Jagdish Khattar and Maruti were inseparable associations even though he had stepped down from the company 14 years ago.
It was but natural, therefore, that his passing away on Monday brought back memories of his tenure at the company. He was part of Maruti between 1993 and 2007 when it went through its share of upheavals in the joint venture with the Centre before being privatised eventually.
Khattar began his tenure as Marketing Director before taking over as Managing Director six years later in 1999. This was the time the company was still Maruti Udyog in its old avatar as an alliance partner before coming into its own as Maruti Suzuki in 2007. By this time, the Centre had made clear its intent to exit the JV and Khattar continued at the helm as MD.
Those who worked with him recall him as a good people’s man and an efficient leader. He took over as MD at an acrimonious time when the Centre and Suzuki Motor Corp were at loggerheads with each other and things really looked dicey for this successful company. Naturally, the top priority was to steer the ship carefully through troubled waters with either partner not willing to yield an inch to the other.
Khattar the first to bet big on rural India market
Maruti was still market leader but competition was looming large in the form of aggressive newcomers like Hyundai. It was important to put the house in order and once the Centre decided to step down and exit Maruti, the stage was set for the Japanese automaker to plan the India growth story aggressively.
“I think one should credit Khattar with spearheading Maruti’s rural initiative and building a larger customer base in the process,” says a former colleague. Today, it is fashionable to talk about the rural India drive by most automakers but Khattar ensured that Maruti took the lead in this department.
Perhaps, it was his IAS background which gave him a better idea of India’s vast and diverse terrain but ultimately it was this effort that continues to hold the company in good stead today with its vast network of retail outlets across the country.
Builder of ‘opportunity share’
Likewise, Khattar was keen on building ‘opportunity share’ for Maruti instead of just pursuing the beaten track of market share. This meant identifying new customers and helping them access products from the company. The list included teachers, lawyers, policemen and even journalists who were zeroed in as prospective buyers.
They did not hail from fancy cities but smaller centres like Varanasi, Meerut, Sangli and Dindigul. From Khattar’s point of view, these professionals had the means to buy a Maruti car and it made perfect sense to target them. Likewise, there were any number of two-wheeler riders keen on graduating to a car. Why not an affordable option like Maruti? The drive paid off and it would be fair to say that once again, Khattar played a big role in paving the way for a stronger customer base.
It is precisely for this reason that Maruti stands tall when it comes to its overwhelming retail presence and the ability to still be one of India’s most trusted auto brands. The apt comparison in the two-wheeler space would be Hero MotoCorp which, like Maruti, has gone the extra mile on strengthening its hold in small towns and villages.
Khattar was clearly passionate about marketing and this explains why he continued to keep the fire in his belly burning as an entrepreneur with Carnation Auto. There is no question that he was a critical part of Maruti Suzuki’s success story in India especially while being present in both phases — as a joint venture entity and later on its own.
Khattar’s death comes at a time when India is battling a massive Covid resurgence. Thousands of lives are being snuffed out every day due to this pandemic. It especially hurts more when those who are familiar also move on during this difficult time. Jagdish Khattar, RIP.