“Your cookers are bursting, and nobody wants to buy them.” With these words, a shopkeeper in Lucknow flung open the doors of his warehouse to show me row upon row of pressure cookers, all of them bearing the Prestige brand, all of which had exploded.
I simply couldn’t believe my eyes. We had never experienced anything like this, and I could swear by all that I held dear about the quality of our production. How, then, had these cookers burst?
After taking up the reins at Prestige in 1975, I had won over hostile employees and solved the shortage of aluminium that had crippled production. We got a small quota of aluminium, and that allowed us to make enough cookers to supply south India only.
By 1978 the shortage of aluminium had started to ease, and we were back to supplying our customers India-wide. But while the sales of our cookers picked up in the south, they were not doing well in the north, and I set out to find out why.
While travelling the length and breadth of Uttar Pradesh, I discovered to my shock that our pressure cookers were bursting. I met with dealers and visited warehouses where I saw the defective pressure cookers, and they were all Prestige cookers. Small wonder then that our cookers were not selling.
Nobody had told me about the problem, and though what I found was disturbing, I was glad that I had gone to the market to see it for myself. And that is a learning that I have always remembered. I made it a point to frequently visit most of our dealers, and so did my senior team members. You can never get the right information, especially the bad news, from third parties.
I realised that if we didn’t stop this from happening we wouldn’t have a business to run.
A bursting cooker can kill a person; it was not surprising that nobody was buying our cookers. That night I stayed up late in my hotel room and tried to figure out how to fix the problem.
My engineering knowledge came to my aid, and I figured out that the cookers were bursting because of spurious spare parts. While we sold good safety plugs along with the cooker, the life cycle of a pressure cooker is longer than that of its external parts; a cooker can last up to fifty years.
Customers were unknowingly buying spurious spare safety plugs. The safety plugs are made of tin bismuth, an expensive alloy. Cheaper plugs were an attractive alternative for ignorant customers.
That is the grim reality in India – spurious drugs, food and spare parts are sold aplenty. The dealers don’t worry about what they sell, so long as it sells. Since it wasn’t possible for me to single-handedly stop the use of such spares, I had to come up with a solution that would prevent the cookers from bursting even if inferior-quality parts were used.
I called the chief engineer at our factory and instructed him to keep a mock-up ready for me to work on. When I returned to Bangalore and hastened to the factory I found that the engineer had not followed my instructions. His stand was that if what I had suggested had been possible, “the people in Prestige UK would have done it. If they couldn’t do it, how could we do it?”
His thinking was not very different from that of most Indians in those days; witness the Ambassador car that India manufactured under licence from a British firm for fifty years without a single change. That was the obdurate mindset of the times.
I worked in the lab for a whole month and came up with the Gasket release system, or GRS, my first innovation. A pressure cooker comes with a weight valve that is meant to rise up and release the steam that is built up by the pressure inside the cooker. The valve then settles back in place. The safety plug is a back-up safety mechanism and regulates the pressure built up in the cooker if the weight valve fails. Spurious safety plugs that were being sold for Prestige pressure cookers did not work effectively, and instead of regulating the pressure and releasing steam, they led to the cookers exploding.
The gasket is the rubber ring that is inserted within the outer rim of the pressure cooker, and its task is to hold the lid firmly in place even as the pressure builds up inside the cooker.
The Gasket Release system is an effective safety device. It ensures that if the weight valve or the safety plug fails to function, either because the cooker is overloaded or the vent is blocked, a portion of the gasket is pushed out through a slot in the lid, thus releasing the excess steam down and away from the person at the kitchen counter. The GRS is equally effective even if spurious spares are used.
I can confidently claim that not a single Prestige pressure cooker has burst since that day. The GRS is just a hole in the lid. But if it were not for that hole, the company would have gone bankrupt.
Over the course of time, other manufacturers too have been using the GRS in their cookers. We welcomed it. I did not patent the GRS for a very strategic reason.
Pressure cookers had by then become synonymous with Prestige, and even when a cooker made by another manufacturer burst, the newspapers reported it as a Prestige pressure cooker. I wanted to ensure that our brand would not be affected, and by allowing other manufacturers to use the GRS, we could improve the safety of all pressure cookers and serve the interests of the consumers.
Excerpted with permission from Disrupt and Conquer: How TTK Prestige Became A Billion-Dollar Company, TT Jagannathan with Sandhya Mendonca, Penguin Random House India.
Corrections and clarifications: The headline of this article has been edited as it erroneously stated ‘TKK Prestige’ instead of ‘TTK Prestige’.