Photographs and advertisements from Nalli’s nearly nine decades in business. (Courtesy Lavanya Nalli)
“Once upon a time,” Nalli Kuppuswami Chetti begins as he recounts the history of weaving in India and the 89-year story of Nalli, his family’s iconic silk sari company. Chetti, interviewed by Professor V.G. Narayanan, is one of 80-plus noteworthy business leaders from Africa, Mexico, Central and South America, South Asia, and Turkey whose wisdom and experience are now enshrined in the Creating Emerging Markets Oral History Collection at Baker Library. This winter, the HBS Business History Initiative, which launched the project, hosted a conference in India to celebrate the addition of more than a dozen in-depth interviews with Indian executives to the collection, including Chetti, Bajaj Group chairman Rahul Bajaj (MBA 1964), and Shahnaz Herbals founder and CEO Shahnaz Husain.
The Nalli story
Chairman Nalli Kuppuswami Chetti on his introduction to the family sari business, started by his grandfather in Madras (now known as Chennai) in 1928: “From 1946 onwards I used to go to our shop after finishing my homework.…[I]n those days one sari’s cost was 12 rupees, [and the cost] of a nine-yard sari was 18 rupees. If the sales crossed 100 rupees my father used to offer me one ice cream. So I would finish my homework by 7 to 7:30 p.m. and go to the shop.”
Chetti’s son, Ramanathan Nalli (OPM 22, 1995), formerly chairman, now serves as vice chairman of the Nalli Group of Cos. Under his leadership, the company grew from one retail store in Chennai to 30 locations throughout India, selling 1.5 million saris a year.
Lavanya Nalli (MBA 2011)—the fifth generation to join the family business—was named a vice chairman in 2016. She is leading efforts to double the company’s number of stores and to grow its e-commerce offerings. Her younger brother, also a vice chairman, runs Nalli’s new jewelry business.