It was not just with ITC, Deveshwar did wonders with Air India between 1991 and 1994 when he left the company as chairman and managing director.
A pall of gloom has enveloped the ITC headquarters in balmy Kolkata, the air filled with sadness. The company’s chairman, YC Deveshwar, fondly called the Little John of Corporate India for his strapping figure, love for great conversations and well-cooked food, has walked into heaven. He will not return.
Deveshwar loved powerful messages and strong decisions because he wanted people to know of him, and his company, and events surrounding ITC, a company he joined in 1968, around the time when the Beatles had chartered a private aircraft to fly into Rishikesh to spend some time at Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram. It was Deveshwar’s first job, he was a fresher from IIT, Delhi.
ITC has always been in news. Deveshwar was in the thick of things when in March 1995, UK-based global tobacco major British American Tobacco (BAT) shocked the Indian corporate world and expressed lack of confidence in K L Chugh, the chairman of its Indian subsidiary, the Indian cigarette industry leader ITC. BAT wanted to increase its stake in a company once known as Imperial Tobacco Company, and the London major hated ITC's diversification into power generation business.
The ITC-BAT relationship had been strained for long, though the move shocked ITC. BAT even said it had detected certain financial irregularities in the company. BAT wanted Chugh’s head but Chugh called a presser and said he would not resign. “Just because one of the shareholders throws a tantrum does not mean the chairman goes,” Chugh was quoted then, he reiterated his stand that BAT was trying to increase its stake and added that BAT only wanted to use ITC's funds for its own benefits. It was a full fledged corporate war, skeletons were tumbling out.
Eventually, BAT backtracked and ITC won the battle, thanks to some brilliant, professionally managed communications from Dilip Cherian of Perfect Relations. Cherian turned the battled into India vs the West, almost like the return of East India Company to the shores of Bengal. Cherian’s rival, Good Relations of London, was gasping for breath. A top Kolkata daily wrote in a banner headline, It is not enough to be good, you got to be perfect.
The battle was won, Deveshwar told Cherian that ITC won the battle against BAT only because its management was full of strong Indians. “Communication helped, content was indigenous.” For him, the Indian in ITC’s “I” was very important.
Lahore-born Deveshwar was a true nationalist. He was a man of style, mostly wore striped shirts and black suits. He always sent strong messages for the masses, so did his company. The Wills (Navy Cut) Made For Each Other campaign is now 45 years old, was launched in 1965 showing young couple sharing a laugh reading a Polish joke book. The campaign was a perfect match for a good smoke, timeless. The iconic print and outdoor campaign came down in 2004 when the government wielded the Cigarettes and other Tobacco Products (Prohibition of Advertisement and Regulation of Trade and Commerce, Production, Supply and Distribution) Act, 2003, to protect public health by pushing restrictions on advertising and banning sponsorships. By then, the 1996 Wills World Cup had taken place.
Faced with mounting attacks on tobacco the world over, ITC - under Deveshwar - started in 1990-2000s, diversifying into readymade apparel, matchsticks, stationery and packaged food such as biscuits. Deveshwar, who was already in the hotel business with the Sheraton brand, wanted to dissociate the brand from the cigarettes business so that the apparel retail venture, Wills Lifestyle, could be promoted without any charge of surrogate advertising. Eventually, Wills was dropped from Navy Cut. By 2004, ITC relied on point-of-sale promotions. The advertising agencies were shocked, Kolkata died as an ad hub, because the ITC cigarette advertising pie was now Rs 150 crore from Rs 360 crore.
ITC's history dates back to 1905, when BAT set up the Peninsular Tobacco Company (Peninsular) in India. PTC was involved in cigarette manufacturing, tobacco procurement and processing. And then, it set up a full-fledged sales organization named the Imperial Tobacco Company of India Limited in 1910. To meet growing demand, BAT set up another cigarette manufacturing unit in Bangalore in 1912. Another company, Indian Leaf Tobacco Company (ILTC) was incorporated in July 1912, to handle the raw material (tobacco leaf) requirements. The quality of tobacco from Bihar was not good, ILTC shifted its focus to South India, leading to the establishment of the South India Leaf Area (SILA) in Andhra Pradesh.
Deveshwar was appointed on the board of ITC in 1984 and became the company’s CEO and chairman in 1996, a position he held till 2017, becoming India’s longest serving chairman. He was Padma Bhushan, India’s third-highest civilian honour, in 2011.
It was not just with ITC, Deveshwar did wonders with Air India between 1991 and 1994 when he left the company as chairman and managing director. Deveshwar was appointed by then civil aviation minister Madhavrao Scindia, succeeding Subhash Gupte who held officiating charge at that time. Deveshwar knew he lacked core airline business experience but was conversant with the hospitality business as ITC ran a successful chain of luxury hotels. He knew what the passenger wants and brought a host of good management practices.
Air India made rupees one crore profit a day under his leadership. In 1993, it was the sixth most profitable airline in the world. And lets not forget the profit was achieved despite two adverse factors. Inbound tourist arrivals fell 10 per cent between December 1992-March 1993 following the demolition of Babri Masjid. And then there was a two month long flight engineer association strike which had impacted flights. The profit achievement in the early 1990s is in sharp contrast to the airline's current state of affairs
Deveshwar’s death once again highlights the growing need for visionary leaders in scam-fraught corporate India.