I would ensure that MELSS continues to run as an institution and plays a responsible role in society

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He is a successful entrepreneur with qualities that distinguish him from the rest. As a leader, he has earned the trust and respect of his team by his positive work ethic and confidence, which has fostered an environment permeated by these values. Meet N Ramachandran, managing director, MEL Systems and Services Ltd (MELSS), who has a long career in the electronics industry, not only as a technology expert and a successful entrepreneur, but also as a catalyst for change in the electronics industry. Under his leadership and guidance, MELSS has been at the cutting edge of technology ever since 1982.

Ramachandran talks to Nitasha Chawla of Electronics Bazaar about his transformation into an entrepreneur, disclosing his passion for electronics and his respect for high values.

Born in 1950 in Chennai, I grew up in a joint family, which taught me to be loving and caring. I had a wonderful childhood with a lot of outdoor activities. The first 10 years of my life I spent with my grandparents, and then went to Coimbatore to live with my parents.

Although my grandparents were very strict, they taught me high values with love and affection and shaped my behaviour. Once while playing cricket, I broke a bulb. I was petrified, thinking about the punishment I would face. But to my utter surprise, my grandfather showed me the inner parts of the bulb and explained how a bulb was manufactured. I can never forget this incident.

Being the first child in the family, of my generation, I got a lot of attention and love from my extended family. It was a great learning experience as well, imbibing values and ideas from a host of uncles, aunts, cousins, and other relatives, many of whom were our neighbours. This love, affection and camaraderie has made me what I am today—a friendly and helpful person with a lot of empathy.

My parents were very supportive of whatever I did and gave me a lot of freedom. They expected me to follow certain norms in terms of behaviour, however, they never imposed their beliefs on me and that is why I respected their values even more. I am their only surviving son—I had a brother and a sister who passed away at a young age. My mother is my role model for qualities like positive thinking, patience and empathy.

I balanced studies with sports
Till the 5th standard, I studied in Chennai and then moved to a municipal school in Coimbatore in 1960, which, unlike the municipal schools of today, was a great place to learn. I was crazy about cricket and represented my school and the district in cricket tournaments. Besides cricket, I played basketball as well. I was also active in NCC. Yet, I did reasonably well in my studies, though I was not a topper in class. Unlike today’s generation, we spent more time on extra curricular activities as we did not have a television or a computer at home.

In school, physics and geography interested me a lot. I loved doing experiments at the physics lab, and I took a lot of interest in reading National Geographic magazines in the library. I dreamt of touring different countries and experiencing different cultures. Today, I have visited a number of countries, yet I still wish to visit some places like Machu Picchu in Peru and the Amazon.

N Ramchandran with his family at a private function

Unique experience at MIT
My continued love for physics landed me in Madras University, where I completed my BSc in Physics. Hence, joining the Madras Institute of Technology (MIT) was an obvious decision, from where I did electronics engineering. In those days MIT was very well respected, and had an excellent environment. About 50 per cent of the students were from other states, and for the first time in my life I was exposed to the different cultures and languages of our country—it was a wonderful learning experience.

I had a wonderful time at MIT, which then had just 220 students. Some of my teachers were exceedingly good. In fact, the atmosphere at MIT was like that of a family. The passion for electronics was a common thread which bound us all together.

At MIT, I continued to play cricket and basketball. I also edited the student magazine. Overall, it was an enriching experience and I got a holistic learning experience—in electronics, sports and building some lifelong relationships.
I am still in touch with my MIT classmates and catch up with them whenever I visit their cities.

Honing my management skills
Immediately after graduating from MIT in 1972, I got a job offer from M/S Seshasayee Brothers, an electro-medical equipment manufacturing company, from where I was sent to Germany for three months for training. Thereafter, I joined their Delhi office as a sales and service engineer for CAT scans and other electro-medical machines. While doing this job, I decided to pursue a part time one-year programme at the Faculty of Management Studies in Delhi University. I quit my job in 1975 and joined IIFT Delhi for a one year programme in international trade. While in Delhi, I also learnt German for two years because I had a tough time communicating with people during my trip to Germany, and I also felt that learning this language could prove useful in the future.

