[Ever since I visited the Volkswagen assembly line in Wolfsburg as a student in the 1960s, I have been a connoisseur of factories. I have been to few factories as fascinating as those of Hindustan Ink, now called Microink. This was published in Business Standard of 29 April 2003.]
The pride of Gujarat
Ashok V Desai
I was picked up at Santa Cruz airport and driven over to the old aerodrome which has now become a helipad. From there a helicopter took me north over the volcanic hills and the banana gardens to Vapi. There we landed next to an emerald green cricket field. Just ahead was a nine-hole golf course, and behind it, nestling in the lap of a hill, a palace with three domes. It was called a guest house, but it had all the comforts of a luxury hotel – including a circular swimming pool under the middle dome. I was visiting a company that had grown as fast as any IT firm in the 1990s. And it produces ink.
I counted eight factories – five in Vapi, two in Daman and one in Silvassa. The first thing that struck me about all of them was the space, cleanness and lack of clutter. I generally expect a certain degree of disorganization in an Indian factory – materials lying around, broken machinery put on one side, humans lounging without a purpose. None of that in Hindustan Inks factories. Although inks leave their mark everywhere, all areas except loading areas were remarkably spick and span. Every factory gave a sense of space. And every worker was engrossed in something. The processes were similar; everywhere, ink was being cooked in containers. The containers were small – say, 8’x6’x4’ for speciality inks – and huge – as big as a few rooms – for that mainstay of printing, black ink. The plants in Daman, which are more recent, looked more like modern office buildings. There was a beautiful garden in front of them. SAP had recently implemented enterprise resource planning for the entire complex, which produces 60,000 shades for 5,000 customers; now, a salesman in Delhi can enter a customer’s order, and tell him in how many days the inks will be delivered. There is a record of every pigment ordered by a customer, and Hindustan Inks can make sure that he gets exactly the same shade as he ordered many months ago.
I had always thought that ink making was a pretty simple process: you took some pigment and mixed it with some solvent to make a liquid. Actually, colour is only one dimension of an ink. More important than its look is the purpose for which it is going to be used. It may be used to print on various surfaces – paper, metal, glass, plastic or ceramic. Each has variants of texture and absorptivity. Next comes the kind of finish one wants – sharp or soft, smooth or grainy, bright or dull – these are not alternatives but spectra along which variation is possible. Thus an almost infinite range of varieties of ink can be imagined.
Ink-makers’ general approach is to make pigments – resins – on a large scale, but to mix them into usable inks in small plants closer to clients. Many small ink-makers buy the pigments and concentrate on mixing them for clients. Hindustan Inks prepares inks in a finally usable form in its factories around Vapi and ships them across the country – and increasingly across the world. Instead of powders, it produces what are called flushes – ink concentrates dissolved in the medium – the “vehicle” – in which they are going to be finally used. That gives it the headache of supplying the precise requirements of thousands of customers; but provided it can do so, it also puts it in direct touch with final users and gives it a considerable hold on the market – a third of the Indian market. And production of flushing inks reduces material requirements by 15 per cent, and gives a superior product. The matching of customers’ demands has been made much easier by the introduction of ERP.
Hindustan Inks and other group companies are run by a family with a penchant for extreme letters of the Roman alphabet – Anjum, Yunus and Zakir. The vision is Yunus’s. After looking at the plants I went to see him. There was not a single piece of paper in sight. I asked him, “Do you do any work?” “Sometimes,” he said, “I get together with half a dozen people who have been with me for a long time, and we talk.” “What about?” I asked. “We talk about what to do in the coming years.” “And what about managing your companies?” “I don’t have to worry about that,” Yunus said, “I have very good line managers.”
He does not recruit them; he grows them. Most people joined him in their youth, and few have left. Almost all are graduates of unknown colleges like Yunus himself. I met one – manager of a restaurant in Daman – who had left Hindustan Inks. I asked him why he had left. He said it was a mistake. A friend had lured him into starting a business which failed; now he would like to go back to Hindustan Inks.
The thinking about the future has paid off. It is behind the company’s growth rate of over 50 per cent a year. It has led to the setting up of a subsidiary in the US in 2000, managed by locally recruited, experienced industry specialists, which broke even within two years. It accounts for the fact that Hindustan Inks is the lowest-cost producer in India despite the fact that it is using only a third of its capacity.
I asked Yunusbhai how he kept his capital costs so low. He said that every piece of machinery had been locally fabricated; that kept costs low, and if a machine gave any trouble, its maker could come on his bike from Vapi in 15 minutes and set it right. What did the local mechanics know about ink technology, I asked. He said that the entire technology was overseen by a consultant from Baroda who was only a few hours away.
I asked Yunus whether it was not extravagant to bring me by helicopter from Bombay. No, he said. Any company the size of Hindustan Inks would have an office building worth a billion Rupees in Bombay. He did not have one; with the money he saved, he could run a number of helicopters if he wanted. And customers from abroad would not much appreciate being put up in the Taj. But when they were flown to Vapi by helicopter, and kept in the palatial guest house, they felt they had been special guests.
Although I am hardly likely to be buying ink, I was much impressed by Yunus Bilakhia’s business sense – and also his humanity, his patriotism and his ambition. He is so Gujarati in so many ways. He is comfortable speaking in Gujarati; English is still a foreign language for him. He is unassuming and has no airs. He has oodles of common sense. He does not waste money. He trusts people. These are the characteristics I associate with the Gujaratis I know. Today, when Gujarat has become notorious for violence and prejudice, it is heartening to know that the essence of Gujarat continues to live somewhere.