“I Always Follow My Dream And Believe In What I Do”

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Hailing from a humble, middle-class family with a substantial academic background, leaving a secured high-paying job at Indian Oil to chase the entrepreneurial dream and finally establishing a ‘Make in India’ bootstrap startup with his provident fund savings thirty-five years back, an IIT alumnus and first-generation entrepreneur, Dr Mahesh Gupta, Founder Chairman of Kent RO Systems, continues his magnificent journey.
In a conversation with Sudeshna Das, Consulting Editor at EFY, he shares the tale of his life.

Born in New Delhi on 24 September 1954, Dr Mahesh Gupta comes from a well-knit, educated, middle-class family. His father, an insightful graduate with a strong focus on his children’s education, was a government employee under the Ministry of Finance.

“All my siblings have had excellent education because of encouragement from my parents. While my elder brother, nine years older than me, passed out from IIT Kanpur, all my sisters went to Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi. My third sister also did her master’s from IIT Delhi. I followed in their footsteps.” Mahesh describes his mother as “a homemaker” and considers her to be “quite passionate and affectionate.” Mahesh has five siblings, as he describes, “I have an elder brother and four sisters.”

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He continues, “My father strongly believed that unless you have a good education, you will not come up in your life. He felt that in the years after partition, education would have the most important role in one’s career. Therefore, he was not building us to be entrepreneurs. He was building us to be bureaucrats or technocrats. He wanted to see us pursue a good professional service career.”

Looking back to the early years, Mahesh spent his childhood days at Lodhi Road, an area surrounded by heritage monuments in New Delhi. While narrating memories of his childhood days, he recalls, “We, the middle-income group people, did not have financial strength. We had no vehicle of our own. My father used to commute to the office by riding a bicycle.”

Awards and Accolades
Dr Mahesh Gupta’s efforts have been recognised both in India and at the international level as follows:

  • Distinguished Alumnus Award by IIT Kanpur 2011
  • Asia’s Most Promising Leader by World Consulting Research Corporation 2016
  • Business Leader of the Year – Water Management by CHEMTECH CEW Leadership Excellece Awards 2019
  • Swachh Bharat Ambassador by the Government of India in 2016
  • Kalam Innovation Governance Award by Kalam Innovation in Governance Award, 2016
  • Doctor of Philosophy (Honoris Cause) by Sri Sri University 2015

Besides the above-mentioned achievements, his brand Kent RO system was also awarded by many reputed national and international bodies.

Mahesh describes his school experience at Diwan Chand Arya Public School as a humble but spiritual experience. He picked up some of the spiritual lessons at an early age from his school. In the later stage of life, he found a great spiritual mentor and continues his spiritual learning to date.

He recalls some of his schoolteachers, especially his physics teacher who used to take additional classes for meritorious students without any fee. “I was the topper at my school. I remember one of my school friends, Rakesh, with whom I used to enjoy a healthy competition for the top spot and together learned a lot. Later on, he went to IIT Delhi. Eventually, our professional paths crossed again, and we equally enjoyed solving work-related challenges,” Mahesh reminiscences.

Mahesh is a fantastic example of a tactile learner who always prefers to learn by doing. In school days, he used to get hold of any subject matter by attentively attending school classes and never depended on any private tuition. He used to apply the learning by teaching philosophy effectively as he says, “I learned quite a lot in my education by teaching my classmates. Once you teach people and clarify their doubts successfully, you can learn more.”

Mahesh believes, “If you attend a class of a good teacher with 100% attention, you do not need to burn the proverbial midnight oil. However, if you are not attentive in class, then you need to have a private tutor.”

The tactile learning process helped Mahesh acquire business acumen through life experiences. He shares an interesting anecdote about learning business skills. In his words, “I started visiting the local market at an early age of nine years, as then my elder brother was in IIT, and my father did not get time to go to market due to his work pressure. Therefore, I was responsible for vegetable and grocery shopping.”

He continues, “My family was quite a big one and my mother used to send me to the market with a limited amount of money. That early life experience taught me many business skills. I started learning negotiation, budgeting, and bargaining to pay the lowest price without compromising on quality. These skills later helped me in my entrepreneurial journey as well.”

Mahesh’s quest for knowledge prompted him to work on low-cost models and experiments related to physics, like magnetic and electrical models. Because of his interest in hands-on experimentation, he was good at mechanical repairing.

Mahesh Gupta, Chairman, Kent RO Systems, receiving the award from Jai Prakash Narayan Yadav, Hon’ble Union Minister of State for Water Resources
Mahesh Gupta, Chairman, Kent RO Systems, receiving the award from Jai Prakash Narayan Yadav, Hon’ble Union Minister of State for Water Resources

He remembers, “I was good at repairs. Once I had repaired a bicycle mechanically just by hand. I could repair a television or radio during my school days. Even today if anything comes to me that needs to be done by hand.” This knack for mechanical applications also influenced him to select mechanical engineering as the stream for higher education.

