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A new feather in MRF's cap

MRF recently bagged the FICCI award for excellence in sports promotion. K. M. Vinoo Mammen, Vice-Chairman and Managing Director of MRF, speaks about what it took to get this recognition.


IT IS difficult to imagine a name other than K. M. (Vinoo) Mammen of MRF to the first ever award for Outstanding Corporate Sports Initiative by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industries (FICCI) for sponsorship to sport. Few industrial establishments in the country have done as much as MRF towards enhancing the profile of sport be it in cricket, auto-racing, football and boxing. Sponsorship as a concept is virtually redefined by the enthusiastic members of the renowned Mammen Mappillai family; and Vinoo Mammen now leads the institution inventing new dynamics to the ever-expanding frontiers of corporate support for sport.

"In a way, we are the pioneers in the field," observed Vinoo, his face mirroring noticeable pride for bagging the FICCI award for excellence in sports promotion. But he is the first to admit that this was not achieved easily; so much of planning and effort had to amalgamate into chalking out the contours of a delicate area of operation of sponsorship, where the line dividing sports promotion and commercial projection of a product is wafer thin. He asserted that the success achieved by MRF in fulfilling a social objective of sports promotion and making its products so visible in every conceivable forum was the result of the extremely sophisticated professionalism, backed by the wherewithal and ingenuity, in marketing sport as well as the brand names. "We went for the best of coaches, trainers, sports medicine doctors and dieticians, so that in every area we touched international standards and built up a state-of-the-art infrastructure," he explained.

Vinoo conceded that MRF had a head start when the audio-visual field was zooming high, and made judicious use of the prime time viewing. Obviously, cricket was high on the agenda, taking into consideration the national passion for the sport, although it was with auto-racing that the company was associated with more closely projecting the slogan that outlined the quality of the tyres and allied products. If MRF is accepted as the pioneer in the field of high Tech Ads featuring outstanding sportspersons, a large part of the credit should go to Vinoo's younger brother, the late Ravi Mammen. "His idea of starting a pace foundation was a masterpiece," said Vinoo, and acknowledged that he was only carrying forward the tradition of the company and the unfulfilled dreams of his beloved brother. The Pace Academy was founded amidst all-round scepticism of its success, but the manner in which it was moulded by Dennis Lilliee, and the innovative methods of coaching and instructions, infrastructure and, above all, the inputs in terms of the resources, all ensured that it became not only the best in the country but recognised as a centre of excellence and learning even by leading cricketing nations.

"We have just signed an MoU with the Australian Cricket Board for a reciprocal arrangement, and it is a landmark move," Vinoo said. He emphasised the fact that consistent funding to maintain world-class standards had considerably helped in establishing the Pace Foundation in the face of the crisis faced by similar efforts by a few other corporate entities. He paid rich tributes for the tremendous work put in by the administrators of the Foundation, S. R. Ratnam, Director, Corporate Planning, and former Test cricketer and selector T. A. Sekhar, and to Antony Rodricks, GM (Advertising) for elevating the company's stature in the area of motor sport.

Quite predictably, Vinoo regretted that while the Pace Foundation gained international recognition for its training modes and equipment, and more so for the results obtained, the Board of Control for Cricket in India has accorded its approval only now. "I have to thank Jagmohan Dalmiya for this," he said. Vinoo admitted that countries like Sri Lanka (Chaminda Vaas, Pushpakumara), Australia (Glen McGrath, Brett Lee) and South Africa (Lance Klusener, Ntini) gained more out of the Pace Foundation than the Indians for whose benefit the whole concept was devised to improve the stock of pace bowling. "We were all amazed to see the pace and precision of bowlers like Wesley Hall, Charlie Griffith, Andy Roberts and Malcolm Marshall," Vinoo exclaimed.

Admitting that innovation is the essence of sponsorship and sports promotion, Vinoo recalled how MRF began acquiring far more mileage from the headband worn by Sunil Gavaskar than placing boards on the fringe of the boundary line right around the ground. Gradually, the headband gave way to sticker on the bat designed for Sachin Tendulkar and Steve Waugh. MRF also cashed in on the popularity of the Kiwi pace legend, Richard Hadlee for a product campaign. MRF even entered the field of manufacture of cricket bats to fulfil an ICC stipulation for pasting the sticker. The ICC rule says only manufacturers of bats are entitled to use it as a medium for advertising. "Here too, we have reached perfection, designing bat handles differently for Tendulkar and Waugh giving importance to their preferences." Now, MRF produces full range of cricket gear, and enjoys a sizable export of sports goods.

Advocating that more and more institutions should come forward to accord recognition to the corporates striving hard to give the country an image and identity in sport like what the FICCI had done for the first time, Vinoo commended the role of other corporates like Tata Academy at Jamshedpur, towards upgrading soccer. Till recently, the MRF was part of the annual Mammen Mappillai football tournament held in Kotayam. A few years ago, MRF sponsored the South Asian Games at Kolkata, the National Games in Kerala, and a World Cup Boxing Championship in Mumbai, and even played a part in the Hyderabad National Games.

MRF's role in motor sports needs no exaggeration, and even now it plays a significant part in fielding teams for the National and Asia-Pacific rallies enlisting the support of the top-notch drivers and rallyists. But he spoke with anguish over the frictions and factionalism in the administration of motor sports in the country, but agreed to lend support to any area of activity guided by professionalism and transparency.

What makes sport the principal attraction and the medium of support for Vinoo is his own involvement in it. Cricket was his first love at the Madras Christian College High School and also at the Christian College (from St.Thomas Hall) from where he graduated before moving to the United States for training with the company's former collaborators, The Mansfield Tire and Rubber Co. Amidst his busy schedule, Vinoo enjoys a game of squash at the Madras Cricket Club, and also plays a round of golf now and then.

At the helm today of a Rs. 2,300-crore turnover unit as Vice-Chairman and Managing Director, Vinoo Mammen (53) is inspired by the recognition accorded to MRF by FICCI, and looks forward to playing a far more significant role towards synthesising industrial development with the spread and popularity of sport.

S. THYAGARAJAN

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