Till I got married in 1981, I continued to study while I worked. In order to progress in my career, I made sure that I keep enhancing my management skills in different domains (marketing, trade and finance), along with being continuously involved in technology. Therefore, I continued to learn from different management programmes even after I shifted to Mumbai in 1976. Here, I joined a course on financial management at the Jamnalal Bajaj Institute, but I could not complete the course due to personal reasons. Though a short stint, I really benefited from that course. My confidence in understanding the financial aspects of a business came from that course.

While I was in Mumbai, I also underwent a three month management development programme at the International Trade Centre, Geneva. This programme gave me a great exposure to international business studies. As a part of the programme, we did a research trip to many countries including Italy, Germany, Sweden and the UK. The experience was fantastic and an eye-opener. The return journey was even more rewarding since I spent a day in Cairo to look at the treasures of King Tut—one of my childhood dreams.

My stint with Mahindra and Meltron
While I was in Mumbai in 1976, I joined Mahindra and Mahindra as head of marketing for the company’s electronics components division, which doesn’t exist now. That was my first practical experience, during which I could put my marketing as well as technical knowledge to use. I worked with Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL), Indian Telephone Industries and other key customers to get the products approved. I travelled all over India to meet clients. This role also gave me an opportunity to learn about component standards and their approval procedures. While I was working there, I had the opportunity to do a management development programme at ITC in Geneva.

My visits to different countries added immensely to my experiences; I learnt the electronics distribution set-ups in these countries and thought a lot about how India could tap those distribution companies. I met a lot of electronics distribution companies in these countries, and understood how Indian manufacturers could build relationships with them. These trips also helped me in building contacts with some major global distributors.

In 1979, I joined Maharashtra Electronics Corporation Ltd (Meltron) as the head of marketing for the semiconductor and component group. It was an all-India marketing responsibility which further built up my confidence about the components business, while giving me an insight into the market. I helped the company to export its products to overseas markets through the distribution companies I had built contacts with in Switzerland.

Murugappa Group opened doors of opportunities
In 1981, the Murugappa Group, which is well-known for its plantation and other businesses, decided to diversify into electronics, and approached me to help them in this venture. I took up the opportunity because I wanted to shift to Chennai since it was time for me to get married and settle down.

At that time, a trip to the Far East, which was arranged by ELCINA, proved to be very fruitful. I had gone to look for business opportunities with various companies. In Japan, I met some companies that had the technology to make magnetic tapes. They agreed to collaborate with us and we opened our first factory for manufacturing magnetic tapes in Mysore. This trip also helped me to spend time with many wonderful people who were members of ELCINA, who became friends for life.

By 1996, the group had expanded to include manufacturing of soft ferrites, audio magnetic tapes, agency activities, automation and control, and power electronics. However, it was a challenging task to set up everything from scratch.

The Murugappa Group had acquired a small ferrite company in Chennai, making ferrites for the consumer industry on a very small scale and the business model was not viable for us. Therefore, we decided to convert it into a telecom ferrite company which was a difficult step, requiring a big jump in technology so we sought assistance from technology associates like Siemens. With our enthusiasm and passion for the work, we worked 24×7 to get the technical aspects right and finally managed to establish our own telecom ferrite factory with just 3-4 people who developed the technology for it, without any collaboration.

The group gradually became a well-known name in the telecom products sector and accounted for 80 per cent of the market share. This is something I will always be proud of—the turnaround we engineered and the excellent team that we had, are things that do not happen often.

However, in 1996, based on the recommendations of a consulting firm, the group decided to divest itself of its electronics business. So, my colleague T Srinivasan and I decided to take over the company as a management buyout and formed MEL Systems and Services. The group helped structure our company and initially also invested in 50 per cent of the equity, which has been bought up by us now. M M Muragappan is still our chairman—we had an excellent association and it still continues.

Birth of MELSS and of an entrepreneur
When we formed MELSS, we started with distributing electronics components and manufacturing factory automation products. The first product we manufactured was an in-circuit tester and gradually we started making automated test equipment (ATE) in India for the defence giants like HAL and BEL. That is how we entered the strategic electronics domain.

Our major expertise lies in revamping old and obsolete simulators used in the defence industry. We have bagged several such reputed projects from the defence forces over the years.

We did a project for the Indian Navy through BEL which required the ruggedisation of commercial communication equipment. We converted commercial equipment into Navy-grade equipment by making it more rugged. This requires a lot of design and testing work. It was a very successful project and for a company of our size it was a large order. It took a lot of effort from our side to finish this project.

