When Kalyan Jewellers Chairman and Managing Director T.S. Kalyanaraman or his sons, Rajesh Kalyanaraman and Ramesh Kalyanaraman, go for a morning stroll around the Swaraj Round or visit the Vadakkumnatha temple of Thrissur in Kerala in the evening, they don’t have to worry about carrying a wallet to pay for wayside tea or lemon soda or masala dosa. Like the famed caparisoned tuskers of Thrissur who enjoy superstar status, everyone in this small town knows ‘Kalyan’s Swamis’, a pride of Thrissur. Despite owning private jets, a fleet of Rolls Royces and a big mansion, Swami and his sons chat with the roadside vendors in the unique local slang identifiable with rhythmic flow of Malayalam laced with open heartedness and affection. “That is because we know them very well and they know us very well,” says Rajesh.
The ‘Swamis’ of Kalyan have been part and parcel of Thrissur for at least three generations where Kalyanaraman’s grandfather had moved about a century ago from Kumbakonam in Tamil Nadu to start several textile shops in Thrissur town. After years of running the centrally located textile shop that he had inherited, Kalyanaraman decided to try his luck in jewellery by banking on the trust and affection of the people of Thrissur. In the last 25 years, he has used that ‘Thrissur model’ of customer trust and affection to beat competition and spread across India and abroad. Now India’s second-largest jeweller after Tata’s Tanishq in terms of revenues, thanks to years of steady growth, Kalyan Jewellers is getting ready to shift gears. It is looking to more than double the revenue and the number of branches within the next five years.
Will it succeed? The answer to this question lies in the finer details of how Kalyanaraman and his sons transformed a traditional business – infamous for lack of customer trust – with innovative thinking, transparency, personalised customer care, aggressive marketing and hyper localisation to win hearts of people in diverse geographies.
Textiles to Jewellery
Seetharamaiyer, Kalyanaraman’s father, inherited the textile mill and shops from his father T.S. Kalyanaramaiyer. Kalyanaraman, the eldest among five brothers, started assisting his father at the age of 12. In 1972, he graduated in Commerce from the local Sree Kerala Varma College (from where his sons also graduated) and was given the charge of Kalyan Textiles, which then had a turnover of Rs 25 lakh. He managed that business well and inherited the textile shop in 1993
Thrissur, the cultural capital of Kerala, is also the biggest city in Central Kerala. Hundreds of families used to flock to Thrissur every day for festival or marriage shopping. Kalyan Textiles was one of their favourite destinations. Customers gave Kalyanaraman the idea of starting a jewellery shop so that they could buy from the same premises. Ayodhya, Chiriyankandathu and Fashion were some of the well-known jewellery shops in the region but customers had limited choice. Salesmen or owners in dingy jewellery shops in narrow lanes would show sample pieces, take orders and tell customers to come back after some weeks to collect the ornaments.
In such a market, Kalyanaraman took the risk of offering luxury in his new shop, spread across 4,500 square feet, with four salesmen and plush decor, car parking and a wide range of ready-to-wear ornaments ranging from traditional to modern. All this cost him Rs 75 lakh to build, including Rs 50 lakh as loan. Kalyan Jewellers became an instant hit, attracting customers from places as far away as Aluva and Palakkad. “Soon we realised that neither the customer nor the goldsmith knew the actual purity of ornaments. They would come to know only when they re-sold and had no option but to believe what the jeweller said. They were also ignorant about gold prices and mechanism for pricing gold and how much value erosion happened on the pretext of making charges/wastage,” says Kalyanaraman.
Kalyan attached price tags to each piece and offered purity tests free of cost. Until then, even reputed jewellery shops were relying on inaccurate acid tests, which also damaged the precious metal. Kalyan offered customers an X-ray-assisted Karatmeter which showed gold’s purity (in percentage) per 22-karat gold and claims to have pioneered quality certifications from agencies such as Bureau of Indian Standards. “It was a disruptive business strategy that attracted the ire of fellow jewellers. Now, they follow the same methods,” says Ramesh. It took another seven years to start the second showroom at Palakkad, about 70 kilometers from Thrissur. There, Kalyan also offered localised products as the region has a lot of Tamil influence. The success made Kalyan start another showroom at Perinthalmanna and then the first shop outside the state in the city of Coimbatore. By 2008, it had managed to open 5 branches in South India using the same strategy of hyper localisation. At this stage, it resorted to a different marketing campaign.
Ambassadors and ‘Big B’
By early 2000s, television had become an unavoidable medium for local businesses to attract customers. Many jewellers such as Atlas Jewellery were showing commercials featuring the owners themselves. Instead, Kalyan experimented with Mammootty, then a rising superstar in Malayalam film industry. It clicked for the company. Kalyan replicated this with Prabhu, son of Shivaji Ganeshan, in Tamil Nadu, Nagarjuna in Andhra Pradesh and Shiva Rajkumar, son of Kannada film icon Rajkumar, in Karnataka. It retained them for a longer stint as brand ambassadors.