Deveshwar's swansong: 'India First'

The words “India First”, “Indianness”, “foreign subjugation” resounded through Kolkata’s Science City Auditorium many times, as Y C Deveshwar spoke for the last time at ITC’s annual general meeting in his capacity as executive chairman and chief executive officer, here on Friday.

Sharing the motto that helped him build ITC from its tattered reputation when he was placed at its helm in 1996, Deveshwar said it was nothing but India First — keeping country before corporation and the institution before individual. “I must confess that a deep sense of patriotism has driven me to traverse many an untrodden path in leading ITC’s aspiration to be such a national champion,” Deveshwar said.

Terming ITC as “India’s Trademarks Corporation”, Deveshwar said India must assume the “fervour of a national movement” and product development in the personal care arena should be inspired from research focusing on ‘Indianness.’

In his speech, Deveshwar also reflected on the turbulent times that the company had gone through and the spirit that helped him carve out a company with revenues in excess of Rs 51,000 crore, a 10-fold increase in the last two decades.

The patriotic spirit seemed to have a rub-off effect on shareholders who were present in large numbers.

Later as he addressed questions from them, the words ‘foreign subjugation’ were heard many times. “Unfortunately you were under foreign subjugation for a long time and most of the brands in India were of foreign origin. About Rs 50-60,000 crore goes out in terms of royalties. Indian brands are extremely important,” he said.

From what Deveshwar said, it seemed that competition from Indian brands was more than welcome even as ITC has a Rs 1 lakh crore fast-moving consumer goods goal by 2030. “Somebody (shareholder) offered a comment on Patanjali. I am very proud that Patanjali has created Indian brands. Competition is good for the consumer. We must salute success in Indian brands. People ask me, you’re entering the dairy business but what about Amul? I respect Amul, it’s an Indian brand,” he said.

But Deveshwar may be readily courting competition because he has already moved the goalpost for ITC.

"If we can build Indian companies to be globally competitive, nothing like it. Indian companies can become multinational companies (MNCs). That is our aspiration, making ITC one such MNC," he said.

"We should have plants all over the world, but charity begins at home. First, we must win in the Indian global market, overcome the disadvantage that Indian companies have, for we were under foreign subjugation for many years and then after we have tested our strength in the global market here, we will go overseas," he amplified.

Deveshwar also took pride in creating world class Indian brands and the fact that ITC doesn't have to pay any royalty even as Rs 50,000-60,000 crore goes out from India in terms of royalties.

"There are new economies like Korea that have created global brands like Samsung. We have the aspiration to create those brands but that won't come cheaply. We have to give blood for that," Deveshwar said.

The foreign subjugation that resonated in Deveshwar's statements obviously had something to do with ITC's past. While reflecting on the many 'formidable challenges' that ITC faced when he took charge, Deveshwar said, "A battle for control of the company had ensued amidst a public smear campaign. Doubts were raised even about the integrity of the organisation. A media trial, on the encouragement of then representatives of our overseas shareholder, had already pronounced the Indian management inept, fraudulent and guilty, ahead of any independent investigation."

BAT (British American Tobacco) happens to be ITC's single-largest shareholder.

Since 1996, ITC's revenue has grown 10-fold to over Rs 51,000 crore; PBT has grown 33 times to more than Rs 14,900 crore.

On the growth of tobacco business of ITC, Deveshwar said it was good for the company's shareholders and there was no point of de-growing it for the benefit of the non-tobacco verticals.

Deveshwar shared with shareholders a glimpse of some new initiatives that would drive the growth of the company. ITC's Life Sciences Centre, for instance, will deliver products of the future aimed at nutrition, health and well-being.

"This will also address widespread concern of the Indian population about maladies relating to diabetes, cognition, gut and cardiovascular health," he elaborated.

The foods business is entering the health and wellness space. A recent innovation was the launch of Aashirvaad Sugar Release Control Atta with a lower glycaemic index which helps in managing blood sugar.

Shortly, ITC will be launching a premium coffee brand, Sunbean. "Your company will increasingly enhance its leadership in the farm-to-fork value chain, making a large and growing contribution to the twin priority sectors of the economy, namely, agriculture and food processing," Deveshwar told shareholders.

ITC, therefore, is exploring the opportunity to invest in a state-of-the-art cold chain to cover farm produce, including fresh, frozen and dehydrated fruits and vegetable. Towards this end, physical infrastructure is being developed by ITC to establish cost-effective regional cold chains across the country.

The vision as outlined by Deveshwar was enough for some shareholders to want him to continue to lead the company till he attains the age of 75. That's six years away. But as on date, the board decision is, Deveshwar will slip into the role of a non-executive chairman next year for a period of three years.

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