Another project we are proud of was revamping the submarine simulators for the Indian Navy. We entirely transformed the 20 year old simulators into state-of-the-art products by changing its electronics completely. The project took us two years to complete and was a challenging task. The revamp has saved our armed forces a lot of money and we are really proud of working on such projects.

MELSS started with 50 people and now it has grown to a family of 250. At the beginning, we were a Rs 40 million company, today we have grown more than ten times to become a Rs 500 million company. Our USP is that we are a highly technical company—probably not very smart businessmen but very good at developing technology. We are one of the few companies with a good reputation of completing projects on time. A lot of defence projects don’t get completed on time, but we make sure that we complete them even if it means a loss to us.

A lot of young engineers love working with us because we give them exposure in wide ranging technologies, which they cannot experience in large organisations. We have an excellent team of engineers and managers. I believe in the delegation of responsibility to the highest possible level. I have tremendous faith in my team and they have never disappointed me.

The Murugappa Group had enormous respect in the market for its principles of honesty and integrity. Therefore, at MELSS we have ensured that we also earn the same respect from the customers and carry the traditional values of the group forward. I wouldn’t have been where I am today had the Murugappa Group not trained me to handle challenges. I am thankful to the firm for making MELSS happen and helping the entrepreneur in me to blossom.

A catalyst for change in electronics industry
I have been active in ELCINA since 1979. ELCINA has been doing pioneering work to build a positive opinion within the government to support electronics manufacturing sector. While periodical but lukewarm support came from the government in terms of schemes like Electronic Hardware Technology Park (EHTP), hardware parks, etc due to the signing of the ITA under GATT, the manufacturing industry was open to competition from imports at nil or low duties.

When I was the president of ELCINA in 1996, and afterwards as a part of the executive committee, we continued to press for support in terms of removing the fiscal disadvantage suffered by the industry in terms of taxes and duties on inputs, providing protection to the industry like the auto components industry, etc. We also made many suggestions to increase the manufacturing in India of high volume products like consumer electronics and telecom products. Many of these suggestions were implemented though belatedly, but I am happy to see that the manufacturing is now increasing, thanks to those representations and suggestions.

The mood in the government now is to support manufacturing since they have realised the advantages and have now come out with a slew of policy initiatives which will sustain the manufacturing edge of the Indian industry. During my presidency, we also started working closely with the other associations like MAIT, CETMA and TEMA to coordinate our activities and to ensure convergence of views to ensure that the views presented by the industry were cohesive. We also started a system of each of the presidents being part of the EC of the other associations. This system worked so well and we could present coordinated and cohesive representations to the government.

As a part of my active role in ELCINA, I am actively involved in organising two flagship annual events of the association in the South, namely Source India in Chennai and Strategic Electronic Summit in Bengaluru. I am also active in CII and as a part of some of their committees, I play an active role in the area of SME development and electronics and IT industry.

MELSS Plant

My vision for MELSS
Srinivasan and I want to ensure that MELSS continues to run as a company engaged in cutting edge technology, encompassing both hardware and software. Apart from our existing areas of expertise, we are also planning to get into green energy initiatives. We would like the company to grow and become a market leader in India in these areas before embarking on the quest for making mark in the international markets.

Business for us is a path to develop MELSS as a well-respected institution which will play a responsible role in the society in which we are embedded. We are looking beyond our times and, hence, we have built a professional management team which we are proud of. We have also sponsored our key managers to undergo an MBA programme at the Chennai Business School to give them a wider perspective and an insight into business processes. We are also looking for a professional CEO who will succeed me soon. We want MELSS to be known for its integrity, customer focus, corporate social responsibility, and employees, who will be proud to be associated with us.

I love spending time with my family

I got married in 1981 to Kala, who is from Delhi. It was an arranged marriage, however, we have bonded together very well and she has been a great support in every aspect of my life. She is a committed homemaker. Our twins—a boy and a girl—were born in 1990. Since then Kala’s life has been dedicated to our children and I am really happy to see the way she has raised them, with the same values as my parents had given me. Our son Rahul is studying in the University of

N Ramchandran during a vacation in Amsterdam

Michigan, and my daughter Dipika is a computer graduate from MIT, Chennai. She works for TCS, Chennai. We are a very close-knit family. I ensure that every year we travel to some place for which we all take a week or two off.

