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Xerxes Desai: The man behind Titan's success

June 28, 2016 10:33 IST

In the '80s after Xerxes Desai, moved to Bengaluru and spent the initial days on building Titan from a factory in Hosur.

Xerxes Desai, who built Titan into the country's largest watch company, and also built a jewellery business to similar scale, died in Bengaluru on Monday at the age of 80.

He’d made Bengaluru his home for a little over three decades, moving from Mumbai to set up Titan, India's first private watch company.

Desai felt Bengaluru had a better chance to be India's most livable city, where there was more public space that merged with buildings.

He was part of the New Bombay Project with Shirish B Patel and Charles Correa in the early 1970s.

In the '80s after he moved to Bengaluru, Desai's initial days were spent on building Titan from a factory in Hosur, 40 km from the city.

He had hired several middle and senior executives from Hindustan Machine Tools, the government-run watch maker but many were unwilling to relocate to the factory.

Tamil Nadu was promoting Hosur, then a backward part, to attract industry but struggled to get talented people.

Desai hit upon an idea. He hired local youth, provided housing and trained them on the shop floor to make watches that required precision handwork.

Desai, who had an eye for detail and design to launch the quartz watches, used Mozart's 25th Symphony as signature tune for the Titan brand.

A combination of good design, branding and marketing, beside an efficient after-sales network, helped Titan be the top watch maker in India. 

He galvanised his designers to create the world's slimmest watch, Titan Edge, a watch series which continues to hold a record.

In the late 1970s, Desai had broached the subject of making watches with Tata Group doyen J R D Tata, who had agreed to the venture.

When they looked at setting up a plant in Tamil Nadu, the proposal was rejected by a bureaucrat, saying he would allow it over his dead body.

Once Rajiv Gandhi took over as Prime Minister, Desai, who served on the National Commission on Urbanisation convened by Gandhi, got his nod and the project took shape again.

With the success in watches, Desai got Tata's approval to start Tanishq, the jewellery business, slow to take off.

Around 1999, Titan introduced what could be the country's first initiative to validate the quality of jewellery people wore. This was aimed at building trust.

Thousands of people had thronged the Tanishq store near M G Road in Bengaluru, to check the quality of their jewellery.

This helped build it as a trusted brand and emerge as India’s largest jewellery firm.

In 2002, Desai stepped down as vice chairman and managing director and allowed protege Bhaskar Bhat to succeed. Since then, Titan has only grown.

Retirement revived his interest in making cities a more livable place.

Bengaluru, his home now, had transformed from a sleepy pensioner's paradise to a thriving technology hub.

At the same time, the lack of adequate infrastructure led the real estate mafia to eye an opportunity that the government failed to build. 

Desai was in the forefront, active with fellow citizens to find irregularities in the city master plan and taking on the government in court.

His efforts yielded some success. Later, when Infosys co-founder Nandan Nilekani-funded Indian Institute for Human Settlements, a think tank which focused on improving of urban settlements, Desai was a natural choice as a promoter and member on the board.

He became equally known as a fighter for a better Bengaluru.

Raghu Krishnan in Bengaluru
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