“I strongly believe that simplicity and honesty get recognised and pay back later, if not immediately.” This is the mantra that drove Suresh Nair, director, Leaptech Corporation, to enter the electronics business in 2003, and the success of his firm proved him right. In a candid conversation with Baishakhi Dutta, Nair shares how he witnessed the SMT revolution in India and developed a well-known brand from scratch. Excerpts follow…
Born in 1968 in Kanyakumari, Tamil Nadu, I grew up in a middle class family with friends from a similar background. I had a very simple and easy going childhood. Life was simpler in those days, and definitely much more interesting. We were free to roam around – we could just get out of the house and walk around the whole town, all alone. There were none of the problems or stresses of today. That way of life is something that I would like to cherish for a long time since it has vanished from today’s world. My father was a government employee and my mother a housewife. I have three sisters; all of them are employed in different industries across India. My wife, Veena, is into business. I have two children —my daughter, Diksha and my son, Ekansh, and both are in school.
|A few of my favourite things
Favourite food: North Indian and South Indian cuisine
Favourite actor: Rajnikanth
Favourite books: Self-development and general knowledge books
Favourite singer: S.P. Balasubrahmanyam
My passion for technology
I studied in Kanyakumari, at Carmel Higher Secondary School. After my schooling, I did my B.E. in electronics and communication engineering from Madurai Kamaraj University. After that I earned a postgraduate diploma in business management from Pennsylvania University, USA. Right from my school days, I was fascinated with electronics as a subject. That is the main reason I went into engineering and specifically chose the electronics stream. I then attended a walk-in interview at a medical equipment company and luckily got the job.
Developing a taste for electronics
I started my career in the medical electronics domain as a service engineer for a company called Transasia Biomedicals in 1990. Though the company was based in Mumbai, I worked from Chennai. I worked for a few years and later moved to a company called IMC (International Marketing Corporation), which was a distributor for principals like Universal Instruments, USA; Speedline, USA, etc. I worked in that company for close to ten years. My job with IMC helped me to focus on and learn about the industry that I am in, currently. After that, my partner V.P. Sreejeev and I started Leaptech Corporation in 2003, with just three to four people. We have grown to almost 70 employees now.
Starting my own business, and witnessing the transition
In the late 90s and early 2000s, India’s electronics market was still very small. Even today, after considerable growth, it is still smaller than many other international markets. There were not many options for equipment suppliers. During the 2000s, we started seeing good opportunities in the market. The SMT equipment market was slowly growing. We realised that there was scope for more people to enter the business. My partner and I took that opportunity, deciding to leave our respective jobs to start a business on our own.
Over different periods of time, different segments of the electronics industry have grown. In the 90s, the demand was more in the consumer electronics industry for products like TVs, VCD players, etc. At that time, the EMS industry was also growing but not in a noticeably big way. And then the STBs (setup boxes) started coming out in the early 2000s. That segment was growing well. Later, the mobile phone industry took off. In the meantime, the automotive industry also grew.
The mobile phone industry really changed the face of the entire electronics industry in India. When companies like Nokia started coming to India, the related vendors also started coming here. The EMS industry also grew. Big EMS firms like Flextronics, Salcomp, Jabil, Sanmina SCI and others started setting up offices in the country. And then other industries took over, for example, automotive and lighting. LEDs came in and the lighting industry started booming.
Recently, smartphones have come back into the mainstream and the market is being dominated by Chinese manufacturers. It has been a privilege for me to witness this transition and make my business grow simultaneously. In our industry, every order and every business is a challenge. Nothing comes easy. Before customers like Nokia came in, we were mostly working with local Indian companies. So their service and support structure requirements were of a certain level. By the time the big players started foraying into the Indian market, their service expectations were totally different and more inclined towards international standards. To cope with those requirements and sustain our business was a challenge initially, though we picked up what was needed pretty quickly. We had to learn a lot and train our workforce to meet customer expectations.
Major contributions to the industry
My contribution has been bringing in the right technologies along with the right players to the Indian market, at the right time. In the days before we started our business, there were very few players in the SMT industry. The three dominant brands were Fuji, Panasonic and Universal. Back then, these were pretty expensive brands. When we started the business, we introduced the Indian market to Yamaha equipment, which offered high speed, was technologically advanced and mass produced. So the price was lower compared to the expensive brands of that time. Persuading Yamaha to enter the Indian market was quite challenging, though. We had to convince them that we could do it since by then we had been in the industry for many years and had dealt with many customers. That helped us to convince Yamaha to become our principals. Through Leaptech, my team and I have constantly targeted bringing down the price of the SMT equipment without compromising on the quality and features.
Best management practices that I have implemented
I strongly believe in giving my employees responsibility and freedom. I prefer telling them, “This is your job and how you do it is all up to you. I look at the results.” So they are accountable and completely responsible for the results, but I do not micro-manage them as they go about achieving those results. I am not concerned what time they go to a meeting or when they come back. I do not look at all those details. This has helped increase the productivity levels of the employees.
Motivating my team
Apart from the usual monetary benefits and motivational statements, the management team maintains a friendly relationship with all employees. Sometimes we make mistakes too. At times like that they do not hesitate to come and tell us that we have done something wrong, and even suggest ways to correct the error, and we take this feedback positively. Establishing this practice has helped us a lot in the past. Overall, efficiency and integrity are the two most important traits that I emphasise on, in addition to getting the job done. Also, I strongly believe that simplicity and honesty get recognised and pay back later, if not immediately.
Leisure time seems like a luxury
Currently, there is no specific hobby that I have. Earlier when I used to get time, I played tennis. I am a workaholic, by nature. At present, if I get some leisure time, I spend it with my family. Also, I read a lot, preferably non-fiction but nothing specific. Reading is something that I never get bored of.
No plans to slow down
Professionally, I would like to grow in the same business and come up with better products for our customers as well as for the industry. We intend to grow steadily with respect to market share as well as our staff strength. On the personal front, I do not have any plans to slow down since I want to devote the majority of my time to strengthening the brand, enhancing its reputation and holding on to our position in the industry.
Customers and staff are the backbone of any business
Five years after starting my business, between 2008 and 2009, the market collapsed suddenly. Things were so bad that for many months, there was no business at all or very little of it. So we were kind of taken aback. We had not expected this as till then, the business had been growing every year, nicely and smoothly. But we had to be patient and realised that ups and downs are part of doing business. We used that time to improve our marketing and build a better rapport with our customers. That helped us once the market came back to normal. There cannot be good times throughout, and that is how we learn to do healthy business. So my advice to others would be to remain prepared for the downturn. Expect it to happen at any time and be prepared for it. Also, never ignore your customers and staff when business slows down. After all, they form the backbone of your business. Hence you must take care of them very well, no matter what the situation is.