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BW Businessworld

HMT: When Time Stood Still

Iconic brand HMT Watches, a part of the lives of Indians who grew up in the 1960s, passes into the silent realm of nostalgia

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On a cold Delhi winter day time stood still forever for HMT Watches. Despite over three years of intensive care and life support, on 6 January 2016, it was official that the iconic and very Indian brand was no more. For over three years, efforts were made to revive and resuscitate HMT Watches but to no avail.

And brand HMT Watches was only 55 years old. Born in 1961, it was the product of the post-Independence Nehruvian era, when the country’s thrust was on manufacturing and providing the citizens everything they needed ‘Made in India’. It was only natural that Indians should have an emotional connect with the brand. For many just growing up in the 1960s, an HMT watch was the first watch they owned.

On 6 January, the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs approved a voluntary retirement scheme for employees of HMT Watches, HMT Chinar Watches and HMT Bearings, completing closure formalities and bringing the curtains down on one of the most iconic brands of pre-liberalisation days. HMT’s watch division and related manufacturing units have been in poor financial health for the past 13 years, though it posted losses just three years after liberalisation. From a loss of Rs 90 crore or so in 1994, the accumulated loss for HMT swelled up to Rs 2,580 crore.

Economical Timepiece
Soon after the closure announcement, social media in India went into a fit of nostalgia with comments like “HMT watch as a gift defined that you are no longer a kid” and “HMT meant a watch that would just not give up”. Through the mid-70s to the early 90s, HMT Watches were known for being reliable, sturdy and largely trouble-free because any watch smith, big or small, could repair them quickly.

Endorsing these sentiments, ad filmmaker and brand expert Prahlad Kakkar describes HMT watches as an ‘economical brand’ that was ‘cheap, hearty and tough’. “HMT was a great gifting option back in those days. I don’t think it was water-resistant but since the army used it, it must have been bloody tough,” says Kakkar. Brand expert Harish Bijoor agrees: “Despite the fact that it was not a great looking watch, it was a sturdy one; it lasted and lasted.”

K. V. Sridhar, the veteran creative leader and a widely respected name in the Indian advertising world, describes brand HMT as one that had a ‘patriotic feeling’ attached to it. “It was a sturdy watch that could be fixed by any watch repair guy,” he says.

Was brand HMT really that iconic? Sridhar says: “I don’t know whether it is as iconic as a Royal Enfield or an Old Monk, but it had a brand following. I think this is because everyone is nostalgic about their father’s watches. There is no boy in this world who does not aspire for his father’s watch, so maybe that is where the connect lies.”

That is the reason one can find pictures of Indira Gandhi proudly wearing an HMT Janata. “It was known to be among the favourite watches of Indiraji,” says a veteran Congress leader. For the Indian defence forces, HMT rolled out sub-brands like HMT Pilot, HMT Jawan, HMT Sainik and HMT Rakshak. HMT Astra, in fact was the first product with a digital chronograph — a stopwatch combined with the display. For the fashionable youth of the early 80s and 90s, HMT Sona and HMT Kanchan were launched.

Behind The Times
HMT Watches once claimed to have sold over 100 million pieces and had over 1,200 watch models catering to young and old alike. HMT Watches also has several firsts to its name. HMT was hailed as the ‘Timekeeper to the Nation” when it offered the first quartz watch, the first combination of analogue and digital, and the first watch for the visually challenged, to list a few.

But whatever it achieved, primarily the command and control of the company rested with the central government. Which meant the system and processes took their own time to respond to the fast-changing market reality, particularly in the post-liberalisation era in India.

HMT and its subsidiaries reported to the department of heavy industries. Over the past decade and a half, brand HMT took a hit as the markets were flooded with watches from private brands that were stylish and vibrant. In the rise of brands like Titan and Timex lies the story of the declining health of HMT Watches.

An angry Kakkar blames the government for HMT’s shutdown. “It is not just technology advances, but also that they (HMT) were a government brand, so everything was bureaucratic and there was a lack of decision making capability. They were not entrepreneurial, but all job seekers. Hence, the management itself did not have any motivation to make it succeed,” says Kakkar.

Sridhar makes a larger point for the decline and the death of HMT. “In post-independence India, there were a lot of things the government did that it was not supposed to do. Like producing scooters, refrigerators, and watches. Since a lot of products were produced not as excellence or engineering marvels but as basic utility products at a fair price, the result is there for everyone to see,” he says.

Bijoor says HMT’s undoing was that it was government-owned and the government did not care about branding at all. “What Amul is to butter, HMT was to watches and I think that imagery could have been leveraged. If branded properly, it had the potential to be like an Enfield or a Rajdoot motorcycle, which were not front-ended products, but in time they become heritage products with iconic value,” says Bijoor.

In 1992, HMT enjoyed a 71 per cent market share in the mechanical watch category and a 55 per cent market share of the total watch production in the organised sector.

Winding Down
At the time of the winding up announcement, HMT Watches had 923 employees spread over its units in Bengaluru and Tumakuru in Karnataka and Ranibagh in Uttarakhand. They have accepted the voluntary retirement scheme package offered. Reports say these employees have not been paid salaries since April 2014. HMT Watches had last recruited in 1987. One of the ex-employees of the brand HMT says the writing was on the wall since the mid-1990s when the company had shut down the R&D division. However, just to execute an order of 5,500 HMT watches, basically for collectors, the Ranibagh unit is operating till March 31.

As HMT drifts away in time, HMT watches, still available in large numbers though not necessarily in working order, will become collectors’ items, talked about, bought and sold on online platforms and displayed on social networks. Operations may have wound up, but the HMT Watches brand will live on in memory.

(With inputs from Abhinav Mohapatra)

[email protected] @ashish_bw

(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 25-01-2016)