The amazing story of Sivaram

Philip John

I wonder whether you recall my comments about Sivaram who J.Thomas & Co.  had hired as their HOD of tea sampling operations. Sampling was a vital part of the Tea Broking – Auction process. I have alluded to it in my earlier blogs.

The Broker draws samples from each Lot of tea that is catalogued before it is offered for sale through auction a couple of weeks later. The Broker ‘guarantees’ that the sample represents the rest of the tea in that Lot – which may be 5 to 40 cases. They then distribute the sample to authorised Tea Auction Buyers as per a pre-determined quantity, which could be anything from one to four ounces per lot . This is drawn up annually, based on the amount of tea each buyer bought in the Auctions in the preceding last twelve months.

There would be some buyers who did not buy enough tea to become eligible to get samples. The Broker permits these buyers to inspect the samples in their office and often would give selected samples to them who in turn, would send the samples to their upcountry clients. The Broker’s job is to get as much interest for teas printed in their catalogue. These decisions are made by the head of the Sampling Department, who therefore wields a fair bit of influence with the buyers.

Sivaram was a junior clerk in the Sampling department of Carritt Moran, who was the second largest Broker in the country. When he got the offer from J. Thomas he would have done his homework and learned that JT was the largest Tea Broking company on the planet – and yet I don’t think this was the primary reason for making the shift. I believe it was the opportunity to head the department that attracted him to the job. If he continued with CM it would be years before he would get to an equivalent position.

Satyanath was pleased with his choice and gave Sivaram free rein, as well as, asked him to the principal interface with the Bazaar buyers. Fortunately for him the JT catalogue was small and he could learn on the job. Over time Sivaram became the darling of the Buyers.

One of his tasks was to sell teas that were withdrawn from the Auction due to low bids. These teas were printed in an Outlist, as I have explained in an earlier article. Over time Sivaram developed a method that became his specialty. In order to explain let me re-create a scenario.

Lot 11 has 15 cases of Red Dust (grade) with a total weight 600 kg, valued at Rs. 20 per kg. A 15 kg lot could be divided between 3 buyers.

The bid in the auction room was Rs. 14 while the auctioneer was asking for Rs.18 per kg. Not having received a bid of even Rs.17, he withdraws that Lot. The next day this tea would be listed for sale at Rs. 19 per kg on the Outlist. Sivaram would ring the Buyers and ask for bids. A Buyer would say that he wanted 5 cases at the selling price but he didn’t want all 15 cases. Sivaram would then look for interested buyers to take the balance 10 cases. Meantime, he would come to one of us (the tea tasters) and ask what could be the lowest expected price. I would normally take this call but if undecided, check with Govind Jauhar (GKJ) or Satyanath (TCS).

On occasion we would check with the Seller (producer), and then suggest Rs.16.50 as our rock bottom price. Sivaram would opine that the price may be unattainable because he expected the prices to fall in the weeks ahead.

Sivaram would then tell the buyer that the Seller was adamant on Rs.17.50 (50 paise lower than the asking price in the Auction the day before).

Since more than one buyer had shown interest, he would ask a buyer to make a bid of Rs. 17.50 on the assurance at he would sell the balance 10 cases to other buyers at the same price.

Having got an offer of Rs.17.50 Sivaram would confirm the sale of the tea at Rs. 17.00 – giving the tea to the buyers Rs. 0.50 lower than their offer. He would then give the impression of hard bargaining to get 50 paise more than the asking price by the Seller, who was prepared to sell the tea at Rs.16.50 in the first place! Sivaram had managed to please the buyers by getting the tea for them at a lower price than their offer and he would delight the producer by getting more than the price he was willing to sell!

This was a classic example of a win-win for both Seller and Buyer and in the bargain he had them both eating out of his hand!

Sivaram never lacked confidence and grew in stature. The bigger buyers such as Brooke Bond and Liption (who were later to be acquired by Unilever) saw his capabilities and were happy to deal with him. However, after a decade or more with J. Thomas, Sivaram realised that he would not break into the top tier of the company. That was hallowed ground, open to people from more affluent families, who had been to better schools and came with ‘connexions’.

In 1977, when I left J. Thomas to join Vijay Dudeja and Prafull Goradia at Contemporary Tea Company, I felt here was an opportunity that Sivaram would take – to rise to the top tier and become a Tea Taster and hopefully, a Tea Auctioneer in due course of time. Contemporary was starting operations in Cochin and I asked Sivaram to join me as my Assistant.

This one move shattered the glass ceiling in the Tea Broking business of choosing people for the highest tasks – tea tasting, tea auctioning, and interaction with producers – according to merit and capability instead of credentials attained by birth!

To his credit, Sivaram rose to the occasion, and the tea trade especially the buyers, welcomed this move immensely. Soon the new company got into its stride. I will visit this part of my life later but for now I would like to stay with the Sivaram story.

The first Sale that Contemporary participated in was a Dust Auction – the Trade had Leaf Auctions on Tuesdays, and Dust on Thursdays. Vijay Dudeja had come down from Calcutta for the grand opening. Some producers, and visitors from as far away as Calcutta and Assam, were in the Auction Room by our invitation.

I was to auction our first catalogue and Vijay joined me and Sivaram on the Auction podium. Before I sat down, I turned and handed over the Auctioneers gavel to Sivaram. He took it with both hands and offered our first Lot to thunderous applause. He never forgot that gesture! Being the inaugural catalogue, and with Sivaram selling the buyers paid prices well above our valuations.

Sivaram was to make one more move. I left Contemporary in 1982, Sivaram stayed a few more years and joined Vijay Dudeja and Rajit Ninan in a new tea broking company called Paramount, where he was made a Director. He would remain an important member of the Cochin Tea Trade for several years.

Sivaram passed away in 2019. He had retired a few years earlier and was keeping indifferent health but continued to stay in touch and call me occasionally. I was very sad when Rajit Ninan informed me of Sivaram’s passing. I recalled our association which had begun in 1964!
I was in Chennai at the time and was unable to attend his funeral, but Rajit was kind enough to place a wreath on my behalf.

Here was a man who fought odds to rise from the ranks by din of hard work, ambition, and self-confidence. He set a precedent for other companies to hire, or promote people on their merit and not the colour of their school tie!

4 Responses

  1. Great tribute to a great man who came up in life with pure grit, hard work and innate intelligence. I used to meet him regularly when he was with Paramount. I attribute part of the success of Paramount to him.

    1. The man had the pulse of the market. He also had a good equation with the buyers for USSR, who bought almost 70% of the Leaf catalogue at one stage.
      Sivaram’s story also depicts the passage of time – from a highly westernised scenario to a more nationalistic one.

  2. Remarkable story. I still remember my dad telling me how smart sivaraman was. Too bad that promotion was inhibited by social origins. Look forward to more stuff about JT legends (Ramanathan the telephone operator/bodybuilder comes to mind.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *