Yasho Saboo: Keeping a Close Watch

Yasho Saboo at a half-marathonChance plays a big role in Yashovardhan Saboo’s narrative. When the current CEO of Saboo Business Group was a year old learning to walk in his birthplace, Kolkata, his father decided to set up a manufacturing business and went to meet the then chief minister of Punjab for suitable land in Faridabad. “It was easy to meet a CM in the late fifties; single-window clearance is a trendy concept today but it was commonplace back then,” he reminisces. The CM urged the gentleman to consider Chandigarh instead, an upcoming new town full of promise. And so, ‘by chance’, the Saboo family ended up establishing base in the “innocent” city, where they continue to live today and which serves as the world headquarters for KDDL Ltd. The company is India’s largest watch-manufacturer and retailer, declaring a turnover of INR 1,246 million last year.

After completing his schooling from the all-boys St John’s school in Chandigarh, the teenage Yasho managed to get into St Stephen’s Delhi without an interview (“It happened by chance. Four of my school mates got in too.”). Armed with a Bachelor’s in economics, he got himself admitted at the New York Institute of Photography to pursue a lingering passion. His father, however, was not too keen on this new ambition, and threw Saboo a challenge: “Sit for the IIM entrance exam; if you get through, then study here, not in the US.” Yasho accepted, and ‘by chance’, found himself studying finance a few months later at IIM Ahmedabad (“The engineers always trounced us at school but the liberal-arts guys became CEOs later,” grins Saboo, founder and now president of the All India Federation of Horological Industries).

After his MBA, Saboo dutifully joined his father’s business in the manufacture of hosiery needles, but found it boring. By chance, he says, he zeroed in on watch production as a potential business opportunity. “I liked fine engineering, I had a pre-approved license that was not being used (it was the License Raj back then), and there was no company making watch dials in India. So I used my license to get steel, cement and bricks, and set up my first factory with INR 40 lakhs at Parwanoo, Himachal Pradesh in 1983, named Kamla Dials and Devices (KDDL) after my grandmother.” This was a year after his marriage to the Mumbai-born, Nigeria-bred Anu Saboo, who is now head of marketing, communication and training for the Ethos Group of Companies – his partner in both life and work.

The next couple of years were a ‘rough patch’ for the young couple. “First, our technical collaborator killed himself. Then the ’84 riots broke out, and Punjab was on high alert. My dad’s name appeared on a hit list; I had an armed guard accompanying me to work,” Saboo narrates. (Soon he realised he was more visible with the guard so he got rid of him.) On the business front, HMT, India’s only watch company then, was their biggest customer but was prone to babu attitudes and a preference for cheaper Taiwanese parts. “In 1987, when Titan set up shop, we had our first real breakthrough. They wanted high quality which we were able to supply.” Besides, many of those in Titan’s top echelons were fellow IIM-A grads.

Titan and Timex turned out to be ‘chance’ angels for the Saboo fortune. They set up a second plant in Bangalore, and quickly rose to being India’s leading manufacturer of watch components. By 1995–96, they wanted to export but weren’t allowed into the prestigious Basel Fair (a state of affairs that lasted till 2000 until import of watches was legally permitted), “so we got a subsidiary in Switzerland and displayed our ware through them,” recalls the dashing, affable 54-year-old charter member of TIE Chandigarh and the World Entrepreneurs Forum. Export is now the larger part of the business; they supply components to some of the world’s leading watch brands but cannot reveal their names due to confidentiality agreements. Around this time, Saboo also launched an Indo-Swiss venture now known as Saboo Coatings Limited to offer specialty paints and coatings in India, and later, a precision stamping business, EIGEN Engineering..

By 2003, at a time when imported watches were only available on the grey market in the crowded, dingy back alleys of Karol Bagh, Saboo – who was then chairman of CII Chandigarh – saw the potential in watch retail and decided to set up genuine imported-watch stores with genuine bills, paying genuine taxes. He named this subsidiary Ethos starting off at malls and airports, retailing brands like Rado, Omega, Tag Heuer, Longines, Cartier, Rolex, and most recently, Hermès. When the number of brands increased along with the price range, Saboo further branched out into more retail concepts – Ethos for general-category watches, Ethos Summit for luxury brands, and mono-retail stores for Swatch, Rolex and Tissot, besides online from www.ethoswatches.com.

But the man is not all business and enterprise. Besides work, the loving husband and father of two loves running half-marathons (“12 so far; Anu won’t let me run full marathons”); skiing (“I learnt it 35 years ago in Gulmarg at a government ski course for INR 1,200, including stay”); classical music (“Classical Indian and Western; my daughter takes after me. She is studying Western classical music appreciation in Philadelphia at present”); art and calligraphy (“just dabbling”); and most of all, wine. He began collecting bottles over 10 years ago, and stores them in his two wine fridges at home or at his friends’ cellars in Europe. “My taste in wine developed over dinners with Swiss business associates. As a vegetarian, I figured I could be an expert in at least one section of the menu,” smiles Saboo, who founded Chandigarh’s wine club in 2003. “We started out with seven members, which grew to 30. Most of them were those who’d down a few glasses and then ask, ‘Whisky kaddon ayegi (When do we get the whisky)?’ Now, of course, we have about 50 members and many of them are serious aficionados.”

Saboo believes that true luxury is contained not in possessing (“In fact, it is largely true that the value of anything you covet starts to diminish from the time you actually possess it”) but in being able to enjoy experiences devoid of possession. “I am passionate about watches mostly because of the unique combination of innovative engineering and fine craftsmanship they capture,” he ruminates. For a man who’s made his fortune in both art and science, ‘chance’ is an old friend.

First published in the April 2013 issue of Atelier

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