He hails from a humble background. His parents had migrated from Pakistan to India (Udaipur, Rajasthan) during partition. His elder sister was born on a railway platform. He quit as vice president of one of the biggest companies on the face of the Earth to start a venture. Today, he has invested almost everything to become the first company in India to package semiconductors and ICs. This is Amrit Manwani’s story as told to Mukul Yudhveer Singh from EFY.
“I consider myself very lucky in terms of what I have been able to accomplish in my life. Nothing I have built would have been possible without the support of my parents, my school mates, my teachers, and the two jobs I had. I consider that every person I have met in my life has been instrumental in making me a man as I am today,” says Amrit Manwani, MD, Sahasra Group.
Not have among the haves
Born in Udaipur, Rajasthan, Amrit was born into a family which had recently moved from Pakistan to India. Amrit’s father, Narayan Das Manwani, as described by him, was the hardest working man he has seen in his entire life. The family had to leave back everything it owned in Pakistan and start a new life in India. Amrit’s father started a sweets shop in Udaipur. The first story that Amrit heard from his parents was probably that of how his elder sister came into being, a story that can send chills down anyone’s bones!
“My elder sister was born on a railway platform. This was the time when my parents were migrating to seek refuge in India from Pakistan. I still get goosebumps remembering that story. That incident, though I was not in the world till then, has left a big impact on my mind. I still can’t picture how my mom and dad managed to go through that, and still give each one of us brothers and sisters a good life,” he shares.
Amrit continues, “My father was visionary enough to put me in a missionary school despite all the difficulties we faced in Udaipur.” Amrit completed his primary schooling from St Mary’s and secondary from St Paul’s. These two schools were known to have students originating from financially strong backgrounds. Getting a chance to study with the elite of a city proved to be one of the biggest encouragements in the life of Amrit.
“I always felt like I was not a have among the haves. That formed my determination to do well in life. I wanted to become one of them as life progressed. My schoolmates made my determination strong to succeed in life,” he explains.
Amrit’s biggest inspiration is his father. He would spend hours preparing the finest of sweets to make sure that business was good, so he could afford good education for his children. The population of Udaipur, as Amrit shares, was only about 25,000 people back then. The competition between the sweet shops was cut-throat and anybody who compromised on quantity or quality immediately witnessed a dip in sales.
The financial condition of the family was so weak that Amrit’s elder brother had to leave education and help his father at the sweets shop. It was Amrit’s father who backed the decision of Amrit preparing for the IIT exams. Most of his other family members did not know about IIT and hence did not back him for taking the exam.
“He told me to prepare for the exams with complete focus and determination. He would tell me that even if I am not able to make it to IIT, I would always have a sweets shop to run and earn from,” Amrit recalls. There were only two students who made it to IIT from Udaipur at that time. How did Amrit learn that working hard is the key to success?
He answers, “I remember my father cycling 10 to 12 kilometres every day at 4am in the morning to get milk from a nearby village for our sweets shop. He would put milk containers on both sides of the bicycle. I took it from him to always work hard.”
Amrit was so encouraged by his father that he would come back from school and immediately finish homework and start reading for the next day. Amrit was found solving math more often than not. The amount of time that Amrit was spending on books can be gauged from the fact that his mother scolded him to stop studying as she believed that spending that amount of time would ruin his son’s eyesight.
“I used to study in the light of earthen lamps before electricity came to our house. My mother would always become anxious as she saw me continuing to do math for hours in the light of the earthen lamp. The attitude of doing hard work came from my father,” he says. Amrit was so good at studies his school principal gave him a double promotion and he was promoted to fourth standard straight from second standard.
First business lessons
Amrit, known to have a sharp brain when it comes to business, had his first business classes at his father’s sweets shop. These business lessons not only included selling to end consumers but also manufacturing products to be sold. He would also sit on the counter at times and manage the cash inflow. Amrit started helping his father at the shop when he was seven, and the first job his father gave him was that of sourcing ingredients used in preparing sweets. Any incident that he still remembers from those days?
