Within the Tata Group, RK Krishnakumar was known as just “KK.” A group loyalist, he joined the Tata Administrative Service (TAS) in 1963. For the next fifty years, till he turned 75 in 2013, he held a host of senior positions within the conglomerate across the tea, coffee, and hotels businesses. Known to be a close confidant of Ratan Tata, Krishnakumar’s passing marks the end of a long and distinguished chapter in corporate India, with the buyout of Tetley in 2000 being one of the many shining examples.
His first job as a 25-year-old was with Tata Finlay, a joint venture with Glasgow’s Finlay. That began his journey in tea and coffee and in 1988, he took charge as Tata Tea’s joint managing director and three years later, became its top boss. That entity is today known as Tata Consumer Products, with a wide range of products across categories. In 1997, Krishnakumar took charge as Indian Hotel’s Managing Director and soon after also became Tata Tea’s Vice-Chairman.
Brand consultant, Harish Bijoor recalls being interviewed for the position of Marketing Manager by Krishnakumar at Tata Tea in the early 1990s. Then employed with Brooke Bond Lipton in Bengaluru, moving to Mumbai was a tough decision and he politely turned down the offer. A year later, he met them again after being hunted down. Bijoor told Krishnakumar of the reluctance to relocate. “I was then told that a coffee business in Bengaluru was in the process of being acquired and the offer was made. In retrospect, all this was shared in good faith and trust,” narrates Bijoor. To him, Krishnakumar was a man who picked and chose his team and ethics was always non-negotiable. “That was clearly above excellence,” he says.
About two decades ago, Bijoor then employed with Zip Telecom, had a meeting at Mumbai’s Taj Mahal Hotel. As he entered the premises, he saw Krishnakumar, then Indian Hotels’ boss, at the door with someone. Right there, the door was held open for Bijoor who was hugely embarrassed. “You are a guest at the hotel Harish,” was all Krishnakumar said with a smile. To Bijoor, the man was an interesting paradox of being formal and yet extremely accessible. Krishnakumar was also on the board of Tata Sons for a decade. Known to be an able crisis manager, he earned his stripes across the businesses he ran.
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