The Contrarian Mr Khattar | Business Standard News

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The former Maruti boss took delight in chiding you for not thinking deeply enough. If he came up with a contrarian thought he’d first seek your views on the subject, only to prove how wrong you were

File photo of Jagdish Khattar (Photo: Bloomeberg)

Maruti’s initial public offering had everything going against it. It came in 2003, at a time when the Sensex had fallen to 3,300, more than 30 per cent below the highs of three years ago. The company’s historic financial loss of 2000-01 was still fresh in memory. The needle between the two primary shareholders, the Government of Ondia and Japan’s Suzuki, was still sharp, though neither had broken the tenuous truce reached a few years ago. Maruti’s sales had been declining for three years. Incredible as it would seem now, the ‘expert’ view was that big cars were the future for India.

Jagdish Khattar, the managing director of Maruti, took it upon himself to take the bears by the scruffs of their necks. He coerced analysts into visiting Maruti’s factory in Gurgaon to help them think out of their books and charts. For many of them, it was their first visit to a car factory. Maruti’s shining shop floors, modern technologies, and knowledgeable managers presented a picture starkly different from the image of a stolid company the analysts carried.

At roadshows, Khattar began with asking a rhetorical question, “Why am I here?”. Maruti was not selling its shares, the government was, and the proceeds would go into the government’s coffers, not into the company to spur its growth. Suzuki was underwriting the issue. So, he need not have woken at five in the morning to join a teleconference. He was there, Khattar said, because India’s growth story would turn sour if the IPO failed. That story was teeming with small cars, which were going to dominate the car industry in the years to come, given India’s contexts of income, usage, and mindset. Instead of numbers, Khattar talked about the India story. Everywhere he went, he carried a picture of a family of four on a scooter enviously eyeing another family in a Maruti 800. To add to Khattar’s picture, disinvestment minister Arun Shourie and Suzuki’s big boss O Suzuki attended roadshows and made significant promises. Gradually, the tide of intangibles turned and the IPO became a resounding success.

Heads of car companies are known by the models they launch. Khattar launched several. Most notably, the Swift and its sister, Dzire, remade Maruti into their own image as modern, peppy, and cheery little cars. But Khattar would have been the first to say that he did not deserve all the credit for his cars. A lot of the product development was driven by the Suzuki people.

But Khattar, first as the head of marketing and later as the Managing Director, fought bigger battles than those in the market. He withstood a withering labour strike, which had strong political elements, and won. He created a nationwide footprint for Maruti’s sale and marketing network in 2006, delegating power to regional offices, in anticipation of a growth wave which was to come later. When the government and Suzuki fought aprolonged court battle for control, with Khattar’s appointment as MD being the eye of the storm, he conducted himself in a way so impeccable that eventually he found acceptance with both the stakeholders.

That was remarkable for a man with no background in corporate management. He was a 1965-batch IAS officer who was one of the first to move into the corporate sector and rise to the top. In this, he would be second only to R C Bhargava, who brought Khattar into Maruti.

For a big match player, Khattar could be a handful to deal with on a day-to-day basis. He could be finicky and fussy. Conversations with him would be interspersed with pauses so long that you would wonder if the session had ended. But when he spoke, it was great fun. Nobody could connect with people across cultures and age groups like he did, without being patronising. He really listened.

But not at all times. One of his favourites things was to chide you for not thinking deeply enough. If he came up with a contrarian thought – which he often did — he liked to first ask you your views on the subject, only to prove how wrong you were.

For instance, on a day like today, when he has moved on to another world, Khattar would have liked to ask: “What do you think happens after death?”

As you began to mumble an answer seeped in the traditional beliefs about the Great Beyond, he would stop you in your tracks. “I expected better from you,” he would say, in the mildest of rebukes, and go on to explain life after death.

His theory would sound contrarian, a term he was fond of. But, as he explained it, it would appear to be so obviously true you would soon be kicking yourself for not coming up with it yourself.

This imaginary conversation would ring true to the people who knew him, liked him, and admired him. And they are a legion.

Suveen is a writer who co-authored Driven, Jagdish Khattar’s memoirs, published by Penguin in 2013

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