International Business Conference of Nagarathars (IBCN) 2015 – Two days well spent @ Coimbatore, India

The Nagarathar (also known as Nattukkottai Chettiar) is a Tamil community (a Dravidian ethnic group based in the southern part of India) that follows the belief system of Shaivism (one of the widely followed sects of Hinduism). They are a prominent mercantile Vaishya caste in Tamil Nadu, South India. They are a community with very rich cultural heritage, known for their philanthropy; building temples and schools, and maintaining them throughout India and Asia. The Nagarathar were historically an itinerant community of merchants that travelled to foreign countries by boat, train, and by foot and set up businesses.

The Nagarathar community celebrates a very rich entrepreneurial heritage and a very high appetite for business risk. However, during the course of the last two generations, Nagarathar’s have lost the entrepreneurial trait and have become a community that is mostly risk averse. In 1913, 90% of the community where entrepreneurs however in 2013 this declined to 10%. In an effort to rekindle the entrepreneurial spirit in Nagarathars, International Business Conference of Nagarathars (IBCN) was conceptualized by Singapore Nagarathars and they hosted the first conference in November 2013.

Many Nagarathar city associations expressed their interest to host the next edition of IBCN in 2015 and among the 3 that contended, Nagarathars Entreprenuers Union (NEU) of Coimbatore was chosen to host IBCN 2015. Coimbatore, the Manchester of South India, also known as Kovai, is the 2nd largest city in Tamilnadu state and an important textile and manufacturing hub. The International Business Conference of Nagarathars 2015 was envisioned to be a two day residential event with the theme “Inspire to Succeed”, to be held on 25th and 26th July 2015 at the plush Le Meridien Hotel, Coimbatore.

After reviewing the schedule, arrangements and clips of IBCN 2013, I decided that I should be part of IBCN 2015 in Coimbatore and the opportunity presented itself in November 2014 when the organizing committee announced the dates that coincided with the school vacation in London.

IBCN 2015 started off with a networking dinner by the pool side. Five hundred plus delegates from 9 different countries as far from down under Australia to the melting pot of the world, The United States participated in the conference. Who’s who of the Nagarathar community from a wide variety of professions and industries attended the event – This included Pilots, insurance brokers, bankers and startup founders & co-founders amongst others. Canopies, mock tails and cock tails were served amidst traditional south Indian Music. Concluded the night with a fantastic traditional Indian dinner at about 11 PM and an activity filled day 1 was awaiting us. The day was supposed to start with a physical fitness session at Decathlon, Coimbatore. I had to skip the early morning 5.30 AM session as my biological clock still had not adjusted to Indian time zone.

Below, I summarize the key messages and learnings from the conference speakers, to be passed on to friends, family and the next generation.

Day 1: Inauguration

Mr. K. Shanmugam, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Law, Singapore:

Mr. Shanmugam is one of the jewels of the Nagarathar community. He is a Singaporean politician and lawyer and hails from Poolankurichi, Chettinad.

  • $43.5 bn US FII and $ 34 bn US FDI in 2014 – FDI has grown by 22% over the previous year. There is huge optimism in India.
  • India does have a demographical advantage, however there is a risk of this advantage turning itself into negative energy in the form of unhappy agitated youth. This means that the youth of India will need to be trained to become skilled employable work force; To this end Singapore government has supported India by setting up skills development centre in New Delhi. Singapore would also assist India in the development of smart cities.
  • 7.4% GDP growth in 2014 and IMF estimates 7.5% GDP growth in 2014-15
  • Moody’s rating agency has upgraded India’s credit rating from stable to +ve
  • Mr. Shanmugam quoted Sean Turnell of Australia’s Macquarie University – The collective capital of the Chettiars which was employed in Burma in the form of loans and other investments ‘was equivalent to all British investments in Burma combined.’[1]

Smt. Nirmala Sitharaman, Minister for state and industry, Government of India:

  • Economic renaissance is happening in India
  • ‘Make in India’ with clear and transparent rules, has been a successful campaign yielding fantastic results
  • Indian government is working on transforming itself to play the role of a facilitator from a regulator. To this end, the government is taking a few steps:
    • Improving the ease of doing business with no more unilateral government decision
    • Instil confidence and make people of India become self-sufficient
    • Build trust and credibility amongst the people of India
    • Governments role is to let entrepreneurship thrive. Government should move at par and in tandem with the expectations of the people
  • Entrepreneurs take the culture with them where ever they go. Poo malai in Tamil refers to garland; even today in Thai language garland is called Poo malai. It is important to provide an ecosystem where entrepreneurs can thrive and take their culture to far off places which the Nagarthar community has done for centuries in south east Asia.
  • Meticulous work that produce defect-free results would enhance the credibility and trust of the products made in India. Entrepreneurs should work towards achieving such results.