Mahesh mentions, “In my childhood, many people used to ask me what I would like to become. Therefore, my vision for future study was quite clear from fifth standard only. My decision was influenced by my brother who had opted for IIT and my interest in engineering. I was quite focused on pursuing higher education at IIT. After school, I sat for the IIT entrance examination and was admitted to IIT Kanpur to pursue a mechanical engineering degree without any hurdle.”

Mahesh recalls his engineering days as a period to learn how to survive and win in a highly competitive environment. He explains, “I was a topper at my school. So, I used to think of myself as the best student. However, at IIT I faced real competition. Once you are among the best students you can see people who are much better than you. However, I took the challenge to prove myself there. The third-semester examination used to be considered the toughest one at IIT Kanpur. I passed that exam with an A grade in all five subjects.” He also enjoyed the learning environment at IIT with an excellent peer group.

Following the entrepreneurial instinct

Soon after completing his engineering degree in the year 1976 Mahesh began his professional journey. Mahesh recalls, “I came up with flying colours from IIT Kanpur and immediately went to pursue a master’s in petroleum engineering from the Indian Institute of Petroleum, Dehradun. After completing my master’s degree, I joined Indian Oil Corporation Limited (IOCL) as my father dreamed that I should get into the public sector.”

Mahesh worked in Indian Oil for about ten years. He says, “It was a great learning opportunity as I was asked to go all over the country to several factories, audit them for saving lubricating oils and fuel. Thus, we helped the industry members reduce their energy costs. Therefore, I got opportunities to study factory operations, processes, and systems in different sectors. My work profile used to involve interacting with senior-level business professionals.”

Besides great learning opportunities, Mahesh also had wonderful experiences out at IOCL because of his nice colleagues and supportive leadership. He reached the peak of his career within four years of joining IOCL.

The job provided Mahesh with all the comforts and fulfilled his family’s dream. It was a tough decision to come out of such a comfortable life of a secure high paying job and to start an uncertain entrepreneurial journey with high risk.

While explaining the situation, he says, “When I passed out, I did not have any vehicle in my home. My father never had a scooter. I bought a scooter immediately after getting the job and within six months I was able to buy my first car at the age of twenty-one. I was also able to arrange a comfortable and good lifestyle for my family because of that job.”

However, he did not remain confined to the stereotype of “continuing a high-paying stable job in a public sector unit” and willingly left that comfort to follow his entrepreneurial dream. While describing the same, he mentions, “My inner self asked me what I was doing at IOCL? I was quite convinced that continuing with a secure job was not the right thing for me. I felt the need to work and give back more to society and that I must innovate.”

Therefore, he set out on his entrepreneurial journey and established his first venture SS Appliances Private Limited in 1988. It was a pureplay bootstrap startup as he says, “I purchased the factory by paying two and a half lakh rupees (`250,000), which I got from my provident fund savings.”

He discloses, “In the initial days, starting from clerk, project manager to typist, I was everything for my company. I started my first company, truly a ‘Make in India’ startup, with my savings from the provident fund. I have never borrowed even a single rupee from anybody in my life. Even today, we have no history of borrowing at all. We are a debt-free company. I never intend to borrow either. I work with whatever money I have.”

Mahesh’s first invention was in the field of petroleum conservation instruments where he earned fame and half a dozen patents to his credit. He remembers, “We launched viscosity meters. People used to go to laboratories to get their oil quality tested. Our product was able to do the same instantaneously and they could decide to change oil accordingly.” That company is running with profit to date with a diversified product portfolio, including oil flow meters.

While discussing his entrepreneurial journey, he says, “I started the business for a bigger cause and slowly things started unfolding in my life. I always believe in value addition. My products became popular, and I started earning money because those added value to my customers. The price of my products depends on the value addition and innovation, not on the formula of cost.”

With the same vision of adding value to the customers while contributing towards a greener, cleaner, and healthier world, Mahesh started his consumer appliance venture. He says, “In 1998, my children fell ill and I became aware of the fact that 80% of diseases in India are caused by water-borne microorganisms and that 80% of urban families do not even purify tap water. I decided to install a water purifier at my Delhi home, but I was disappointed with the available options. The water purifiers available in the market in those days worked on ultraviolet (UV) technology, which kills bacteria in the water. I knew this was not good enough since the water we drink also contains many dissolved impurities, which cannot be treated with this technology. I wanted to develop a water purifier that would also take care of the undesirable dissolved elements while recognising and retaining the good minerals.”

As a technocrat, Mahesh understood the necessity and market gap for a suitable water purifier, and Kent RO Systems was born from the need to provide clean water to society. He checked the suitability of the available technologies to get the desired result. After several trials and six months of hard work, he zeroed in on reverse osmosis (RO) technology as it helped him achieve the desired results.

