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Home > Business > Special

The man who brought UTI back

Ramya Ramamurthy, | December 11, 2006

The UTI brand is a valuable one but five years ago, the brand was in big trouble. So, how did UTI and US-64 survived the worst crisis of its life?

Since 1964, the Unit Trust of India had been the last word for middle class investors in India. By 2000, the trust's flagship scheme US-64 boasted of over 20 million investors and over Rs 22,000 crore (Rs 220 billion) in assets.

But in 2001, the fund was grappling with its worst crisis ever. UTI mis-timed its equity exposure during a bearish market reeling under the Ketan Parekh scam. And the fund's reserves turned negative by over Rs 1,000 crore (Rs 10 billion).

A CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation) enquiry forced the then UTI chairman PS Subrahmanyam to resign. The fund's flagship US-64 scheme was frozen for six months. When reopened a few months later, US-64 did not declare a dividend - a first in 37 years.

Simultaneously, when the clean-up operations started with a restructuring. UTI was split into two divisions - one for the assured return schemes and the net asset value ones. A government bailout of about Rs 14,000 crore (RS 140 billion) followed.

UTI also launched a massive damage control campaign spending up to Rs 5 crore (Rs 50 million) and roping in RK Swamy from the ad agency, BBDO, to make television campaigns - for the first time in 37 years.

Besides this campaign, the fund's new chairman M Damodran and top UTI officials worked overtime to meet investors to reassure them.

Ex-chairman, UTI, M Damodaran told CNBC-TV18, "What we want investors to realise is that some of our schemes have problems for historical reasons because we did not manage perceptions apporpriately in 37 years - possibly in relation to US-64.

Assured return schemes have shortfalls and we found a way to bridge them recently. Wherever problems exist, they've been addressed but to see these problems as existing across the organisation is incorrect."

In the eyes of these experts, Damodaran was the brand that managed the UTI crisis. Leading from the front, Damodaran was the face of UTI in the media and at investor camps.

Chiief executive officer and president, Lowe India, Pranesh Mishra says, "He had a good equation with the then finance minister and there was a lot of trust that was there between the two of them, so he was able to convince the finance minister to take a couple of steps, which a normal bureaucrat would have found difficult to achieve."

Social Scientist, Shiv Viswanathan adds, "Damodaran was a hero. The old narratives had some kind of bureaucrat who disappeared. Damodaran comes and does a rescue act - very much like a policeman or a fireman rescuing a bunch of kittens. But then he steps out of the narrative. The deeper institutional changes - the question of them going back to the consumers, who had suffered and who have to be redeemed in a different way, is something that he doesn't complete."

After nearly a year of damage control, in April 2002, UTI finally came out with a rebranding campaign - welcoming its investors to UTI country. For FCB Ulka, which was roped in for this campaign - the rebranding was a necessary break from past campaigns - but its effectiveness was questionable.

Executive Director, FCB Ulka, MG Parameswaran says, "UTI was a new brand - the old brand was United Trust of India and US-64. So, we were actually launching a new brand that's why we took the positive stand - that the future is bright and we will not let you down and we will deliver results. So, it was consciously thought out. I don't think it was an arrogant statement. It was a humble statement -it was a statement which said UTI 'ke desh mein aapka swagat hain'."

But Mishra feels, "At that stage, the tonality of the UTI advertisement was a bit pompous for a brand that had gone through turmoil. It was almost saying that we are so big - it was I think a bit pompous and arrogant and I don't think it solved the purpose."

UTI survived the US-64 crisis to emerge as the country's top MF in terms of its net asset value, but when it came to winning back investor trust, the brand's median investor age profile tells a different story.

Co-founder, Chlorophyll, Kiran Khalap says, "They never told people that look I'm not an endless stream of revenue for you - I'm actually a mutual fund. Has the trust been restored? I guess for a certain generation but to a certain point."

While brand Damodaran did the trick for Unit Trust of India - even he grappled with rebuilding public trust. Meanwhile, the deeper institutional changes that could have won back complete trust were left incomplete, as Damodaran shifted out of UTI in December 2004.

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