How many businessmen will think of building an auditorium, not to make money, but to primarily conduct programmes of their choice and to derive great joy in throwing it open to friends and well-wishers as well? This always preceded or followed by delicious South Indian tiffin. Food for the stomach and food for the soul! Doing it month after month for the last twelve years, that businessman who is considered some kind of a crusader in the music and heritage circle of Chennai is R T Chari and the auditorium he has built is the TAG center, situated on TTK Road in the heart of Chennai.
I met Chari, at his office room in TAG center one evening to hear his success story and to find out the secret behind his evolution into a successful businessman and a human being with a magnanimous heart.
Chari is a philanthropist who has been sharing his wealth and his passion with the society, long before Corporate Social Responsibility became a buzz word in the corporate world! Listening to him I was so carried away by his story telling abilities that often I would forget to take notes. Though I have known Chari for the last 36 years, I was so fascinated by his life story that my respect for this unusual man has gone up manifold.
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Chari was born into a typical middle class Iyengar family at Kesava Perumal Street in the heart of Mylapore, as the fifth child and fourth son in a family of nine children. His father, with his limited means could only assure his children three square meals a day and decent education. While he was the favourite of his grand father, his grand mother was more fond of his other brighter brothers. Sometimes she would join her brothers in tease him about his inadequacies arising out of his being mildly dyslexic as a student.
Chari says, “It was this constant comparison between me and my brothers that sowed the seeds of an angry young man in me. I was determined to prove to the world what I am capable of.”
Fortunately, the family moved to Tambaram which turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Chari. He terms it his first break in life. While at Mylapore he studied in P.S.Secondary High School; at Tambaram he was enrolled into Corley High School run by Christian missionaries. The headmaster of the school discovered that not only was Chari a good student but the tall young man was also good in sports. Constantly encouraged by the Headmaster, Chari became a popular sportsman in the school winning several prizes in high jump. He also became captain of the school volleyball team and was dabbling in other sports as well. It is in this school that Chari realized that he was good in Maths and also in Science subjects.
“My success in sports and the recognition I got because of it changed the attitude of my family towards me. My family members stopped teasing me. I was now even more determined to prove to my family that I was different from others”, Chari recounts.
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Chari`s second break in life came when he had to join a college for further studies. He had got very good marks in his Intermediate Exam while studying in Jain College and so applied for admission to College of Engineering, Guindy, with a lot of hope. But, he was crestfallen when he found that his name did not appear in the first list of successful candidates announced by the college. He became more frustrated when he found out that he was not considered in the first list probably because of caste considerations and a prejudice against students from Jain College and not because he did not have enough marks.
Chari recalls with immense gratitude, the timely help provided by R. A. Gopalaswamy, Chief Secretary of Tamilnadu at that time, a distant relative who intervened to ensure that justice was done and Chari got his rightful place in the portals of this reputed college at Guindy.
While in College he continued to show interest in Sports and also fared well in his examinations. After successfully completing his degree in Engineering, when Chari was looking for a decent job with a good salary, fate again intervened to decide the future course of his life. He calls it the third break in his life.
While he could have got a job in a reputed company with a starting salary of Rs.700 per month like his other class mates, his paternal uncle R.Narasimhachari, a famous Company law Consultant then , had a different plan. Narasimhachari was very close to Shri. S. Vishwanathan, Director of the Seshasayee Group and had persuaded him to take Chari into his fold and mould him into a successful manager. His uncle was very confident that Chari would do far better under Vishwanathan than anywhere else. When Chari protested because the job came with a starting salary of only Rs 150 per month, his uncle told him; “Fortune sometimes comes in the form of a devil. If not accepted it goes away as an angel”. Chari decided to accept the advice of a genuine well-wisher and joined Seshasayee Group as an Apprentice Engineer in 1961. Rest, as they say is history!
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In Seshasayee, Chari found a wonderful boss and a great mentor in H.K Ramaswamy, the Technical Director of the company. Impressed by his sharp intellect and hard work (Chari often put in 20 hours of work a day), Ramaswamy took a great liking for the young man and encouraged him to excel himself in every way possible, providing him with all kinds of incentives, which were not offered to others more eligible in the company
Later on he would , along with another director V.K.Seshasayee, even help Chari with funds from his personal account to make up for a short fall of money required to purchase a three bed room flat in Poes Garden.
“He was a great leader who groomed me to become a successful man in life, I owe a lot to him”, Chari says.
Chari’s reputation as an engineer who was also a super salesman brought him quick recognition in the company. He was known to accept impossible challenges and make them possible. He was promoted as a Commercial Manager in 1968, as Technical Commercial Manager in 1970 and Chief Technical Commercial Manager in 1972.
When the management found out that Chari, though eligible, was not yet married because he dreaded the thought of establishing a family in the small town of Vadalur, in Neyveli District where his office was located, they decided to help him by shifting base. Chari was moved to the new Sales office of the group in Chennai when it was established in 1969.