The first Kent water purifier was launched in March 1999. Initially, the product was costlier than its competing products because of superior technology and imported components, and the company did not have any marketing budget to promote the product. However, Mahesh was confident about the quality of his invention and value addition. Therefore, rather than making the product cost-competitive, he decided to work on branding, marketing, and after-sales service-related areas.

Mahesh says, “Gradually, our customers began realising the superiority of our product and our sales started picking up through word-of-mouth publicity by the users. I reinvested the profit in the business and initiated a brand campaign as well as streamlined distribution, sales, and after-sales services.”

Soon after, Mahesh decided to select a suitable brand ambassador to enhance visibility and brand recall. In 2006, Kent RO managed to rope in famous Bollywood actress Hema Malini as its brand ambassador, who was later joined by her daughters Esha and Ahana Deol in the promotional campaigns.

Mahesh Gupta, Kent RO photo
Mahesh Gupta, Kent RO photo

While describing this collaboration with Hema Malini, Mahesh says, “We were in search of a celebrity who is glamorous yet suitable as an experienced homemaker. Therefore, we preferred Hema Malini ji over other younger actresses. I think she is a time-tested face yet extremely glamorous and popular. We were also judicious while selecting the right media partners, considering our limited budget.”

With innovative marketing strategy and superior product quality, Kent RO has become the largest manufacturer of water purifiers in the country. Today, it is a more than 1000 crore (₹10 billion) company. Mahesh’s leadership plays a critical role in this journey. While leading a team, Mahesh depends on trust. He prefers his team members to deliver work efficiently and in a trustworthy manner within a controlled budget environment.

Mahesh says, “I always try to remain sincere towards my employees and business peers. I think that is why people believe me today. The only thing which makes both personal and professional relationships work is trust. Trust is built by your actions over a long period. If you continue to do it, people will believe you.”

Nurturing life with family, passion, and spirituality, Mahesh began his family life simultaneously with his professional journey. He got married at the age of twenty-six. He considers his wife, Sunita, a pillar of strength in his life and a great support in his entrepreneurial journey.
He mentions, “My wife started as a homemaker, but my father taught her business skills and encouraged her to join my venture. Thus, she became an integral part of my business as well.”

They are blessed with two children—one daughter and one son. His daughter, Surbhi, did her bachelor’s in architecture from the prestigious CEPT, Ahmedabad, and master’s in architecture from Architecture Association, London—one of the most respected institutions for architecture globally. His son, Varun, is a computer engineer from Purdue University, USA, and an MBA from Columbia University, New York—one of the top business schools in the world. He joined the family business in 2005 after completing his engineering and works full-time with Mahesh.

Mahesh is also a happy grandfather of three grandchildren, all boys—two from his son and one from his daughter. He says, “It is a well-knit small family. My family was always a great support for me. I remember, when I started my entrepreneurial journey leaving my job at IOCL, my daughter was seven years old, and my son was only five years old. So, they have seen me working. They have grown with my philosophy. Thus, they can understand my values. They are very much part of it.”

Dr Mahesh Gupta’s favourites

  • Favourite music: Bhajans, Hindi film music of the 80s and 90s
  • Favourite singer: Kishor Kumar
  • Favourite food: Indianised Chinese cuisine
  • Favourite film: Guide
  • Favourite hobby: Bridge
  • Favourite holiday: Art of Living workshops

 

Mahesh would like to give back to society through his innovations and initiatives aligned with sustainable development goals. In the coming days, he would like to continue with the same. He discloses, “I will be very happy if people can save energy and drink good water by leveraging our innovations. Today climate change is causing more serious challenges to human beings than it was a few years back. I would like to contribute more to solve those challenges.”

Besides business work and family time, Mahesh is an avid bridge player. He represented IOCL and won quite a few bridge tournaments on behalf of IOCL. He says, “I was a very vicious player. I played in international tournaments several times, but I am not getting enough time to play bridge since I started Kent.”

While discussing strategic decision-making at different phases of his life, Mahesh mentions meditation as another passion of his life that helps him in strategic thinking and decision-making. He is an active follower of the Art of Living philosophy and is inspired by the vision of its founder, His Holiness Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. He says, “I met him in 1996. Since then, I have been practicing his philosophies. It helped me to keep my mind free and peaceful. Unless your mind is in a peaceful state, you cannot make good decisions quickly.”

He advises, “My message to young entrepreneurs would be that the time has come to have dreams. Unless you dream, you cannot take impactful action. So, you should have big dreams. Nobody can stop you as dreams have no limitations. The most important thing to be successful in life is to believe in your dreams and persist with your beliefs. So, if you take these actions, nobody can stop you from achieving what you want to do.”

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