A difficult but important decision!

Philip John

The visit of Guy Routledge from the UK and Dipak Roy from Calcutta was more than a “coming to inspect the men out east” visit – which was the term used when overseas Directors visited plantations or factories during the days of the Raj!  Dipak Roy was new at the helm in Calcutta and Satyanath was beginning to preside over an expanding kingdom in South India. Guy Routledge’s long years of experience as head of J. Thomas & Co, needed to be tapped.

As I had written elsewhere, filling the No.2 slot in Cochin was more like a game of revolving chairs. Since the starting of the Branch in 1964, John Jacques, Prafull Goradia, Richard Warren, Govind Jauhar, and Vijay Dudeja had come and gone – in six years! This was frustrating for Satyanath, and also for the head office in Calcutta. The middle level manager is pivotal to a company’s operations. He has the experience and knows the trade to build strong relationships with clients. At the same time it is unsettling for the client to have his ‘personal’ broker change frequently.

At 25 I was not old enough to assume a more senior role. Satyanath was in his 40’s, and was on the lookout for a permanent No.2 who would not leave after a couple of years and destabilise his efforts. He wanted to build a strong South India cadre.

Meanwhile across the aisle, at Carritt Moran major changes were afoot. Dick Luff, who had built their Cochin branch abruptly left in 1969. He took up the headship of a large tea broking company in Chittagong, Bangladesh. Before his departure the pecking order at Carritts was Dick Luff, John Paulet, and T.K. Madhav.

Carritt Moran tapped Dev Mukerji, who had left James Finlay, for the South India job. He and Daphne became the new occupants of the iconic Harbour House, the residence of the Burra Sahib of Carritt Moran in Cochin. I imagine Madhav would have been disappointed by the turn of events, he was Dick Luff’s blue eyed boy; they shared a passion for cricket. He would have hoped to take over when the big man left, but that was not to be.

Satyanath smelt an opportunity and sent feelers to Madhav to consider a change. He was relieved to get Yes for an answer. Looking back it was a brilliant move as Madhav proved to be a great asset to JT. He was a very likeable guy, a cricketer at Ranji Trophy level, good looking, and with a quiet sense of humour, but I think his best attribute was that he was not prone to bad mouth anyone – a rare quality in business! His 7 years in Carritt Moran had also established him as a competent Tea Broker in South India.

Anyway to cut a long story short, Madhav joined JT as No.2 in 1970. It put a few noses out of joint as it affected their ‘seniority’. This was the first time a Tea Broker had ‘pinched’ someone from a rival company. Over the years the cascading effect of this move caused the birth of rival tea broking companies.  Till then the main players were J. Thomas, Carritt Moran and, Forbes Ewart and Figgis in South India, and AW Figgis in Calcutta.

Satyanath’s sagacity paid off. When he retired in 1980 – he was able to hand over the South India operations of the company to a safe pair of hands. Thereafter, Madhav led JT Cochin for 18 years, retiring in 1998 as Deputy Chairman and Managing Director. I believe JT owes a debt of gratitude to him as his long innings was the centrepiece of the company’s success in South India following Satyanath’s pioneering effort. His level-headedness was best seen when Satyanath passed through a turbulent phase in his personal and corporate life.

TK Madhav (second from left), his wife Saroj, with TC Satyanath (far right) – Cochin 1966.
Madhav and Saroj with Vijay Swaminadhan and I

Looking back I remember a brief period of personal disappointment as I had only a year less in tea broking experience than Madhav, though I was a few years younger. In the corporate world we need visionaries and pioneers to break new ground but without the maintenance guys the business will flounder. Satyanath belonged to the former category but once the new territory was conquered and the army was back in the barracks he preferred to have someone else manage the day to day affairs. I was similarly wired and Satyanath probably knew that!

New Avenues
I had become quite the expert with Bought Leaf factories in the Nilgiris – a clientele that was growing for us. It was easier to win over these clients as they were proprietary concerns and decision making was a lot quicker. The larger corporate groups were conservative and preferred to ‘stick with the known devil’!  J. Thomas got major breakthroughs only when the process of Indianisation had begun – but we did not have to wait too long.

This was also a period when several factories were converting to CTC from Orthodox manufacture. Internal buyers, including Brooke Bond and Lipton, paid a premium for CTC since it extracted more cups per kilo of tea.

CTC manufacture was my forte and I put my hand to the plough and got busy with work. In November 1971 I was sent to Sri Lanka to assist the conversion of two factories to CTC manufacture. Unlike South India not many Sri Lanka factories converted to CTC because the country’s internal market was not significant. Moreover, Sri Lanka depended heavily on the export of tea for foreign exchange. The Tea portfolio was held by the senior-most minister in Sri Lanka, as opposed to a junior minister in India – we had bigger fish to fry!

Till the arrival of East African teas on the world stage, no one could compete with CTC tea from Assam. Likewise, Sri Lanka had pre-eminence in producing Orthodox tea. Darjeeling, of course, was in a separate category!

I called on Satyanath to report on my visit to Sri Lanka. I am not sure if he paid much attention to what I was saying, but as soon as I finished he said, “Good, but don’t unpack, you are to leave for Coonoor.”

My look begged an explanation, and he continued, “We have decided to open a branch in Coonoor, and you are going there to set it up!”

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