“There was this time when I had lost money that my father had given to buy some ingredients. I was so scared that I didn’t go to my shop and my father started searching for me. When he finally found me, he hugged me and told me not to worry as he saw me crying. Those were the golden days of life,” recalls an emotional Manwani.
This incident, as he shares, was the one which taught him the opposite of what was taught in a lot of business schools. He got certain that day that people who are emotionally attached to their profession, and other people who work with them, are the ones that can accomplish anything.
“I was never fond of eating sweets. In fact, I also quit cooking a long time back. And I must tell you that I was a master at preparing sev namkeen at a very early age. I was also good at making rabdi, gulab jamuns, and kulfi. If my father were to listen to this statement today, he would twist my ear and tell me that I could have prepared sweets (at the shop),” he shares with a smile and eyes full of light. Amrit, who quit cooking a long time ago, never missed a chance to cook rabadi or prepare kulfi for his father. He also often cooked for his children when they were young.
Amrit found his slot when time came to select subjects for the ninth class and start focusing on them. “I was a good student but I also used to feel a little bit inferior in front of the other kids. There was a time when I was sitting in the same class as the son of the district magistrate and other influential people. That was the time which was a big challenge for me. Studies, no matter how tough they were, were never a challenge for me,” he recalls talking about the challenges he faced in his childhood.
How did he overcome the challenges?
“My goal was to study hard enough to be the best not only in the class but the whole country. I never minded anyone who saw me as inferior and I made friends with kids who were humble. I wanted to study and that was the only thing that mattered to me,” he answers. Then there was a time when fellow students were lining up to learn mathematics from Manwani.
Amrit adds, “There came a time when all my fellow students started saying that if anybody would make it to an IIT from their school, it would be Amrit.” His rank in the IIT entrance exam was 345 PAN India. IITs were only taking 2,000 students in its five colleges at that time, and the better the rank meant not only bettering the chances of getting into an IIT but also a chance to choose the stream of one’s choice.
“The exposure to IIT, the exposure to people coming to study with you from all over the country, is extremely brilliant. Being exposed to the absolute freedom that you get at the college and hostel, and nobody to look after you is one of the biggest challenges. This is a challenge that can teach you the best of time management lessons with on-job experience,” he shares.
Amrit, who refers to himself as an average IIT student, was clear from the beginning about not leaving his parents in India in pursuit of a job offer or further studies outside the country. IIT Kanpur was also affiliated to the United States situated universities such as MIT, and it was easy for students to pursue a higher degree in such universities. Amrit, who passed IIT with 7.6 CGI, got a campus placement job offer from Larsen and Toubro. Today, he also holds an MBA degree from Delhi University, which he had completed while working with GE.
“More than 50% of the students were hell bent on going overseas for higher studies and then a job offer. I didn’t have that kind of a dream or a desire. I wanted to be around my parents as much as I could. My father wanted me to start a business while I always wanted to work in the corporate world,” he shares.
Father knew, Amrit realised later
As Amrit started inching towards completing an engineering degree from IIT Kanpur, the financial situation of the family started getting better. Amrit’s father then asked him to start a new business in the city of Udaipur and got ready to finance the whole business for his younger son. Amrit, however, wanted to expose himself to the corporate world and learn more about business practically. He also had an offer from Larsen and Toubro (in 1972) awaiting his reply.
“My father was disappointed to hear that I was joining a job instead of starting my own business. I convinced him by telling him that to build a successful business I will need to have exposure to working in an MNC. I joined Larsen and Toubro’s Bombay office and worked there for five years. My father never missed a chance to call me and tell me to move back to Udaipur to start a business of my own,” he shares.
L&T had offered Amrit to join the company as a graduate engineering trainee. Amrit joined L&T Powai facility, the only manufacturing facility that L&T operated around 1972. Joining L&T as a graduate engineering trainee meant rotation into different departments every six months. Amrit has undergone on-job training in the electrical maintenance department, the switch-gear manufacturing department, the electronics division, vendor development, and the sales & marketing division.
