There’s a frail, old man in Markazi market, who has been catapulted to fame by the Indian media and christened as Delhi’s very own timekeeper — Javed Hussain Khan — for his collection of vintage timepieces and his understanding of the magnificent little wheels that keep a watch ticking. He is sitting on a small stool in a tiny, well-lit shop in a basement of the market area with his back turned to the entrance. It’s around 2 pm — his lunchtime. I wait for him to finish as I take mental notes. The amount of media frenzy around this man is inversely proportional to his humble workstation, which could be easily missed as it sits cheek by jowl with several other shops in a basement along a street that takes a sharp cut from the cramped lane that leads to Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya Dargah. He has, at one point in time, worked in an assembly unit of HMT and its showroom in Connaught Place. Khan turns around after finishing his lunch and asks with a shy smile how he could help and how long will I take to do the ‘story’ (interview). He seems to be used to the journalistic drill now.
The choice of nomenclature is particularly telling — apart from everyday names, HMT had introduced models christened after cricketers like Gundappa Vishwanath, Ajit Agarkar, Sourabh Ganguly on the one hand, and a set of others named after Hindi cinema’s big stars. Amitabh Bachchan’s screen name that cemented his image in Hindi cinema as the angry young man — Vijay — had a range dedicated to it.
The vintage watch collector takes out his treasures from a shelf with sliding glass shutters and displays them on a plastic stool — little time machines ticking from another era, stuck in a time warp, enticing all those who feel a sense of belonging to history. And thus, begins my initiation into HMT’s world. There’s Pilot, an analogue black dial with the words ‘pilot’ inscribed on it in neat cursive and a black nylon strap and Janata has a white dial cast in stainless steel with black leather straps — two of the most popular models ever made by HMT. One of the other watches is named Jawahar — not named after Nehru, Khan informs.
An old pamphlet depicting HMT's watch models. Credit: HMT archive
The choice of nomenclature is particularly telling — apart from everyday names, HMT had introduced models christened after cricketers like Gundappa Vishwanath, Ajit Agarkar, Sourabh Ganguly on the one hand, and a set of others named after Hindi cinema’s big stars. Amitabh Bachchan’s screen name that cemented his image in Hindi cinema as the angry young man — Vijay — had a range dedicated to it. A watch for everybody, those who think they are Vijay(s) and Vishwa(s) and Ajit(s) of their times and also those who are content being the common man. According to the vintage watch collector, even in HMT’s heydays, Swiss watches held a good part of the market share. They were smuggled into India and were sold at a price lesser than HMT’s timepieces, and yet HMT held its own. In a country that had recently gained independence from the colonial rule, wearing a watch that was made by a public sector enterprise evoked a sense of nationalism.
India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru (second from left), along with daughter Indira Gandhi (third from left), during a visit to an HMT watch factory. Credit: HMT archive
DJ Sudarshan, a former employee with the watch-making company who retired as deputy general manager in 2010, says, “People used to get ration cards and letters from VIPs to get watches. And everyone was allowed to take only one.” In 1975, the Emergency clamped by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had worked in unexpected ways for HMT watches, Khan asserts. It crippled the Swiss watch black market so much so that they stopped producing watches because most of their stock made its way to India, contends the old man. That gave a massive boost to HMT. “But all of the credit cannot go to the politics or the policy pursued at the time. It is a fact that HMT watches had a great make and quality and were durable and the technology used by them was provided by Japan’s Citizen which was known to be one of the world’s best,” says Khan.
“The government policy of the time killed HMT by keeping raw materials tax free for private players for a period of five-seven years. Because of the exemptions Titan got, it was making profits equal to three times the original cost of the watch, which was not the case with us. There was a point of time when if the cost of production for a watch was around Rs 80-85, we were selling it for Rs 100.” — DJ Sudarshan, former HMT employee
The last Managing Director of HMT Watches Limited, S Paulraj, is a man who, despite the closure of the watch division two years ago, still seems to have not given up on the brand and its potential. While deliberating over the fall of HMT from its former glory to the time it shut down, he says, “Every product, every brand runs its course. Nothing survives forever. In the case of HMT watches, there were a variety of reasons that contributed to its fall, factors both within and outside of the company’s control.”
