Xerxes Desai, founder of Titan, dies

Desai played a key role in introducing India to its first quartz watch in the late 80s when he set up Titan


Xerxes Desai spent four decades working across the Tata Group. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint
Xerxes Desai spent four decades working across the Tata Group. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint

Bengaluru: Xerxes Sapur Desai, the man who founded Titan Co. Ltd and made it an internationally renowned Indian watch brand, is no more.

The 79-year-old died in Bengaluru on Monday because of acute gastroenteritis.

“He was not only our founder, but also our greatest advocate. Over the years, his guidance and dogged pursuit of perfection helped make Titan a household name and a market leader,” the company said in an e-mailed statement.

“He was big thinking, iconoclastic, meticulous, insightful, humanitarian with a enhanced sense of style and taste, articulate and quality conscious. A passionate rationalist who believed that ‘Yesterday’s truths are today’s heresies,’” said Bhaskar Bhat, Managing director, Titan.

A graduate of Bombay and Oxford Universities, Desai 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 Tata Sons), after enduring years of resistance from state-owned and now defunct HMT Watches.

But that is not his only contribution to the world, those who knew him pointed out.

Desai was an “amazing, eclectic entrepreneur,” and “a passionate fighter for Indian cities,” said Titan board member and urban development expert Ireena Vittal, who praised his “inspirational design sensibility that helped lay down the foundation for Titan and earlier Taj.”

Like many others, Vittal called him a fine gentleman with lovely stories and great dogs. Desai, who loved western classical and jazz, often brought his two dogs to work.

“I will so miss him,” Vittal said in an e-mail.

Infosys co-founder N.R. Narayana Murthy shared the sentiment.

“He was a wonderful person and the city will miss him,” said Murthy, who met him on many occasions over the years. “He was a perfectionist, a disciplined man and always on time.” Murthy fondly remembered the time when Infosys distributed custom-designed watches to 25,000 employees when it celebrated its “Billion Dollar Day.”

Desai’s journey in building one of the largest indigenous brands in the country was not an easy one. While the idea of Titan came about in 1979, it took him seven long years to finally set up a factory in Hosur, on the outskirts of Bengaluru, in 1986 with support from the Tamil Nadu government.

“It was a time,” Desai recalled of days in the 60s in an earlier interview with Mint, “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.”

Before Titan, Desai spent four decades working across the Tata Group—TAS, Tata Press, Taj Hotels—fighting odds and making a case for businesses to flourish in a closed economy.

Varun Sood and Sharan Poovanna contributed to this story.

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