Chari was married to Rangi, a multitalented girl from Bangalore, chosen by his parents, in 1971. The couple moved to their own flat at Satyanarayana Apartments in Poes Garden. Within two weeks of his starting his married life, fate again intervened to change the course of his life.
Through a force of circumstances Chari was selected to attend a ‘Foundry Exhibition’ in West Germany followed by a 30 day trip to Europe to explore a possible collaboration for his company, to make the hardware for Insulators used in Electric Transmission Systems. During his trip Chari managed to strike a deal with an Italian company, a leading maker of this particular product and was delighted at his success in his very first attempt. However, on his return to India, he found to his dismay that the Management, because of some politics at the high level, had decided to drop the idea of their expansion plans.
Not one to accept defeat, when Chari requested the management to allow him to try his luck with the new project, thanks to the tremendous goodwill he enjoyed with the top people in the Company, they agreed. The management was so good to him that they also allowed him to continue as a Commercial Manager with the company until he proved himself in his business. Chari could have his cake and eat it too! This turned out to be the ultimate break in his life
Along with his brother Gopal who had also come out successfully as an Engineer from the College of Engineering, Guindy, Chari launched his own company TAG Corporation with its factory located in Chrompet. The word TAG, is an acronym using the first letters of Thiruvenkatachari and Gopal, his youngest brother who has been a pillar of strength to Chari in all his business and other social causes for the last 40 years.
Around the time Chari started his business, the Electricity Boards in the country were planning to move from 220KV to 440 KV systems and looking for companies which could provide them with the hardware (which at that point had to be imported), required for the changeover. UP state Electricity Board was the first to decide on the new system. TAG managed to get a small order worth Rs.6 lakh which was only 10% of the total order. But the quality of the items manufactured by TAG was so high that the UP State Board soon placed another order worth Rs.32 lakhs. Chari also recalls with gratitude, names of the two Engineers of the Board: J C Gupta and Matha Prasad who were instrumental in TAG getting the order purely based on merit. He did not have to `look after` anybody in the Board to get his order. He says, “In early years I was extremely lucky to get good orders purely based on merit. No other considerations came in the way of the bureauocrats deciding in my favour”.
The next big thing to happen at TAG Corporation was when it developed an import substitute item for 4R Dampers, with half the weight and price of the imported item. Chari had got a sample order for 5000 pieces from MP Electricity Board worth Rs.40 lakh on which he made very good profit. Chari once again recalls the name of T K Srinivasan, Chairman of MP Electricity Board back then, who was instrumental in TAG getting the order, purely on merit and competitiveness. Soon a big order worth Rs.30 Crores followed, making Chari the uncrowned king in the manufacture of 4R Dampers, a very crucial item required by all Electricity Boards. By now he had also cut his umbilical cord with Seshasayee group.
Being a visionary Chari also set up a first of its kind full-scale outdoor test line to assess the performance of spacer dampers in India. The type of testing facility Chari started in India for Dampers is even today, considered the second best in the world.
Chari started seeing big money and instead of just hoarding the money, he decided at the young age of 40, to share his prosperity with society. From being a successful businessman, Chari was on the road to becoming a generous philanthropist. A philanthropist who did not believe in just cheque book charity
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When I asked Chari, which was the first act of charity he performed, he recalled the advice he had received from one Mr.R P Iyer , the then Chairman of Killicks group,who had once told him “When you are doing well, first take care of your near and dear ones before you look beyond to do social service. If every successful businessman does this, the country will take care of itself”.
He had also been irked by the fact that a number of his close relatives who were doing well had not come to his father`s rescue when he desperately needed help. He decided to put the record straight. He was also inspired by the helpful nature of his eldest brother towards the family. So, for Chari, ‘charity began at home”. He decided to persuade, cajole and if necessary help every one of his siblings to acquire a house of their own.
At this stage Chari also realized the immense joy he was getting by the act of giving and sharing. He added, “I wonder why many successful businessmen cling to their riches and do not share it with deserving people. There is so much satisfaction and happiness in giving”
Beyond the family the first act of charity he performed was donating Rs.10,000/- to Corley High School, where he studied, to be given to the best sports person of the school. Next he decided to support Dr. C V Krishnaswamy, the well-known Diabetologist in the establishment of Ramabhadran Juvenile Diabetes Research Centre at VHS hospital. In the early years he had also donated Rs.3.5 lakh to the Cancer Institute Adyar for purchase of X-Ray equipment. Child Trust Hospital and SMS School in Chrompet were also the recipients of Chari’s munificence. Last year Ramu Endowments, the charity arm of his group helped set up the ambitious TAG –VHS Diabetic Research Centre, another dream project of Dr.CVK, at the VHS hospital.
While Chari was continuing with his generosity, an incident in his personal life completely changed him as a
mpletely changed him as a person and the direction of his philanthropic activities.
( Edited version of this article appeared in Madras Musings. The second part appeared in the next issue )