S Paulraj, the last Managing Director of HMT watches.
At the time HMT watches was established in 1961, it was Nehru’s vision to have a factory that manufactures watches. The policy pursued by the government at the time and even later, till the mid of the 1970s, was shaped by Nehru’s idea of Socialism and therefore, focused on increasing the proportion of government investment in relation to private investment. However, the months leading up to the Emergency were fraught with economic troubles — rising unemployment and inflation and food scarcity and a dismal GDP growth that stood at 2.8 percent. In the aftermath of 1977 and especially after coming to power in 1980, Indira Gandhi steered India’s economy in a new direction — the objective was to push the GDP numbers. Slowly, she weaned India’s politics and economy away from Nehru’s ideals and put a break on the public sector to let the private sector take the lead.
Former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (second from right) with KL Bakshi, the then GM of HMT Watches, and SM Abdullah, the then CM of Jammu and Kashmir, during a visit to HMT's production unit. Credit: HMT archive
In 1984, Titan, a joint venture between the Tata Group and the Tamil Nadu Industrial Development Corporation (TIDCO), entered the scene with the tagline, “You owe it to yourself.” By then, the nationalism that had fueled HMT’s meteoric rise had waned and the idea of how people perceived a watch had changed too. “The government policy of the time killed HMT by keeping raw materials tax free for private players for a period of five-seven years. Because of the exemptions Titan got, it was making profits equal to three times the original cost of the watch, which was not the case with us. There was a point of time when if the cost of production for a watch was around Rs 80-85, we were selling it for Rs 100,” explains Sudarshan.
“The market changed in a manner that our competitors emerged much stronger, with more aggressive marketing strategies.” — S Paulraj, former MD, HMT Watches
A former Managing Director of HMT’s watches division, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said, “The market changed in a manner that our competitors emerged much stronger, with more aggressive marketing strategies. Public sector employees, on the other hand, have limitations. We have lesser flexibility and the process to get a marketing campaign approved is inordinately long. There has to be an internal meeting and then approvals have to be sought from the government. Time is of the essence here. You need to act quickly. But sadly, that could not be done.”
An old HMT ad.
On the track, the lag between Titan and HMT watches only increased as the former came up with better designs and captured the shift in the consumer’s mood. “HMT watch designs could not match the creativity and range unleashed by Titan. Also, by that time, there was a thriving black market where HMT watch parts used to be sold at throwaway prices,” says Khan. A few HMT employees, including senior executives, jumped ships and took the company’s technical prowess to Titan. The mammoth PSU that had once generated employment for people in far-flung areas that no industry could have thought of setting up a factory in, started to tank slowly. By 1992, the company had stopped hiring technical staff. Several attempts were made to infuse capital and change the marketing strategy, but nothing worked.
The front elevation of the HMT Watch factory in Bengaluru. Credit: HMT archive
The final actOne last desperate attempt to revive HMT’s fortunes was undertaken in 2008 when Paulraj, a man with a hardcore marketing background, was roped in as the MD of the company. The challenge for him was not just to make HMT Watches profitable but to achieve the desired numbers with an ageing workforce and dwindling manpower. He prepared a very ambitious marketing plan for the company, that placed the focus on playing on HMT’s strengths. “When I took over, I made some changes to the existing strategy and started off by introducing some new models and making changes to the existing ones… like old wine in a new bottle. HMT’s clout in rural areas had remained largely unchallenged, so I decided to focus on those areas first. It was a great success and received a good response from schools and colleges as the models introduced were cheap, keeping in mind our target group,” he chuckles from the other side of the phone.
In 2011, Paulraj improved the visibility of the product by placing it in Shopper Stop and various other known outlets and tapped into the vast network of 1,54,000 post offices in the country to reach potential customers in rural areas. “What it did was that it brought HMT back into people’s gaze,” the former MD says. Even though it paid dividends, it could not restore HMT to its former glory.
One last desperate attempt to revive HMT’s fortunes was undertaken in 2008 when Paulraj, a man with a hardcore marketing background, was roped in as the MD of the company. The challenge for him was not just to make HMT Watches profitable but to achieve the desired numbers with an ageing workforce and dwindling manpower.