Trust is a recurring motif in every conversation with TS Kalyanaraman, founder of the $1-billion (Dh3.67 billion) Kalyan Jewellers, one of the largest jewellery businesses in the region.
‘Trust is the most important factor in any relationship, personal or professional,’ says the soft-spoken 67-year-old, who is ranked by Forbes as the 87th richest man in India. With personal wealth valued at $1.24 billion, the billionaire learnt this simple fact as a schoolboy aged 12, when his father, T Seetharama Iyer, allowed him to handle the cash till in his textile shop in Thrissur, a small town in Kerala, India.
‘During my vacations, he’d encourage me to handle the cash,’ says Kalyanaraman. ‘And I noticed that customers were hesitant to hand over money to a young boy, even if he was the owner’s son.
‘But seeing my father – who had been serving them for more than 20 years – they began to place their trust in me. That’s how I learnt how powerful trust could be. It has to be built gradually through sincerity and hard work.’
Little wonder then that Kalyan Jewellers’ advertising tagline is, Trust is Everything. In fact, all verticals of Kalyan Group, which includes real estate and textiles, are based on ‘mutual trust and respect, whether it is with our staff, suppliers or customers’, he says.
This belief seems to have paid off. Kalyan Jewellers, the largest jewellery chain in India, and with 94 showrooms across the country as well as the GCC, had a turnover of around Dh5.45 billion last financial year and is expecting a 30 per cent increase this year.
Initially in the textile business, the company entered the jewellery sector 23 years ago. ‘Our regular customers at our textile showroom in Thrissur kept requesting us to start a jewellery store,’ says Kalyanaraman.
‘We studied the market, saw potential and launched the jewellery business in 1993.’
Realising early that innovation was the only way to stay ahead, ‘we took a bold step and introduced rate tags – unheard of in the business at the time. I wanted to be fair towards all customers.’
Rate cards for ornaments specified the making charges. Only the price of gold was to change depending on the prevalent rate.
Another innovation was tapping buyers in rural areas. ‘We found that a majority of buyers in such areas had to travel long distances to purchase gold for any important occasion,’ says Kalyanaraman. But rather than making huge investments in terms of store and jewellery stocks, he established My Kalyan points in these places.
‘Buyers can visit My Kalyan mini stores in their villages and choose jewellery from a catalogue. Once they book a piece, it’ll be delivered to them on the promised date.’
A huge success, there are now 650 My Kalyan outlets all over India, manned by 2,500 staff.
Kalyanaraman with film stars Nagarjuna and Manju Warrier at the inauguration of a store. Amitabh Bachchan (below) is a brand ambassador.
Once the brand was in place, the founder decided to employ brand ambassadors to advertise its products. And only the biggest celebs – Amitabh Bachchan, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and regional Indian superstars – made the cut.
Next on the list was making forays into the diamond market.
‘At a time when diamonds were perceived as too expensive for the common man, we made it relatively easily accessible. You can now buy a quality-certified diamond for about Dh500.’
Naturally, the family’s lifestyle evolved changed over the years. The company acquired a couple of executive jets and helicopters, while three Rolls-Royce Phantoms transport Kalyanaraman and his two sons – Rajesh, 40, who looks after finance and inventory, and Ramesh, 37, in charge of marketing and operations – to their offices. But it is not vanity. ‘We calculated the time we’d spend commuting to the various locations we operate across India, and realised we’d save so much more if we had our own aircraft,’ Kalyanaraman says. It makes perfect sense, considering the three travel on business for an average of 15 days every month.
One area the company spends a lot of time and effort in is market research. ‘This is very important because jewellery is such a subjective purchase, there is no one-size-fits-all formula in this business. What sells in one city may not in another.
‘Before we launch a store, our team conducts market research on the kind of jewellery preferred, check out what other jewellers stock, meet and interview potential customers about their preferences...It’s a long process but it’s only after all this is done do we decide on the stock in the store.’
Kalyanaraman believes that nothing comes easy, least of all success. ‘My father taught me there is no shortcut to success for any business,’ he says. ‘Customer is king and unless they trust you, they won’t patronise you. And I believe all relationships should be long term.’
Another reason for their success is loyal staff, says Kalyanaraman. ‘We don’t set targets for our staff, including the CEO and CFO,’ he says. ‘We believe that if you make a hard sell, it will be a one-time sale; the customer won’t return. If he feels he’s been bamboozled into buying your product, you’ve lost him.
‘I also believe you should consider business not as pressure, but as pleasure.’
That could be the reason Kalyan Jewellers’ staff attrition rates are low – around 2 per cent, he says.
‘From my secretary and driver to my manager and general manager, they’ve been with us for decades.’
When he’s not busy with his business projects, Kalyanaraman prefers spending time with his family. ‘I start my day with an hour of yoga, and I rarely work more than eight hours a day,’ he says. ‘I eat all my meals on time, and go to sleep at the same time every day.
‘I don’t believe in taking work home. I also encourage my sons to do the same. If we are going to take our work home, then why not finish it at office and then go home?
‘Home is meant for the family and self. Only if you have a happy family life can you work to your fullest, and unless you give it quality time, how can your family be happy?’
But relaxed doesn’t mean he is not passionate about his business.
‘My business means a lot more than just money; it’s a passion. And it is this passion that converts to success – I believe that unless you have a passion for what you do you will not succeed.’
What is on his mind right now is reaching a target of 100 stores. ‘We hope to achieve that really soon,’ he says. Kalyanaraman is also proud to leave behind a legacy for his six grandchildren between his sons and daughter, Radhika.
‘At some point they may become a part of the group. My sons have roughed it out – starting off as salesmen in our showrooms, just so they’re aware of all areas of operation.
‘But my grandchildren have been born into this empire. So we often tell them about our past, how we came up, so that they stay grounded.
‘At the end of the day staying grounded is what is most important.’