TS Santhanam
Given that the landscape of Chennai symbolises the success stories of several entrepreneurs who dreamt big, I wonder why we keep reading western books on management for inspiration.

Last week marked the birth centenary of TS Santhanam, former managing director and later vice chairman of TV Sundaram Iyengar and Sons. He was one of the four TVS brothers (a fifth having passed away just as industrialisation dawned) who oversaw the transformation of the group from a Madurai-based transport business to a full-fledged automotive component conglomerate.

Santhanam moved early to Madras, his first assignment being with Madras Auto Services (MAS), a creation of AK Ramachandra Iyer, which was acquired in 1936 by the TVS Group. From then on, till his retirement, automobile spares and components were to be a passion.

Santhanam was to be involved in Sundaram Motors, which was founded in 1945 to handle the group’s burgeoning vehicle dealerships. MAS and Sundaram Motors stand side by side even today on Mount Road, both located on what was once Gopal Bagh, the residence of the Maharajah of Bobbili who was Prime Minister of Madras. The art-deco façade of MAS is a delight.

K Kamaraj, TS Rajam and TS Santhanam at the inauguration of Brakes India Limited in 1963 – pic courtesy The TVS Group
In 1954, Santhanam was instrumental in the setting up of the third TVS company that dealt with motor spares and later vehicles – Indian Motor Parts and Accessories Limited, now IMPAL. And as the TVS group moved rapidly into manufacturing in the 1960s, he was to be actively involved in the setting up of the Padi units. He was chairman of Brakes India and Wheels India Limited until the end of his life. Given his wide-ranging interests in the automotive sector, he headed trade bodies and several committees at the national level too.

Santhanam, in keeping with his image of a financial man, built lasting businesses in that sector. Madras Motor Insurance (later Madras Motor and General Insurance – MMGI) was one and remained under his control till its nationalisation in 1972. Responding to a transport operator’s comment that the TVS Group was into every aspect of automobiles except the financing, Santhanam set up Sundaram Finance as a subsidiary of MMGI in 1954. Later spun off as an independent entity, it is today one of the country’s leading non-banking finance companies.

Not so well documented perhaps, is Santhanam’s involvement in sports and charitable causes. A passionate tennis player, the tennis court at his house on D’ Silva Road was well known. In the 1940s, he promoted TVS Greens which had several national-level football players. Veteran tennis star Ramanathan Krishnan remembers Santhanam being a fixture at Wimbledon, and Forest Hills, cheering him on to do his best. The Krishnamurthy Foundation of India and the Cancer Institute, Adyar were two institutions he was involved with. Sundaram Medical Foundation in Anna Nagar was one of his projects too though today it is more a memorial to his son, Dr Rangarajan.

Clearly, he was a man of many parts.

This article appeared in The Hidden Histories column of The Hindu dated 13th November 2012