How ‘timekeepers to the nation’ ran out of time?

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Shalini Sharma

HMT, India’s first state-owned watch company, shuttered for myriad reasons. The change in the political landscape, coupled with government policies of the time and stiff competition from private players, choked its growth. PSU Watch digs into HMT’s archive to reconstruct its days of glory and shows how its former employees have still not given up on its brand value

New Delhi: Right at the beginning of our very first conversation, the amicable employee of one of India’s oldest public sector undertakings (PSUs), Hindustan Machine Tools (HMT) Limited, declares politely on the phone that my quest to find people who worked with HMT’s watch division is akin to looking for ghosts. “The factory has shut down. There’s no one left who worked with the watch division,” says the man and insists on not being named because he is not authorised to speak to the media.

The last manufacturing unit of HMT’s subsidiary, housed in Tumkur, shut its doors in 2016 and the land was transferred to Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), an institute with far more pressing mandates than the old watch-making company. An ageing organisation’s employees, after being given severance packages, left their jobs and blended into the millions. To come back two years later and dig the past was like, as the gentleman pointed out on the phone, looking for fossils, if not ghosts.

The homegrown company, which was once thought to be the country’s pride and marketed itself with the tagline ‘Timekeepers to the nation,’ was phased out with a swift, impassionate tick of the clock. In 2016, an annual report prepared by the parent company, HMT, stated with as much emotion as could have been permitted into government parlance, “This subsidiary could not show significant improvement in performance during the year under review. This subsidiary could achieve a sales level of Rs 7.29 crore (including excise duty) and production of Rs NIL crore during the year under review. The net loss for the year stood at Rs 203.56 crore.” And the government decided to pull the plug.

A photo of the HMT watch factory in Bengaluru. Credit: HMT archive

Set up in 1961, HMT watches was a representation of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s socialist dream. It was so closely entwined with the identity of the nation that a former Union Minister in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s Cabinet wrote in an opinion piece that in 2000, after a devastating strike across the Line of Control (LoC), the Indian troops had left an HMT watch at the site of destruction showing Indian time. The public sector company that had scaled the zenith of success in the ’70s and the mid ’80s, found itself entering a state of free fall around the ’90s which it could never recover from — a script that in recent times has come to dictate the graphs of most public sector companies.

Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee being gifted an HMT watch. Credit: HMT archive

The zenith

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 lunch time. 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 nadir

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 act

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.

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.

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.

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.

The afterlife

The news of HMT’s closure in 2016, however, pushed up its vintage value. And therefore, taking a cue from the interest the news generated, the parent company has plans to start a museum. Timepieces from the beginning till the end, I am told by the same amicable employee from HMT, will make its way to a heritage centre that is in the pipeline and is supposed to come up in Bangalore’s HMT township by November this year. It will chronicle the history of India’s very own and the first watchmaking company.

Paulraj, the last man on the stage before the curtain was brought down, is still hopeful about its brand value: “The company may have shut down. HMT watch aaj bhi zinda hai (The brand name is still going strong). You will find duplicates. There are dealers still selling these old watches.” I ask him to pick one thing he would change if he could rewind the HMT clock, and he chooses to go ahead in time instead: “As a marketing expert, I can tell you that I can bring HMT back. Even now, if the government gives me the reins, I can definitely do that. It’s not going to be easy but it can be done.”

2 thoughts on “How ‘timekeepers to the nation’ ran out of time?

  1. Why in this World this happend
    When private Time makers are thriving
    Better even to this moment
    WATCH has a face value too…..
    HMT was a proud product
    We will miss soon

  2. The earlier GM’s of Watch Factory were not selfish people but sincerely worked for the progress and upliftment of the Factory. But Alas, the later Leaders were very money minded people, this was the cause of the decline and finally the closure of the Factory 😂
    Aiman, who joined HMT WATCH FACTORY BANGALORE, in the year 1962 and got superanuated in the year 1996.
    There are a few people worked as technicians and are alive, these could have also been interviewed, I believe sir.

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