“Giving employees the freedom to work and take decisions on their own is the mantra that has brought L. Sampath, MD, EMST Marketing Pvt Ltd, a long way, turning him into a stalwart in the electronics domain. In a candid conversation with Sudeshna Das, senior executive editor, EFY Group and Baishakhi Dutta, business journalist for Electronics Bazaar, he shares his inspiring journey in the SMT manufacturing business.
Year of birth: 1958
Favourite sportspersons: G. Vishwanath and E.A.S. Prasanna
Favourite music: Kannada music
Favourite food: Any vegetarian food
Favourite book: Any book by Arthur Hailey and Dan Brown
Favourite singer: M.S. Subbulakshmi and P. Susheela
Childhood and education
I was born into quite a religious family and, therefore, was raised in a way that included regular prayers and other traditional customs. Even today, I continue to follow these practices. I did my schooling in a government school, followed by a B.Sc in applied sciences from the College of Engineering at Guindy in Chennai. And finally, I did my engineering from the famous Madras Institute of Technology (MIT).
A casual encounter that turned my life around
Till standard seven, I was poor in mathematics. I once went to my uncle for help in solving a particular theorem. The way he explained it to me made it so simple and different. This was the trigger that worked on me like a magic wand. From then on, I became quite strong in mathematics and I scored centum many times, surprising my teachers and paving the way for my entire career.
Right from my childhood, I wanted to be an engineer. During my school days—in the 10th standard, to be precise—we had to take up an elective subject. Since engineering was available as an option, I selected it. This allowed me to kickstart my journey towards achieving my ambitions. It also saved me from studying subjects like history, geography or other languages, which had never interested me! Thus, I set foot in the field of engineering way back in the 10th grade and have been focusing on this stream ever since.
My father was a government officer. Sadly, he is no more with us. My mother is 88 years old and has been a housewife throughout. My parents’ religious routine influenced me a lot and I am still continuing many of their practices, and have also passed these on to our children. I have four siblings—two brothers and two sisters. My elder brother has retired from The Hindu (newspaper) and my younger brother is a doctorate in chemistry, currently working as GM (R&D) in a company called TANFAC in Cuddalore. Both my sisters are married. My parents never pushed us hard regarding our studies and mostly, we did things on our own. Even deciding on colleges and courses was left to us. Such freedom gave us confidence in our decision-making skills and also forced us to take responsibility for our decisions. My wife is a graduate, and an efficient homemaker and an excellent cook. I have one daughter and one son. My daughter completed her civil engineering in India, did an MS in environmental engineering from Georgia Tech, USA, and is currently working in the US. My son will appear for the 10th grade exams this year. My family has been by my side throughout. Regarding my parents, it was more their non-interference that made me what I am today and I give the same freedom to my children as well.
P.K. Ratnaparkhi, chairman of the Electronica Group, has played a big role in inspiring me on the professional front. He is from IIT-Bombay and is one of those who preferred to stay back in India though he had ample chances to settle abroad. Right after his education, he started developing EDMs (electric discharge machines) and that is how the firm Electronica was formed. He was the main technical person, responsible for all the decisions with respect to technology. Since I also had a technical background, it was easy for us to get along with each other during the decision-making procedures. He gave me plenty of freedom at work and his style of management influenced me a lot. He supported me whenever I needed him, like during important foreign visits where we had to meet the principals and develop relationships.
I, too, have adopted P.K. Ratnaparkhi’s management style and give full freedom to my colleagues to take their own decisions and, hence, be responsible for those decisions. I groom them by travelling with them and supporting them till they are self-sufficient, after which they are on their own. This allows me to concentrate more on developing the organisation further, coming up with new products on a continuous basis. Owning responsibilities and straightforwardness is what I seek in my employees.
At present, due to my heavy workload, I generally don’t get time to pursue any particular hobby. During my childhood days, I used to play cricket a lot. We had ample time back then and could engage in long playing sessions. Right from childhood, I have been reading a lot – weekly magazines in Tamil and, later, many English books, both fiction and management. Nowadays, I engage myself more in religious activities at the Balaji temple at Pune, with which I am closely associated.
My journey so far
After completing my engineering degree, I had three jobs in hand, all in design and development. One was at Hindustan Instruments Limited Co. in Delhi, the other at HAL in Hyderabad and the third option was at English Electric in Chennai. After a very brief stint at HIL Delhi, I came back to Chennai and joined English Electric as a development engineer.
