As he takes on his adopted son Muthiah, the man who once controlled the 103-year-old Chettinad Group finds himself at the centre of one of the most gripping boardroom dramas in recent times
“My son will murder me any moment,” says the 83-year-old, sitting back in a plush leather sofa. As he speaks, he looks up at the wall that has a row of gilded-frame photographs of his ancestors.
M A M Ramaswamy, the man who once controlled the 103-year-old Chettinad Group, one of Tamil Nadu’s oldest family-run businesses with interests in cement, engineering, logistics, minerals, education, healthcare and plantations, is now caught in a family feud that has pitted him against his adopted son M A M R Muthiah, who controls the Group and its flagship Chettinad Cements.
On Tuesday, Ramaswamy held a press conference at his Chettinad House to declare that he was disowning Muthiah and appointing his cousin A C Muthiah as the custodian of his property. “I bet on the wrong horse,” said Ramaswamy, who is better known in racing circles as the man whose horses have recorded the most wins in India’s turf history.
The 100-year-old Chettinad mansion stands in fading majesty on the banks of Adyar river in south Chennai. The entrance to the mansion is framed by a wooden door that is at least a foot thick. “That’s four-layered teak,” says the man who escorts you to the first-floor room where Ramaswamy, dressed in T-shirt and lungi, receives visitors.
But chip away at the grandeur and the yellowing walls of the mansion tell the story of its owner who has seen better days.
“I lost everything, almost everything. He (son Muthiah) did all that’s possible against me. Now he wants to kill me to take away my remaining assets too,” he tells The Sunday Express on a humid summer afternoon, nine months after a public-fallout between father and son.
On August 27 last year, Ramaswamy had to step down as chairman of Chettinad Cements after an annual general meeting passed a resolution stating that Ramaswamy should not be reappointed director, eventually leading to his appointment as chairman-emeritus. A day earlier, the CBI had arrested M Manuneethi Cholan, the registrar of companies in Chennai, for allegedly accepting a bribe of Rs 10 lakh.
Ramaswamy, who feared Muthiah, who has been managing the Group as MD and as vice-chairman of Chettinad Cements since 2000, would take over the management, allegedly offered Cholan Rs 10 lakh to declare any decision taken by the AGM as “null and void”. Cholan is now out on bail.
The months after his ouster were tough as the relationship between Ramaswamy and his son deteriorated. Besides, he had to face the CBI investigators at least twice over the alleged bribery charges. In August 2014, he filed a complaint alleging threats to his life and accused Muthiah’s men of secretly installing surveillance cameras at the mansion.
A few days ago, he complained to the police that a group of 40 men had trespassed into the palace, allegedly to steal some key documents. “Ayyappan (Ramaswamy now refers to Muthiah by the name he had before he was adopted) had sent them to take away some crucial documents,” he says.
Muthiah, who divides time between Singapore and Chennai, landed in the city that night and said his people had to enter the palace after Ramaswamy locked a room he had been using.
M Murali, Muthiah’s lawyer, says Ramaswamy is “imagining things”. “Muthiah is trying his best to settle all problems. He apologised to his father (for the attempted break-in) and fell at his feet last week. Most of the problems have been created by people outside the family,” said Murali.
Ramaswamy’s is known to be one of the richest Chettiar families of Tamil Nadu. His grandfather Raja Sir Annamalai Chettiar, an educationist and philanthropist of the 19th century, built the palace, co-founded Indian Bank and promoted the Chettinad Group. Known as ‘Chettinad Arasar (king of Chettinad)’, it was Annamalai Chettiar’s eminence that elevated the Chettiars, a rich trading community, to the status of royalty.
Ramaswamy has been in the business since 1952 under his father Muthiah Chettiar. He was president of the Indian Hockey Federation when India won the World Cup hockey title in Kuala Lumpur in 1975 and the Olympic Gold at Moscow in 1980. “MAM (Ramaswamy) used to be a generous man. He contributed Rs 1 lakh to the Indian hockey team that played at the Bangkok Asiad,” says an old friend.
He also represented the Janata Dal (Secular) as a member of the Rajya Sabha from 2004 to 2009. In 2012, Forbes listed Ramaswamy as the 88th richest person in India and estimated his net worth at $650 million.
An aide of Ramaswamy’s says on condition of anonymity, “I remember him as a hockey and tennis player from his days in Vivekananda College (in Chennai). Later, he found his lifelong interest in horses.”
At the press meet on Tuesday, Ramaswamy alleged Muthiah was usurping his stud farm and had erected a huge wall, against which one of his horses collided and died. He also alleged Ayyappan had stopped his supply of medicines from Chettinad Health City and that he was forced to buy from a private pharmacy nearby his house.
It was in 1996 that he had adopted Muthiah, a fellow Chettiar. “I met Ayyappan in the US when he was 21 years old. He was working there. That relationship grew and I decided to adopt him as my wife Sigapi Aachi and I had no children. As per tradition, we named him Muthiah after my father. We were a happy family until my wife passed away in 2006. Things have worsened in recent years,” Ramaswamy says.
When he was ousted as chairman of Chettinad Cements, a source said, Ramaswamy held 24 per cent stake in the company while his son Muthiah held 15 per cent. He says he now owns only 10 per cent of his assets and Muthiah has the remaining 90 per cent. “I have formed two new trusts and all the property in my name will be transferred to these trusts,” he says.
A source close to Muthiah says differences between the father and son grew over their contrary styles of functioning. While Muthiah was known to be a shrewd businessman, turning it from a company with a turnover of Rs 600 crore to a Rs 4,000 crore one, Ramaswamy was known for his easy ways.
The source points to how Ramaswamy filled Annamalai University, which was part of the Group since the early 1980s, with more staff than students, plunging the university into a major financial crisis. Three years ago, the state government took over the university. This is said to have strained his relationship with Jayalalithaa and it is Muthiah who is said to enjoy support from Poes Garden.
Back at Chettinad House, as the ageing patriarch prepares to get up and leave for his doctor’s appointment, he says, “P Chidambaram (former Union minister) is my cousin, so is A C Muthiah (former BCCI chief)… and many more such powerful people. But I never call them for my needs. There was a time when the whole family, including my parents, wife, uncles and their families and children, lived in this house. Those were the happiest days of my life. We will never get those days back. I am alone now. And I may be murdered anytime.”