Behind the brand is a tight-knit family for
whom short-cuts hold no charm, customer
satisfaction means everything and dreaming big is just a way of life. By Surya Praphulla Kumar
I’ve been associated with them for a few years now and I really respect the transparency with which they do business. They are a family that keeps a low profile, but comes out with big, positive, innovative ideas. We are family friends now and they come home whenever they visit the city
— Prabhu, actor
t was 1993. TS Kalyanaraman had decided to take a risk and move away from the familiar—a textile shop in Thrissur, Kerala, that he had inherited from his father—and venture into unfamiliar territory, that of gold jewellery. But it was not a shot in the dark. The chairman and managing director of Kalyan Jewellers had a long-term plan: becoming the country’s leading gold brand. Everything he did—years of R&D, finding a gap to fill in the industry (bringing transparency into buying and selling gold),
opening 78 stores in 22 years and taking his baby from a small-town shop to a pan-Indian brand, —fit into that plan. So much so that it governs everything in their lives: he and his two sons—Rajesh Kalyanaraman, executive director purchases and finance, and Ramesh Kalyanaraman, executive director marketing and HR—don’t travel anywhere together. “We go in separate cars (all three own Rolls Royce Phantoms) and even stay on separate floors at hotels, so that if an accident happens, all three of us would not be involved. We have a responsibility towards our brand and the 25,000 families that are dependant on us,” explains Ramesh, 38, an M Com graduate from Calicut University. Their latest store, and the first outlet in Chennai, is one more cog in this grand scheme. At 40,000 sq ft, the outlet in T Nagar, which will officially open its doors on April 17, is said to be the largest jewellery shop in the world—displaying 600 kg of jewellery and showcasing more than five lakh designs. “For the last 10 years, no new big brand has come to the city. We are filling that gap with our size, location and brand strength,” says Rajesh, 40, explaining that the store has something for every segment. “A Gujarati or a Punjabi will not only find designs that speak to their culture and preferences, but will also find staff (among the 500 employees) who will speak their language,” adds the MBA graduate.
This year, the brand is pumping `800 crore into their expansion and plan to take their store count to 100, by entering new markets like Kolkata, Orissa and Qatar. An injection of funds from American private equity firm Warburg Pincus (which valued the company at $2 billion and picked up a minority stake in it, of around 10-12 per cent) has only boosted its growth. “It is the largest investment by a private equity firm in India’s jewellery sector,” says Kalyanaraman, 67, stressing that this reflects on the transparency of their work ethic. However, according to industry watchers, their growth spurt reflects their business savviness. “Every gold jewellery brand in South India might have had the opportunity and the money, but Kalyan played the right game. They had the wisdom to take their marketing and advertising and invest it in their brand. They reinforced their local presence and then created a national brand. Signing Amitabh Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai wasn’t just a master-stroke, but a forward-thinking decision,” says Prathap Suthan, managing partner at the Delhi-based ad agency Bang In The Middle.
Keeping up values
With an eye on the big picture, the family, whose ancestors hail from Kumbakonam, have taken every step carefully—from identifying their markets to reinforcing their ‘trustworthy’ image. “We are not here to hook one-time customers; we want life-time clients. So we ask our salesmen (who do not have sales targets to achieve every month) not to push a sale, but rather to educate people about design, purity, making charges, etc,” says Kalyanaraman. In fact, every month he and his sons randomly call up 10 customers each, to get feedback on buyer experience, quality and cost.
This, says S Prabhakar, a partner in the city-based ad agency India/2, is knowledgeable brand building. “Most retail-centric businesses don’t communicate why customers should come to them or how they make a difference in the market. But Kalyan almost instinctively zeroed in on the single biggest concern among customers of gold—that of trust—and found a way to build that as their platform.”
The brand game
The days ahead are rife with change. Especially with the family eyeing the South East Asian markets. Though Rajesh admits that Kalyan Jewellers is changing their portfolio to address changing aesthetics—like the demand for sleek, minimalist designs and the upsurge in demand for diamonds and platinum—he clarifies that they will not westernise their look because “our target audience is Indians and NRIs, even when we expand to countries like Malaysia and Singapore next year.” But that’s not to say global plans are not brewing. The Kalyanaramans are very aware of how creating and sustaining an image is key in today’s world—as reflected in their Armani suits, Audemars Piguet watches, Gucci shoes and Salvatore Ferragamo belts.
“The West has its big brands, like Cartier, but India has none. So we want to take our brand abroad—not as Kalyan Jewellers, but as a new brand that will have Indian aesthetics and global sensibilities. It will also diversify into other things, like clothing, eye-wear and watches. The research is ongoing and we are looking at implementing this around four years down the line,” says Ramesh. Laying the ground work for this new dream is their recent reworking of their logo, which gives it a more universal look. And that is just step one in another long-term plan.
Being on the Forbes’ billionaire list and managing a company with a Rs. 10,000 crore turnover automatically propels you into a lifestyle that few have access to. But the Kalyanaramans prefer spending any time away from work at their home in Thrissur. Every morning, you will find the chairman doing yoga and spending time with his five grandchildren, while his wife draws the kolam outside their home. “We begin the day by going to the temple built by our great grandfather,” says Ramesh. “Weekends are for the family—we play games, go for movies, sing songs (Rajesh was a state-level cricketer and plays the mridangam, while Ramesh is a trained classical singer).” They also take two-three long breaks during the year—but, of course, they go separately. “Europe is a favourite destination, where we go skiing in Switzerland or shopping in the UK. We stay away from Dubai because the temptation to combine work (they have outlets there) and play is too big,” smiles Ramesh, who says he enjoys doing road trips with his family.
Besides their fancy wheels, the family also owns a 13-seater customised Embraer Legacy 650, an Embraer Phenom and a Bell 427 helicopter. “We bought the Embraer Phenom when we were just 22 stores old. It was not about luxury, but more about convenience. Most of our shops are in small towns and, instead of wasting a couple of days each visiting them, my father believed the jet would cut timelines short and help us grow faster,” explains Ramesh, who adds that at 67, Kalyanaraman is quite tech savvy. “He uses a Blackberry for work and his iPhone for selfies with the grand kids.”