Day 1: My Identity – Nagarathar Entrepreneur – How does it matter?

The distinctive culture, values, education and entrepreneurial spirit enabled the Nagarathar community to establish educational and business institutions and also helped them to carve out a unique identity for themselves in the society. This session focussed on the heritage, the roots and the important traits of Nagarathars and its relevance and importance to the current and next generation of Nagarathar entrepreneurs.

Mr. CVR Rajendran, Former Chairman & Managing Director – Andhra Bank:

Integrity and reliability enabled Nagarathars to collect deposits from public when there was no regulator and no deposit insurance. We were primarily identified as a community who can be trusted. Nagarathars were pioneers of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives that impacted many aspects of the larger society. A key take away was that Nagarathars have always done business according to the value system, ‘no man you transact with will lose, then you shall not’ (from Arthashastra).

Mr. S. Muthiah, Writer, Journalist, Chronicler:

Identity is a variable from person to person based on where one is brought up and one lives, but heritage is constant. Earliest Nagarathar banking started by lending to farmers without any collateral, just based on trust. Then we started lending to Zamindhars, Rajas and other rulers. These rulers recommended us to British raj as trustable middle men. Nagarathars were one of the only 4 communities (that included Sindhis and Marwadis) that grew banking in India.

Mrs. Meenu Subbiah, Gemologist & Jewelry Designer:

Identify your core competence, develop it and stick to it. Your customers should identify you by your distinctive value addition – your distinctive identity in continuously delivering value. By just mentioning her Nagarathar heritage, Meenu was able to sign a high value contract with one of the three largest Indian corporate house without much negotiation.

Dr. Kumar Muthuraman, H. Timothy Harkins Centennial Professor – McCombs School of Business, Univ. Texas-Austin:

Prosperity of the Nagarathar community is an evidence of good business decision-making. Good business decisions are made with two objectives – maximize rewards and minimize risks. Additional risk is acceptable only when justified by sufficient gain. One of the main business identities of Nagarathars has always been innovations to mitigate risks. In today’s world, starting your own business does not always translate to taking significant risk. It simply translates to independence and wealth creation, both integral parts of our identity. While doing this, we should proactively seek to reduce risk as our ancestors did.

Day 1: My entrepreneurial journey – IBCN X Talks

Mr. R G Chandramogan, Chairman and Manaing Director, Hatsun Agro Foods Ltd.:

Mr. Chandramogan is the man behind 2 very popular dairy product brands in India – Arun Ice Creams and Arokya milk. From a very modest Nadar family he has made it big and is one of the dollar billionaires from India.

Mr. Chandramogan emphasized the importance of thinking different and getting away from the herd mentality.  Differentiation was the key for the success of Hatsun Agro. He also spoke about the qualities that make one to be ordinary – complacency, arrogance and ego.

Day 1: Taking the plunge into business

Yesteryears, the subject of ‘Taking the plunge into Business – When & How’ was never relevant in the Nagarathar Community as most Nagarathars entered the family businesses by default and many others took to business immediately after their studies. But this has changed in the past century due to the after-math of the second world war and Myanmar (Burma) episode. After this decline in entrepreneurial interest in the past few decades, the interest in entrepreneurship has been rekindled -Thanks to events such as IBCN. The biggest challenge for entrepreneurs is at the start – when to start, how to start, where to start? This session discussed when and how to take the plunge into business. There were a few interesting speakers however I highlight the key points made by Mr. K. R. Nagarajan.

Mr. K. R. Nagarajan, Chairman and Manaing Director – Ramraj Cotton:

Ramraj cotton is one of the leading producers of veshti (dothi in Hindi; loincloth worn beneath the hip by men in India). As somenone who started a business with no great educational, financial or family background, Mr. Nagaraj’s story of transforming a small business to a nationally recognized brand is truly inspiring.

Every business requires 3 kinds of capital – finance, domain knowledge and hard work. However, one does not wait for all three to be available – start with what you have. Mr. Nagarajan stressed the importance of attention to quality, branding and nurturing sincere employees, as keys to his success. Mr. Nagaraj also emphasized the importance of presentation and delivery. As examples, he quoted the marketing campaigns that made veshti fashionable by linking it to Tamil culture.  Today veshti has become a fashion statement and is accepted both in board rooms and universities alike. Notes from other speakers of this session:

  • tolerance to failure amongst the community and the society at large is increasing
  • Age is not an impediment. One of the speakers (Lotus Venkatachalam) in this session started his enterprise at the age of 63.
  • Do what you know and know what you do
  • Success mantra: Be convinced about the business and have conviction