On Sundays too, I spend time with my family. Otherwise, my time goes in attending Rotary meetings, and in activities associated with the alumni associations of IIFT, MIT, etc.

I am pleased that some of these organisations have recognised my contribution towards their activities by conferring ‘Outstanding Rotary President’ of the year award and the ‘Outstanding Alumnus of the Year’ award from IIFT. I am also happy to serve as one of the members of the board of governors of MIT Madras.

I am satisfied with the way my personal and professional lives have shaped up. I am very happy to be Ramachandran. Now, I want to disengage myself from work gradually and ensure that MELSS continues to run as an institution, not just as a business enterprise.

I would then want to travel extensively and explore new places. I would also like to spend more time in social work, especially relating to education and training.

One thing that I would like to changeIn this world: Today everybody is rushing towards a lifestyle which is unsustainable and has caused a lot of damage to our nature. Therefore, I would want to live in a world where life is simple and we don’t impinge too much on the nature and resources.In India: Corruption has become endemic and pervasive in our country. I wish we find an end to it.In my workplace: Today’s young people are not keen on learning a subject indepth, as a result we find it difficult to have people with specialised knowledge in a particular subject in our organisation and we have to train them when they join us.

 

These are a FEW OF MY FAVOURITE THINGS… 
Music: Traditional jazz and western classical
Food: Any vegetarian low calorie cuisine
Book: Who says elephants cannot dance by Louis V Gerstner
Holiday destination: Munnar in Kerala, Himalayas and Europe
Political figure: Barack Obama
Film: Mission Impossible series
Actor: Tom Cruise and Tom Hanks
Actress: Angelina Jolie
Role model: Ratan Tata

Some of MELSS’ recent Achievements under Ramachandrans’ leadership
MELSS signed up a collaboration agreement with Cubic Simulation Systems, USA, in January 2013 for the production of small arm simulators.

MELSS’ automation activity, which was a subsidiary of the company was merged with the the company in 2012. Now the company leverage the production facilities for other activities as well.
The company is also now working with a French company called Corys for making railway simulators..

Post-Show Reportelectronica international trade fair leaves industry feeling confident

The 25th electronica international trade fair for electronic components, systems and applications, which was held between November 13-16, 2012 in Germany, had a successful closing, having attracted more than 72,000 visitors. A total of 2,669 exhibitors from 49 countries presented the future of electronics and showcased application-oriented solutions during the four-day fair, which revolved around intelligent and energy-efficient solutions in sectors like smart grids, energy storage and LEDs. Smart grids were also the focus of this year’s CEO Round Table, one of the highlights in the programme of related-events.

Norbert Bargmann, deputy CEO of Messe München, was more than satisfied with the fair’s results, “The results of this year’s fair confirm the electronics industry’s significance as the most important branch of industry in the world. Everyone was here.” The market is constantly confronted with new requirements that manufacturers meet with intelligent solutions. This year’s hot topics included energy-efficient technologies and the latest developments in medical electronics. Automotive electronics, which accounts for an ever-increasing share of modern motor vehicles, was a central theme in all exhibition categories: from control elements for energy harvesting and battery management to new charging techniques for electric automobiles.

The industry is looking forward to the year 2013 with cautious optimism. That was also confirmed by Christoph Stoppok, managing director of the Electronic Components and Systems Association and the PCB and Electronic Systems Association in the ZVEI (German Electrical and Electronic Manufacturers’ Association), “After a minor slump, we expect the world market for electronic components to grow by some 4 per cent to US $480 billion. Forecasts also call for an increase in sales in the global semiconductor industry.”

Solidified position
More than 72,000 trade visitors from 78 countries came to Munich. According to a survey by market research institute TNS Infratest, visitors were extremely satisfied with the outcome of the fair: 95 per cent gave the fair a rating of ‘good to excellent’.

Besides Germany, the countries with the largest contingents of visitors were Italy, Austria, Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Switzerland, France, the Russian Federation and the USA, in that order.

CEO round table
The speakers at this year’s CEO round table all agrees on one thing: The‘smart grid’ will be one of the electronics industry’s key topics in the future. The four CEOs from STMicroelectronics, NXP Semiconductors, Freescale Semiconductor and Infineon Technologies saw this as a great opportunity for the semiconductor industry.

Electronics Bazaar, South Asia’s No.1 Electronics B2B magazine