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Jagdish Khattar: The man who dared to become a businessman at 65

Auto industry leaders and civil servants fondly remember Jagdish Khattar, former IAS officer and the last Indian to be MD of Maruti Suzuki. He led the launch of new models and setting up Maruti’s Manesar plant, while after retirement he saw the boom and bust of his enterprise.

April 26, 2021 / 05:35 PM IST
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At a time when most 65-year olds would retire to chase their grandchildren around the park, former supremo of Maruti Suzuki (MSIL), Jagdish Khattar got busy setting up his pet project. It involved selling multi-brand pre-owned cars to aspiring buyers who wished to own something bigger and better than what their budget would allow for a new car.

This was not unfamiliar turf for Khattar, the brain behind the birth and growth of Maruti Suzuki True Value, one of India’s biggest multi-brand platforms for used cars in the organised segment. True Value, which was set up in 2002, a year before Khattar took over as MD of MSIL, managed to build a strong brand recall value in the market.

So, in 2008 (less than a year after retiring from MSIL), aided by investors including PremjiInvest and IFCI Ventures, Khattar gave shape and form to Carnation Auto. As for the used-car demand, for every new car sold in India, there was one used car sold somewhere in the country but Khattar knew that it was only the tip of the iceberg. And he was right.

From a ratio of 1:1 (new cars to used cars) in 2008, demand for used cars has skyrocketed. The pre-owned segment closed FY20 with estimated sales of 4.2 million units representing a ratio of 1:1.5 as the new car market ended FY20 with sales of 2.77 million.

Offering several advantages like a 160-point quality check process for every used car sold, help with finance, motor insurance, proper paperwork, and post-sales service of the car, Carnation Auto quickly became one of the leading players in the organised, certified preowned car market. Khattar’s grand idea had clicked and the company had little to worry about, or it would so appear.

In 2011, India was hit by an economic slowdown which was to cripple the country for three financial years. This period punctured the growth of Carnation Auto, putting Khattar on the backfoot after having invested his life’s savings in the venture. Carnation Auto eventually went bankrupt and defaulted on loans taken from PNB.

The CBI in late 2019 booked Khattar for an alleged bank loan fraud of Rs 110 crore. The flamboyant former bureaucrat, however, claimed that there were no lapses in the financial management of Carnation which was seconded by a detailed independent forensic audit carried out at the behest of the bankers.

Khattar who was best remembered for launching the Swift, new Wagon R and Zen Estilo besides setting up MSIL’s Manesar plant in Haryana, was the last Indian CEO of the Delhi-based car making behemoth. After Khattar’s retirement, the MD’s post has been occupied by Japanese nationals.

Condolences poured in from stalwarts of India’s corporate sector and from the government who mourned Khattar’s demise following a cardiac arrest on the morning of April 26. He was 78.

R C Bhargava, chairman, Maruti Suzuki said, “Outstanding member of the IAS who was persuaded by me to join Maruti Suzuki. Contributed hugely to the growth of the company. Wonderful human being and a friend. My deepest condolences to his family”.

Amitabh Kant, CEO, Niti Aayog, tweeted, “Jagdish Khattar was a man full of ideas, energy and positivity. He leaves behind a tremendous track record both in Govt and public sector. His contributions to Maruti have been immense. Extremely sorry to hear about his demise”.

Rajeev Chaba, President and Managing Director, MG Motor India tweeted, “Saddened to hear the demise of Jagdish Khattar. His contributions to the auto industry was huge.”

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Swaraj Baggonkar
Swaraj Baggonkar
first published: Apr 26, 2021 05:35 pm