Day 1: Take care of your sweet heart

Dr. J. Bhuvaneswaran, MD & HOD of Cardiology – Ahalia Hospitals, Abu Dhabi

It is important to maintain a healthy heart in order to succeed as an entrepreneur. Dr. Bhuvaneswaran discussed some simple lifestyle choices that one can make to lower the risk of developing hear disease

  • 70:20:10 formula – Spend 70% of your time for business/work, 20% for family and friends and 10% for self
  • 50:30:20 formula – 50% carbohydates in ones diet; 30% proteins and 15-20% fat
  • 100:100:100 prevention formula – Keep your systolic blood pressure below 100; Blood sugar level less than 100 mg/dL and contain LDL (bad) Cholesterol less than 100 mg/dL
  • 20 mins exercise/day and keep your cool

Day 1: Power Speech – Inspiring people to impact society

Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev

Sadhguru, is an Indian yogimysticphilanthropist and author of over 100 titles in 8 different languages. He founded the Isha Foundation, a non-profit organisation which offers yoga programs around the world, including India, United States, England, Lebanon, Singapore, Canada, Malaysia, Uganda, China, Nepal and Australia.

  • The success of an individual or an endeavour is essentially produced by integrity, inspiration and insight. These qualities generate leaders of the right kind. Where there is integrity, there will be trust. Where there is no trust, the necessary atmosphere needed for success cannot existInfectious level of instripration is key to the success of an invididual or an organization. Insight – If there is no insight there is nothing to follow and toil for.
  • Yesteryears, communities played a significant role in transferring wisdom and knowledge to future generations without a formal system. Nagarathars have imparted this wisdom to future generations through this mechanism of communities. Tradition and heritage is the manure for next generation and the wheel need not be reinvented.
  • Couple of decades ago people have got the impression that ‘success is suffering’ and hence younger generation is not enticed by success. This has to change and the message that ‘success comes with well-being’ has to be propagated. Then people would follow.
  • Pick a worthwhile cause that you are proud of, really something that you want in life and work towards that cause.
  • Memory (past) and imagination (future) are two basic faculties on which people dwell upon that some-times produces negative energy. Being in the present moment assists in being positive.
  • People should realize that every action of theirs will have a consequence.

Day 1: Awards Nite

Presentation of IBCN 2015 Business plan competition prizes and IBCN 2015 Entrepreneur awards

Awards nite was one of the highlights of the conference. The awards selection process was meticulously planned and executed to the minutiae of detail. Business plan competition selection jury included eminent personalities from academia (IIM Bangalore) and angel investors. Entrepreneurial awards jury included nagarthar industrialists such as Manickam Ramaswami (Loyal textiles), M.M.Murugappan (Murugappa Corporate Board), Dato R Palan (Chairman – SMRT Holdings) and AL. Alagappan(COO, ICLIF). Five categories (social impact, innovativeness) of awards and a special award were conferred on able and successful entrepreneurs.

Awards nite also had interludes with entertainment from Airtel super singers and evam standup Tamasha’s Aswin Rao.

Day 2: IBCN X Talks

Dato Dr. Palan, Chairman, SMRT Holdings Berhad, Malaysia.

Dato Dr. Palan was the star Speaker of the conference and he kept the audience captivated throughout this talk. Dr. Palan started with Nagarathar entrepreneurial icons such as AV Meyappa Chettiar, M CT  Muthiah Chettiar, Karumuttu Thiyagarajan Chettiar, Nagappa Chettiar and AMM Murugappa chettiar. These iconic figures overwhelm us, they inspire, but they also intimidate us with their entrepreneurial traits of creative genius and iron will. He inspired the audience by saying that if one weren’t born with such traits there is still good news. Entrepreneurs can be guided to success by learning a few key attributes – the 6 Is. They are Idea, Information, Instinct, Initiative, Inspiration and Institutionalisation. Mr. Palan highlighted the importance of information with a video clip from a Tamil movie that featured comedian Sendhil.

Dr. Palan also covered Mission, Vision and Values philosophy with some examples, that every business school teaches in its strategy module. To conclude he has set a target that at least 10 Nagarthar run businesses should go public by 2020.

Day 2: Funding your business – Getting the right money at the right time and at the right cost

Money is the primary requisite in any business venture. Raising funds for small start-ups and securing investment for bigger ones is the most important challenge the start-ups face on the road to success. This session dwelled upon the various funding options available for start-ups and ways and means of securing them.

Speakers highlighted that people, focus and differentiation were the key aspects for securing funding. 3D prism model was highlighted – Differentiate your business, Disrupt existing businesses and business models and then Dominate your industry. Importance of integrity on both sides – fund seekers and fund providers was accentuated by the speakers. Alleviating the perceived risks in the company and the industry would also assist immensely in securing funding from venture capital and private equity industry. Shop around for good value deals was another advice that was provided by the speakers. Just intuition is not sufficient; intuition with statistics would go a long way in convincing potential investors.

