In Quest For An Eternal Knot

USUALLY people look skywards when exclaiming Good Heavens! Maybe because people feel heaven is located somewhere in the far reaches of a remote galaxy. In any case, it must be somewhere up there in space. Logically, therefore, marriages made in heaven should usually denote unions solemnised in mid-air. No wonder, the owners of a Mumbai jewellery chain got their son married in an aircraft some years ago. They hired an aircraft, yanked out all the seats to accommodate guests, got the aircraft to circle over Mumbai for two hours while the priest tied the groom and his bride into an ‘eternal’ knot.

Sure, people do crazy things to get married. Another Mumbai-based couple first got engaged in mid-air, suspended by ropes 50ft above ground level, and then got married underwater in a local swimming pool. The ceremony, which lasted over 36 minutes, was sanctified by a priest, the bride’s father and sundry relatives. The dress code: scuba gear!

The Jet-Sahara now-on, now-off wedding — though redolent of a mid-air fender-bender — leaves behind the acrid smell of burnt gunpowder on the ground. So, was it a shotgun wedding where the suitor doesn’t have much of a choice? In the classical sense, the bride’s father forced a ‘shotgun wedding’ upon the groom, to protect the family and the girl’s reputation. But over time, the term has come to signify any condition under which the groom is forced to walk down the aisle. It could even be external forces, such as competition or to pre-empt impending industry consolidation. Alliances, mergers, sell-outs are all prompted by a variety of reasons, some forced upon companies, some strategic in nature.

When Ramesh Chauhan sold India’s leading soft drink brand Thums Up to Coke in the early nineties, there was quite a to-do in Indian industry about Chauhan selling out, capitulating to western forces, not having the stomach to stay in the field and slug it out, and so on. The fact is Chauhan saw the writing on the wall and sold off his brand from a position of strength. That is not always the case. Hindustan Lever sold off Dalda, the iconic vanaspati brand, to foods company Bunge, because it had ceased to deliver high margins in a market that had evolved in tastes and transformed intrinsically. In fact, Levers also sold its fertiliser business — a low-margin business strategy devised to keep the government happy in the notorious anti-MNC days — to Tata Chemicals when it had outlived its utility.

Look at some of the other forced alliances in India Inc. The Tatas had to sell Tomco to Hindustan Lever, when they realised they had a losing business on their hands. All the brands were steadily losing market share, margins were headed south and the company lacked the expertise to rejuvenate the brand portfolio. Even Balsara had to be sold to Dabur for similar reasons.

But alliances can also happen because of strategic reasons. Citigroup tied up with Travellers Group, because the insomniac bank wanted a lucrative piece of the retail banking, such as broking, insurance business. Even if that subsequently resulted in the exit of Citi CEO John Reed. Speaking of which, Jamie Dixon, who moved to Citi with his fellow Traveller boss, quit in a huff, joined Bank One, convinced JP Morgan for a merger and became boss of the combined entity.

Interestingly, current day JP Morgan (before it merged with Bank One) had gathered bulk through a series of historic mergers. On one side was Chemical Bank, which in 1991 joined forces with Manufacturers Hanover (lovingly called Manny Hanny by bond and currency dealers) and merged with Chase Manhattan in 1996. Finally, in 2000, this post-merger giant merged with JP Morgan. Look at the outcome — four of New York’s oldest and largest financial institutions (Chemical, Manny Hanny, Chase and JP Morgan) were all now under the same roof. In 2004, Bank One (another product of serial mergers) merged with JP Morgan Chase to create one of the world’s largest banks.

Mergers, alliances, or even outright takeovers — unlike marriages — are made mostly in boardrooms or on the floor of stockmarkets, but rarely in mid-air.

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