Ambition, drive based on values
By Sharad Matade
His journey to success is no less than a fairy tale. He built his business from scratch, achieved impossible dreams, and went through many ups and downs to build a tyre company that today has footprints across the world. Onkar Singh Kanwar, the Chairman of Apollo Tyres – the world’s 17th largest tyre producer – still hungers for more expansion and growth. By 2020, the company expects revenues outside of India to rise to 40 per cent from about 35 per cent today as it aggressively plans to double sales from Europe and ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations). Kanwar talks to Tyre Asia on his vision for Apollo and shares his little secrets of success.
After working in the US for a while, Onkar Singh Kanwar joined his family-owned Apollo Tyres in early 70’s. It was the time when it was sliding into deadly bankruptcy. At that young age, with no experience whatsoever in managing business, he began to turn around the company, which has now emerged as a global conglomerate and a global brand with footprints across the world.
“First we have to create a team, to have a clear product strategy and a vision,” he told Tyre Asia in an interview elaborating on his vision and strategy. “We need a team which would have trust in the leader and management. It must be able to define what kind of products we should focus on rather than making too many products.”
At that time when the company was on virtual ruins, truck tyres were the mainstay. So Kanwar decided to focus on this in order to deepen and expand business in this segment. “Since Apollo Tyres was a bankrupt company and an unknown brand, we had to have visibility. So, our immediate plan was to make our presence felt in the market. It had to be done gradually.”
In those challenging times, Kanwar framed a strategy whose thrust was to reinforce its presence in some selected markets instead of venturing across the entire country. These initiatives helped Apollo to come out of bankruptcy and make its presence felt.
From the start, his vision was to build an institution, not a company, and for that he knew he had to focus on some basic business concepts. “I always thought why I can’t create a company like Unilever. My dream was how to create an institution. People should believe that the institution belongs to them and bring in the family values. Clarity in its role, accountability of individuals, communication-based decisions and openness are some of the basic things that we have always followed at Apollo Tyres,” he adds.
But infusing confidence in a leader of a bankrupt company was not an easy task, he recalled dwelling upon in its early days. “I had gone with a much uncluttered mind. At the start, I had told my team that we have a great company and a great future. People who don’t have confidence can leave now and people who have it can stay back, I will give them all my support,” remembers Kanwar.
He also knew that instead of focusing on his team’s strength, converting their weakness into strength will bring out the best in them. “I went deep into it and tried to find out what are their weaknesses and then attacked their weaknesses to convert them into their strengths,” he said.
Initially, the company produced truck tyres based on American technology which was meant for the American roads. Apollo decided that it had to make tyres which could bear the Indian conditions – higher temperature, over loading and bad roads.
“I talked to my technicians who showed confidence to make tyres meant for Indian conditions. We made the first truck tyre, Rajdhani, for Indian roads. Since then we never looked back,” he says.
Learn from failures
Failures and risks have been an integral part of Kanwar’s successful professional career. In recent times, when Apollo announced its plans to acquire Cooper Tire of the US, which is almost double its size, many tried to mock the attempt.
Although the deal had failed, it did not deter Kanwar’s move to pursue his dreams to turn Apollo into a strong global tyre company.
“You have to have a clear focus and passion. You should know your roadmap. My belief is that focus, patience and persistence will take you to your goals. Of course, the road will not be easy to travel, but failures should not make you feel that you will lose out. One should have that confidence in oneself and his team,” he explains.
According to Kanwar, businesses do not run neither on sheer instinct or on over analysis. “Instinct is one thing, but you have to do some analysis before taking any major decisions and if you want to go into too micro analysis, you will mess up things. So, analysis plus instinct are important. And if you have these two things in right mix, you can take decisions faster,” he says.
In recent years, the company has been foraying into the European markets with both organic and inorganic ways. Merging two cultures are the most important task of the management in the initial phase of any mergers or acquisitions.
When asked how he brings in two cultures together without affecting business, Kanwar says, “Family value, transparency, openness, communication and empowerment are the basic needs when you work with other cultures and people. That is the only way you can merge cultures. Our efforts are to go and merge and try to become a part of them. Try to get basic family values in. However, it is not an easy task.”
Kanwar says in business change is constant and leaders have to be part of it, whether you like it or not. So you have to be in touch with what’s going on. A lot of us don’t change with time and that’s where companies fail.
“If you change with the time and allow younger generations to come in and yet you retain the basics of family values, it is the only way you succeed. You have to willingly say that you are a part of the change,” he thinks.
After having the leadership experience of around four decades, Kanwar has a simple message for young entrepreneurs. “Young entrepreneurs should not compromise with basic values. They should demonstrate adaptability and passion. They should not give up after failures.”
Another thing is that one should not just look at the top lines and bottom lines. “I will have to look at three lines, top, bottom and middle.” One should also keep a watch on the cash in the bank and observe these numbers all the time. Only then that they should proceed with the strategy and execution.
For Kanwar, both physical and mental fitness play a vital role in business life, and he rigorously follows both spirituality and healthy life style. “Spirituality is in our culture. I will not step outside of it. I thank the Almighty. It gives you confidence and self-commitment to put people on right value system.”
Kanwar says he always tell hi people that if they are not healthy they are not fit for the job. If they look after themselves, then only will the company be able to perform better.