After a rigorous 8-to-5 day at the gardens, 53-year-old Seethalakshmi is still busy bundling the tender leaves she plucked during her hard working day. But she has more to do. She moves to the cool confines of her company's boardroom.
She plucks a record 110 kg of tea leaves with her hands every day, and by virtue of it, is also a director in Kannan Devan Hill Plantations (KDHP — formerly part of Tata Tea).
Seethalakshmi is a third standard school dropout but both her sons pursue engineering studies in Tamil Nadu across the border from this scenic hill town in Kerala synonymous with the plantation power of the Tatas.
“Every employee gives cent per cent. A sense of belongingness is quite high here,” Seethalakshmi told Hindustan Times.
She is not alone. Most of the families that constitute KDHP’s 13,000-odd employee base are aiming high these days, thanks to its participatory management model.
Last year Rama Rajeswari (30), daughter of a teacher at the KDHP school, brought laurels to the high ranges by becoming part of the Indian Police Service.
She used to trek15 km daily to reach her school. Today, 58 schools dot the picturesque hills of Munnar which stands 8,000 feet above the sea level, a few hours’ drive up from Kochi.
In 2005, when the Tatas exited the plantation sector, many wrote off the hilly region. Tata Tea, with focus on brand power and marketing, became Tata Global Beverages, while the gardens that grew the country’s favourite morning brew were hived off as separate entities.
The Tatas now hold only 18% stake in KDHP, southern India’s biggest tea production house. As much as 98% of KDHP’s workforce are now shareholders. Each worker has a minimum 300 shares. A R10 face-value share is valued at R49 now.
The best worker and administrative staff member are picked among the nine directors of the company.
“Employees own the place, run the show and share the returns. The Tatas have left a good work culture and we imbibed the spirit in right way,” said TV Alexandar, managing director.
KDHP’s 58,000 acres are divided into 82 divisions, each looking after a stretch of plantations. Each division has a committee as does each of the 16 factories that process the leaves. These committees meet once a month to scrutinise performance and prepare the work plan and target for the following month. Decisions are taken instantly and executed with precision.
“Earlier duties were entrusted with us. Now we are consulted and heard properly. It helps us give the maximum satisfaction,” said Kaliamma (52), whose son is now studying fashion technology in Tamil Nadu.
Besides regular pay, employees get R2 extra for every kg plucked over their minimum quota of 50 kg.
Stephen E (29), an MBA, was earning a big pay packet in the Persian Gulf, is now back in the hills. As a fourth generation employee of the gardens, and the son of a humble labourer, he is in a way paying back for his education which was sponsored by the Tatas.
“Satisfaction level is high here. And every day you are faced with fresh challenges,” he said.
KDHP’s profits rose to R40.84 crore in 2009-10 from R12.50 crore in the previous year, while production went up to 22.86 million kg from 20.69 million kg. KDHP is now eyeing foreign markets.
“We have already taken up the management of Chewaka Estate in Ethiopia and talks are on for taking over some tea estates in Vietnam,” said Alexandar. Overseas agencies, including the World Bank, have evinced a keen interest in the participatory management model.