than the mechanical watches, and hence, they were far more suited to sleeker and more fashionable designs. Brushing naysayers aside, he did not launch a single mechanical watch. It was all quartz. Elegant, stylish and breath-taking.

He launched these watches with brilliant advertising, including the creation of a famous signature tune for Titan using Mozart’s 25th symphony—which he found uniquely uplifting and therefore a perfect fit for the beauty of the watches….

But at the heart of Xerxes Desai’s vision was the creation and elevation of an entire community. Perhaps he had in mind Jamsetji Tata’s clarion call for Jamshedpur, nearly a century ago, when he set about creating new factories to manufacture watches at Hosur in Tamil Nadu. Titan was a joint venture between the Tata Group and the Government of Tamil Nadu, and it had committed to generating employment in the state. But it faced a big challenge in finding hundreds of workers with the required skill sets for the complex segment of watch manufacturing.

What the company did then was… it went to schools in the smaller towns and villages of Tamil Nadu looking for young boys and girls who had passed the class ten exam and were over sixteen years of age. It met the principals of these schools and convinced them that a job in Titan would be good for their students. No one had heard of Titan but the fact that it was a Tata company perhaps helped. Since this was the first time many of these young people would be leaving their homes, Titan set up temporary houses where foster fathers and mothers would look after them. From towns such as Namakkal and Krishnagiri came hundreds of bright-eyed, eager youngsters, many from needy families, walking into a new Titan factory to manufacture and assemble wristwatches for the first time in their lives.

Titan provided these youngsters with the intensive training that was required. Over the next few years, it transformed them into skilled watchmakers. The company also created a factory campus and a township. Designed by the legendary architect Charles Correa and painstakingly landscaped by Xerxes Desai himself, these campuses at Hosur continue to be happy homes to thousands of Titanians. So many of them have now studied further, completing their graduate and postgraduate studies. They have pursued beautiful dreams for their families and built strong careers with the Titan company, which is their home.

Xerxes Desai retired from Titan in 2002. He continued his close association with the Titan School, which he had lovingly established for employees’ children, at Hosur. In fact, one of his last engagements, before his demise in June 2016, was an interaction at his beloved school. Titan, the company that he founded, has gone on to become one of the country’s best-known lifestyle companies, and also one of the most successful companies of the Tata Group—with great brands such as Tanishq, Fastrack, Sonata, Titan Eye Plus and Taneira.

I attended Xerxes Desai’s funeral, which was held in Hosur. Thousands of people moved in a long, slow line behind the hearse as it wound its way from the watch factory to the dusty funeral ground. On that hot afternoon, it appeared that more than half the town had turned out to say a fond, tearful goodbye to a man they admired and loved. After all, this was the community that he had helped create. Thousands of livelihoods, happy families and beautiful dreams—is there a better gift that a man could give the world?

Excerpted from #Tata Stories: 40 Timeless Tales to Inspire You by Harish Bhat, with permission from Penguin Random House India.

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