“I finished the two-year graduate engineer trainee programme and was promoted to the designation of a sales & marketing engineer. The HR and training department told me that I had more flair for sales than anything else,” recalls Amrit.
Here was Amrit working in the sales & marketing team of L&T, the same Amrit that was helping his father in sales at an early age of ten at the sweets shop! Amrit moved from L&T Mumbai’s office to its Delhi office and worked there for around eight months before making up his mind to start looking for a change. GE, at that time, was looking to expand their base in India and Asia. The company, in the process to re-invest in India, had hired only two people from the country, and Amrit was one of them.
“My father started asking me to start my own business once again when he came to know that I was leaving L&T to join GE. It was as if my father knew that I was more of a business guy and less of a corporate job guy. I did realise the same later on,” he shares.
Amrit’s reason behind joining GE was to explore the international markets and the marketing side of business. He joined GE in the company’s international marketing programme and also stayed in the USA for a while. He rose through the ranks in GE rapidly and went on to become vice president of such a big company at the age of 35. He was trained in advanced modern marketing at the Crotonville facility of GE.
“GE gave a wonderful engineering, market, and international exposure. I was fortunate to meet Jack Welsh, the CEO of GE. It was him, after my father, who ignited the fire of being an entrepreneur in me. He told all of us to be the entrepreneurs for the GE units we were heading,” he recalls.
Amrit adds, “I owe learning the art of starting a business to L&T. From selling a new product to identifying the need for a new product to everything around a business, it’s L&T where I learnt it all.”
Both L&T and GE have been clients of the Sahasra Group. GE was one of the first companies that Sahasra had onboraded as clients. Amrit shares that being on the other side with GE was a unique experience as Amrit had already worked with a lot of people from GE, the ones that he was selling solutions to under the Sahasra brand. Amrit recalls how he pitched a solution to one of his previous bosses, who said “Amrit it will be a lot easier for you to sell to us as you know all the processes.”
Amrit credits learning to do hard work and perseverance to his father, analytics ability to his math teacher, Mr Sisodiya, and the art of keeping things simple yet effective from GE’s former CEO, Jack Welch.” Jack used to stammer, and yet he headed one of the biggest companies on the face of the Earth. The way he simplified things was out of this world. The direction that he gave to GE is still one of the biggest learnings of my life,” he says.
Bungalow to flat
It was in 1990 that Amrit submitted his papers and told his family, friends, and colleagues about the entrepreneurial journey he was heading towards. The first hint that made Amrit look in the direction of entrepreneurship included GE’s joint venture with Fanuk of Japan. He is still of the view that the person heading him during this venture was below par. Your expectations are always on the higher side when you have worked with the likes of legendary Jack Welch.
“I thought I was working with somebody who had no vision. It’s always good to take directions even as president of a company, but this individual was not somebody I wanted to work with or for. Moreover, I knew that I would not be given a free hand as there will be people from GE and Fanuk trying to control and influence my decisions. I was not really willing to do that,” he shares.
“Second, I was no longer able to picture myself working for any other company for the next 24 years. I was 36, with at least 24 more years left in me. Third, we wanted to source PCBs from within India for a GE project, and we could find none! We reached out to a couple of companies and requested them to quote prices for PCBs. The lead time these companies were saying was six months. The same PCBs were available from the United States within two to three weeks,” recalls Amrit.
This was the moment when Amrit realised there was a big challenge available to be solved in the market, a challenge that was worth the opportunity of building something of his own in India. “Why don’t we set up a PCB plant was a question I asked myself. There is a market, the prices look good. I said all the right ingredients are there. I have identified the business potential,” explains Amrit.
Amrit explains all the research and groundwork was done unconsciously while he was working on projects for other companies. Amrit and his partners were able to raise money from a bank consortium. Amrit explains that financial engineering is the first thing that you learn when you start pursuing an entrepreneurial life.