Speakers called for forming a Nagarathar angel fund and mentoring network for young entrepreneurs.

Day 2: Entrepreneurship – A career choice for 21st Century.

This was a panel discussion that included some young entrepreneurs and also provided younger Nagarathars the opportunity to interact with the panel and clear their apprehensions with regards to taking the road less travelled.

Advice from the panel:

  • Greater time commitment, burn no bridges, managing expectation is the key, don’t under estimate the power of the team.
  • Ingredients for entrepreneurship – Passion, Never give up, manage work life balance effectively, make mistakes and learn from them, be ready for a roller coaster rides.
  • Entrepreneurship is a unique career choice. It means standing on your own legs; you are able to make your own decisions, control your own destiny and deliver some unique product or service.
  • Weigh risks carefully and appropriately. Running businesses can be stressful.

Day 2: Corporate Entrepreneurship – Panel discussion

As an employee in a corporate, you can transform yourself to be an entrepreneur within your organization to impact the lives of others and significantly contribute to your growth and that of your organization. This session addressed the unique issues surrounding a corporate entrepreneur such as innovation amidst inertia, taking risks from within, finding one’s identity in a group, managing corporate cultural issues and overcoming bureaucratic hurdles. I would like to pinpoint a few key take aways from one of the speakers AL. Alagappan (another star speaker)

Mr. AL. Alagappan, COO – Iclif, Malaysia.

“Success is not winning, Success IS not giving up” was exemplified with a moving clip of Derek Redmond, 1992 Barcelona Olympic.

Having been favoured to win the race, Derek’s hamstring tore, he hobbled into a halt, and then fell to the ground in pain. Despite the pain he hobbled on the track and completed the race with the assistance of his father. He received standing ovation from the crowd of 65,000. He didn’t finish first but he managed to finish his race, despite the pain, despite the tears and he was determined to give his all.

Mr. Alagappan concluded with Mark Twain’s quote, “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.”

Other speakers invited entrepreneurs and potential entrepreneurs to utilize the wisdom of the senior nagarathars who have “been there and done that” to seek advice to grow their businesses.

Day 2: Going beyond borders – Panel discussion

Speakers started with Avvaiyar’s 2000 year old quote “திரை கடல் ஓடியும் திரவியம் தேடு( Thirai kadal odiyum thiraviyam thedu), . This translates to “One can even travel overseas, in order to earn a living”.

This session gave valuable inputs on various opportunities available in different countries for exports from India as well as setting up businesses abroad. Speakers from the UAE, Australia and the US, spoke about the local ecosystem and opportunities that existed in those regions. Growth rates of the economy and the industries that presented opportunities were discussed in detail. Importance of diversification across borders and hedging the currency risk was discussed in this session.

Day 2: Value Vs wealth – Big Fight

Traditionally Nagarathars have invested their earnings in fixed assets, primarily land. However in the last two decades businesses are valued by virtue of their future earnings potential. The valuation depended on various factors that included product demand, profit margins, innovation and so on. Valuations of many companies have risen to unbelievably high levels when compared to wealth created by companies/families through their investments over decades. Today, it is not just the wealth but the value based on future cash flows is also important. This session provided insights into the pros and cons of value Vs wealth in the current market condition. Eminant industrialist Karumuttu Kannan chaired the debate. Mr. Meyappan Annamalai (Founder & CEO, Sconce Solution Corporation) and Mr. M. Arunachalam (Chairman – Indian Chamber of Commerce, Hong Kong) debated for value while Mr. PL.A. Subramanian (Chairman, PLA group) and Mr. N. Nagappan (Managing Director – Uma Devi Chit (P) Ltd) debated for wealth.

Disruptive businesses such as Zillow and Whatsapp were quoted to substantiate the importance of value.

Closing Remarks:

IBCN 2015 drew to a conclusion amidst much appreciation and support from the Nagarathar Community. IBCN 2015 saw several eminent and passionate entrepreneurs and corporate leaders over the 2-day residential conference. It was an enriching session for all the participants.  At the end of the conference it was hoped that the impact of the conference would attract many young minds into entrepreneurship.

The baton has been handed over to UAE’s Nagarathar Business Initiative Group (NBIG) to organize IBCN 2017. Hoping to see IBCN reaching even greater heights at IBCN 2017.

Congratulations to the Chairman of IBCN 2015 PL.K. Palaniappan, Co-Chairman Muthuraman. S., Secretary  Saravanan.V and the entire IBCN 2015 team. Thanks for providing a wonderful platform to learn and network from and with such a panoply of outstanding speakers and delegates. A BIG THANK YOU.

[1] Turnell, op. cit. p. 5;


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