From limelight to oblivion: Atlas Ramachandran — The story of a business titan

File image of MM ‘Atlas’ Ramachandran, the Indian banker-turned-entrepreneur

File image of MM ‘Atlas’ Ramachandran, the Indian banker-turned-entrepreneur

If Atlas, the Greek god, was condemned to hold up the sky for eternity, MM ‘Atlas’ Ramachandran, the Indian banker-turned-entrepreneur who passed away in Dubai, was compelled, in his final years, to hold up his reputation, struggling to put his agitated mind at peace by paying off every single dirham he owed.

His task was Titanic – almost like the mythological Greek wars of Titanomachy, in which an old generation of Titans (Atlas, being one of them) fought a new breed of Olympian gods.

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Only, by Ramachandran’s side, there were no other Titans, although many others would soon fall by the wayside, fighting their own wars, for reasons not so different. The other side brimmed with an army of bankers, legal experts, and in his own home country of India, the Directorate of Enforcement (ED).

His vast business empire, built on jewels and diamonds, and propped with healthcare, real estate and film production, crumbled like a date-cookie, the reasons still mired in mystery. On the face of it, why it all happened comes with all the trappings of a petty scam.

Bounced cheques (which, ironically, are no longer a criminal offence in the UAE) were cited as the first misstep. Then came reports of financial fraud, and the ED soon attached his assets in India, as Ramachandran was confined to prison.

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After his release, in an interview, Ramachandran attributed the fall of his empire to denied bank advances. Soon the beaten man simply faded out from the public, after having hogged the limelight on every television channel and radio as the voice and face of his brand, Atlas.

Many mocked him then for being the brand voice, sometimes hitting below the belt, only to be tongue-tied by the genuine cordiality of the man in person.

Not even his harshest detractor would disagree that Ramachandran was a thoroughly grounded man, a kind one at that, but one who erred dangerously on a side where many others triumph with a conniving skill to play the banks and financial markets.

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With his fall, gone were the expert commentaries about the Indian budget, the television sound bites, and the felicitation speeches at events hosted by the dime-a-dozen Indian organisations.

Ramachandran, in many ways, could have been the quintessential Indian business leader in the Gulf, with the same set of narratives – the job creator, the man with a backstory (his being that of a banker who moved to the UAE after a banking stint in Kuwait following the Gulf War), and the philanthropic champion.

But where he differed was in building his own persona into his business. Atlas was Ramachandran and Ramachandran was Atlas. His face would smile at you from billboards and his voice would urge you to buy gold. His ventures in cinema added an aura of glamour.

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But even at this height of glory, when flippancy and a sponsorship were enough to secure media coverage, Ramachandran was one of the few articulate entrepreneurs who could share informed insights on finance and banking.

He had a raving hunger for business and yet was disarmingly simple.

When the first reports of his financial mess emerged, rumours thrived, dragging down the immediate family, and blame baselessly apportioned among many. Ultimately, it was the cross that Ramachandran and his family alone had to bear, silently.

His ‘Atlas’ showrooms, which were everywhere in every Gulf city and even in Indian airports, gave way to new players. The hundreds of people who worked for him may have found new jobs or lost a lot.

Radio jingles have new voices. TV channels have new brand personas, some with utterly despicable attributes. Yes, he missed the social media bandwagon! Imagine what a ruckus he might have created there!

For good or bad, he was bold and innovative; he cared two hoots about detractors. But on final count, the lessons from Ramachandran’s life matter, especially in a dramatically changed business environment.

Many long-serving family businesses have run out of luck. Textile merchants, supermarket owners, quick-rich energy dealers, and even business tycoons have seen the tide turn.

Third- and even fourth-generation entrepreneurs are taking charge. Basking on the success of their parents, they are stepping into the limelight with carefully curated PR narratives of corporate responsibility, philanthropy, social entrepreneurship, and environmental stewardship.

Many have millions to fall back on and may never fail. Then there are the start-up entrepreneurs, too, some already taking the front seat. What bodes well for all of them is to realise that it takes little to bring down empires. And as Ramachandran said, it could start with a single bounced cheque.

It is said that all he wanted was “some time” from his creditors to evade prison. But with the three years in jail, that precious time skipped him by… and now time and space no longer matter.