Today, whatever I am, I owe to those seven years at English Electric. The company was into manufacturing of protective relays, with technology from GEC UK. Later, with the help of my immediate superior, H. Narayanamurthy, I got the opportunity to start developing these relays locally, from scratch. We even went to the extent of developing relays directly from the concept papers submitted at conferences. Some of these were installed at quite a few power stations in the country and even exported back to the UK. Later, I also developed a fully automatic test equipment (ATE) for testing the relays. This saved a lot of money for the company and also incorporated technology that was more current compared to what we were getting from the UK. This experience really made me technically very strong and proved to be the base for me to build my career further.
After this, I joined a company called Murugappa Electronics as an applications engineer, but very soon, it became more of a sales rather than application oriented job. Again, we had an interesting product – troubleshooting equipment to find component level faults on a PCB, which was launched by us. I used to carry this equipment in a suitcase with catalogues in another briefcase and go to various companies across Tamil Nadu and the entire western region, without realising that gradually, I was drifting into the sales field. That’s how I got into technical sales using my development experience, and was fairly successful. After that, I was transferred to Delhi in 1993. Despite being very poor in Hindi, I came down to Delhi with the support of my wife, who is very fluent in the language. I travelled a lot across north India and gradually learned how to deal with government departments, which was an important learning experience for me.
In 1995, I got a call from Electronica. As Murugappa Electronics had come out from under the umbrella of the Murugappa Group at around the same time, I decided to join the Electronica Group. This company had been a pioneer in capital equipment since the late 70s. I joined as a marketing manager and my family shifted to Pune.
In 1997, Electronica signed up for a joint venture with a company called Minami in Japan, which was a stencil printer manufacturer and the No.1 in its field in Japan at that time. That firm invested nearly 49 per cent in the company, with Electronica holding nearly 51 per cent and we started manufacturing semi-automatic stencil printers in 1997. We exported almost 70–80 machines back to Japan.
Till 2002, I looked after the marketing division in EMS Technologies (a company in the Electronica Group), handling PCBA products as well as wire harness equipment from Europe. Here again, N. Chandramohan, to whom I reported, gave me immense support as well as complete freedom to work under his guidance.
After N. Chandramohan left, I was given the complete responsibility of the company as the general manager of EMS Technologies. This was when lead-free components made their way into the Indian market, and we were the first company to start developing lead-free wave soldering machines in India, which became an instant success. We almost stopped the import of wave soldering machines into India. Then, looking at China, where there were many reflow oven manufacturers, we too considered making these in India. Today, EMS Technologies is the only manufacturer in India making reflow ovens, from three zones to 10 zones, similar to any Chinese company, allowing Indian manufacturers to avoid importing such equipment. As of now, EMS Technologies is the only Indian company manufacturing a wide range of SMT equipment locally. Today, we have developed a table-top pick-and-place machine, and we are in the process of upgrading it to a full-fledged general purpose model to handle all types of components.
In 2007, we formed a separate company called EMST Marketing to handle the sales and service of the machines locally manufactured by EMS Technologies as well as the machinery that we import from Europe for wire harness preparation. In the wire harness industry, we deal with many leading multinationals that have plants across India. With a well-trained support team, we have established ourselves as the preferred supplier to many of them. We are now preparing a legacy plan for the company, and training the younger people in the company to run it.
Turning point of my life
I would say that unknowingly shifting from development to marketing was the biggest turning point of my career. That transition made me what I am today. I have always done what I feel is right and ought to be done.
One thing that I would like to change in myself
I have changed a lot in the last few years. Initially, I used to be short-tempered, though never without a reason and not at a personal level. Though my colleagues found this aspect of me tough to deal with, they also realised that it was only to bring out the best in them. But gradually, in the due course of time, I have mellowed down a lot.
Five years down the line…
I will retire in the next five years and would love to spend more time on religious activities. Looking back, I will have the satisfaction of having established a strong Indian company in the very competitive field of SMT.
Message to budding entrepreneurs
For any entrepreneur, technical strength is the most important aspect and with this, confidence comes automatically. One should always aspire to learn new technologies and adapt to them – this is a process that’s never ending. Having an open mind to look beyond one’s comfort zone is equally important to move up the ladder.