Xerxes Desai: The timekeeper

Xerxes Desai serendipitously played a key role in introducing India to its first quartz watch in the late 1980s when he set up Titan


Xerxes Desai’s journey in building one of the largest indigenous brands  defined the aspiration of an average Indian household in that time. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint
Xerxes Desai’s journey in building one of the largest indigenous brands defined the aspiration of an average Indian household in that time. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint

Bengaluru: When Xerxes Desai talks about India, the conversation spans eight decades and each decade is a chronicle of India that is in many ways different from the previous one.

Desai, 79, now lives in Bengaluru, his home for the past two decades. Educated at Elphinstone College (BA in History) and at Oxford University (MA in philosophy, economics and politics), Desai serendipitously played a key role in introducing India to its first quartz watch in the late 80s when he set up Titan Co. Ltd (part of the Tata Sons), after enduring years of resistance from state-owned and now defunct HMT Watches. Desai was managing director of Titan Industries Ltd, the former name of the watch maker.  

Desai’s journey in building one of the largest indigenous brands in the country, that, along with the black and white television or a Premier Padmini, defined the aspiration of an average Indian household in that time, a time when needs were frugal and goods were sparse.

“It was a time,” he recalled of days in the 60s, “When one had to write an application to HMT to get a watch…you see, one couldn’t buy it in the open market. You then got a letter of approval from the department and then over a couple of weeks you had to go to a store to collect it.”

Watches were either smuggled, exported or supplied by HMT, a state-owned manufacturing company set up in 1953.

Doing business was difficult, said Desai, who spent four decades working across the Tata Group—TAS, Tata Press, Taj Hotels, Titan, etc., fighting odds and making a case for businesses to flourish in a closed economy.

For instance, the idea of Titan first came about in 1979. But it was finally set up in 1986 with support from the Tamil Nadu government (Tamil Nadu Industrial Development Corp., or Tidco). Seven years in the making.

The reality of doing business in India, added Desai, was coarse.

“Things were so absurd,” he recalls from his days at the Group’s hotel business—Taj, “I had to go to see the director general of tourism in Delhi (from Mumbai) three times to convince him that the Taj be permitted to raise its room rate from Rs.57 to Rs.63. And he said, “What 10% increase?” It finally happened but price hike was seen as a threat to local tourism.

Seven years in the making, Desai’s attempt at getting Titan running met several hurdles—from lack of collaborators to the Swiss who decided to curb exports days before their meeting with the Tata group and government officials who just would not give approvals.

“One couldn’t start making and marketing watches unless one made the movement—the heart of the watch. We were hard-pressed to find a collaborator,” he said, adding that they had to search for a local or foreign partner to collaborate, as imports of foreign goods was banned.

He recalls a time when he flew with his team to Delhi to seek permission from the government to form a joint operation with Tidco to start manufacturing watch components in the state. The response from a senior government official summed up the fear of privatization. “Not even over my dead body will you be allowed to make watches…it is (watch-making) reserved for the private sector and for SMEs.”

“We were stuck,” he added.

The winds of change, recalls Desai, began to blow only after Rajiv Gandhi took over. “We were asked to revive our application,” he added.

By the mid 90s, Titan became a household name and exports to overseas markets started in 1991. Today Titan is the world’s fifth largest manufacturer of timepieces.

The liberalization process began earnestly in 1991 under finance minister Manmohan Singh and Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao.

“Between the two of them and others, they began the transformation of how business was done in India,” Desai added. “But it took several years before the controls were eased, and licensing came to an end.”

For Desai, liberalization heralded a period of great optimism but has eventually left him disappointed. “Economic liberalization is not an end in itself—it’s a means to an end, which is to create a better society— but we’ve failed in our tasks,” he said.

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