“The office that I started on my own, which employed around eight people, was smaller than my GE cabin. We didn’t even have chairs for the vendors who came to visit us the first time. You realise cutting corners is a must when you are an entrepreneur. Sometimes you will have to be the peon and close the office doors at the end of the day. Then there is dealing with the government. How you navigate through tough waters does not come as a part of any research, it starts setting up in your mind unconsciously the day you start working,” he explains.
But how does it feel leaving behind a secure job to start something of your own?
“I was not afraid but there were other things that we, as a family, had to compromise upon. For example, I was living in a posh house in Nehru Enclave when working for GE. But as soon as I started my venture my whole family had to shift to a rented small two-bedroom house in Greater Kailash. The first three years of our venture were very good. We were able to capture a good amount of market share. The business was booming,” he explains.
What’s a business journey with all the ups in it? The government of India opened up the country’s doors to imports and the prices of PCBs dropped by almost 50% (from 90 paise per square centimetre to 50 paise per square centimetre for double side PCB). The effect was such that a lot of PCB units operating in India decided to shut and bear significant losses.
“That was the first time when I asked myself if I had made a mistake by leaving my corporate job for entrepreneurship. Those were the toughest five years of my life. We looked at PCB assembly. I do not regret leaving my corporate job, and I do not think I ever will,” says Amrit.
The Sahasra Group, led by Amrit, has an average annual turnover of more than 2.5 billion rupees. It also has a company in the United States. The group also has a unit in Rwanda. The net worth of the group is said to be 1.5 billion rupees. The group is operational in PCBs, memory products, motherboards for data servers, all-in-one PCs, and DVRs for automobiles. The group has recently forayed into the semiconductor packaging arena, and is investing close to 1.5 billion rupees in the same. It has also been selected for PLI for the same by the government of India.
“We will be working on ICs at our new semiconductor facility, and we will be the first in India to do so. The only regret that I have is, I do not have my father and mother to see their son becoming the businessman they always wanted,” he says.
Love at job interview
How Amrit met his wife and the duo started dating is also an interesting story. Amrit’s boss was scheduled to interview candidates for the position of a secretary. As the day came, Amrit’s boss had to travel outstation for a project and Amrit was told to take these interviews.
“He guided me to test the candidates by giving them dictation. My future-to-be-wife came for an interview. Believe you me, I rejected her because of the way she handled the dictation notes. She wrote telephones in place of tenders and made other mistakes as well,” explains Amrit.
Amrit informed his boss about the interviews. He was not looking to recommend any of the candidates for the position, but his boss told him that if the candidate’s (Amrit’s wife to be) English was good, it was easier for them to help her with the dictations. However, this lady joined L&T with a different team. But who proposed whom?
“She lived very close to where I lived, and one thing led to another. I was the one who proposed first,” says Amrit with a cute smile on his face. The journey from love to marriage wasn’t easy at all. Amrit’s parents were strictly against marrying their son out-of-caste. Amrit and Varsha stood firm on their ground and made it clear that they were marrying each other or not getting married at all.
“My wife has always been on my side. She doesn’t see wealth as a necessity, but she never discouraged me from taking the decision to quit my job and starting a venture of my own. Yes, I have seen her worried but, despite all that, she encouraged me to start the business. If she had not been in my life, I would not have been able to reach where I am today,” shares a proud Amrit.
He continues, “There used to be days when we used to have rejections worth lakhs of rupees. I would return home sad and dejected and she would sit by my side, cheer me up and assure me that everything will be alright.”
The couple has been blessed with two boys – Varun and Akshay. Varun is currently helping his father at the Sahasra Group whereas Akshay, the elder son, is a writer and a sports journalist, and has also given cricket commentaries for BCCI.
What’s Amrit’s plan for the future?
“I love enjoying single malts. On the official side I would definitely like to see the semiconductor industry grow. We have put in all we had in the semiconductor project. It is a big challenge. My dream is not just to be the first company to do semiconductor and IC packaging but also help India in exporting semiconductors. Besides that, I am also the vice-chairman in the Electronic Sector Skill Council of India (India), and I would like to see skill in the youth of India so that they can make India electronics manufacturing hub of the world,” concludes Amrit.