A tradition of industry

Print edition : October 11, 2002

The entrepreneurial spirit of the people has enabled Coimbatore to remain the hub of industrial activity in Tamil Nadu.

ENTERPRISE is Coimbatore's culture. Today an impressive range of products are made in and around the city, more out of necessity than out of careful planning. Every time a crisis strikes, the entrepreneur of Coimbatore has shown remarkable tenacity to survive by innovating. Relying primarily on reverse engineering for technology, the Coimbatore industrialist takes pride in the quality of his product. And this, say many people, is the prime reason for Coimbatore's success. Most units, big or small, wear this motto on their walls: ``Quality first, last and forever.''

While all along Coimbatore's industrial diversification had been linked to textiles, the recent trend has been to move away from this sector to an extent.-K.ANANTHAN

One striking aspect of many of the units is their humble beginnings. For instance, the Rs.250-crore Elgi group, which now has in its fold 14 companies involved in automotive, engineering, transport and textile industries, started out by operating a few buses in the 1930s. It manufactures, among other things, air compressors, diesel engines, hydraulic lifts, industrial and automotive chains, precured tyre retreading systems, textile machinery and accessories, electrical motors and pneumatic control elements, besides building bus bodies. Pushed by the recession and the urge to innovate, the group has started on new products, moved the production chain to include forward and backward linkages, and increased exports.

According to Sara Elgi group chairman L.G. Ramamurthi, the group was the first to come out with a `farm to textile' integrated link, both for value addition and for self-sufficiency. For instance, as a step to forward integration it makes T-shirts (600 pieces a day) and high-end garments (it is the sole manufacturer of the Color Plus brand). It is also setting up dyeing and knitting units. As a step in backward integration, the group has started `contract farming' in cotton on 1,000 acres (400 hecatres) by tying up with farmers in the Valukuparai area near Coimbatore. It has provided the farmers with the in-house developed high-yielding hybrid cotton varieties (medium staple and long/extra long staple). This would also help the company get over the problem of cotton contamination.

Apart from concentrating on the export of yarn and farm equipment, the group is developing several new products. For instance, the ``Ozone Generator'', an ultraviolet application that can clean air, sewage water and industrial and hospital wastes, remove textile dyes, kill bacteria in fish hatcheries and aquaculture farms, and launder clothes (it reduces the use of detergents and chemicals by half). Trials in aquaculture farms have proved the ozone generator worthwhile: the water becomes clean, the fish survive and the fertility rate of the eggs rises to 95 per cent against the normal 30 per cent. The Elgi group's other products include biomass power plants, 100 per cent sound-proof PVC (polyvinyl chloride) windows and multilingual computer platforms with various functions.

Coimbatore is well known for the manufacture of automotive parts. Regardless of the vehicle you drive from a Tata Engineering truck to a Mercedes car chances are that you will be using a made-in-Coimbatore horn. Roots Industries Limited, one of the eight companies under the Roots group, has been making electric horns since it started operations in 1970 as American Auto Service. Besides a variety of horns, the group now manufactures various auto accessories, including halogen headlights and fog lamps, and parking and reverse sensors. Its clients include such big names in the automobile industry as DaimlerChrysler, Mitsubishi, Mahindra and Mahindra, Toyota, Tata Engineering, TVS Motor Company and Piaggio. It exports its products, among other places, to the United States, Europe, West Asia and Africa. It is the first horn manufacturer in Asia to obtain the QS 9000 and VDA 6.1 certification and the first in the world to win the ISO/TS 16949.

Thriving on high-end research and diversification, the Roots group manufactures a range of non-automotive products, including cleaning equipment, castings and precision tools. According to its managing director G. Ranganathan, the group is constantly working on innovations and developing original technology. Its technical collaboration with Bosch SA for auto products in 1995 set the group on the path of sustained technical growth. It has struck collaboration agreements also with other German companies for non-auto products with Hako for multicleaners and Zinser for textile machinery.

The Roots group's obsession with technology is evident also from the range of the state-of-the-art tools it uses Pro E 2000I{+2} for solid modelling and hard prototyping, AutoCAD 2000 for drafting and Corel Draw V 10.0 for graphics. Its metrology laboratory is a comprehensive calibration-cum-consultancy centre that offers electrical, mechanical, pressure and vacuum calibration. It also offers specialised CAD/CAM consultancy services for a range of products and industries.

According to the group's deputy managing director S. Krishna Mohan, it came out with four new products in the last nine months and four more are in the pipeline. Says director (marketing) N.V. Krishnan: ``Toyota has given us `white card' status, which means that our products can be accepted directly without any check.'' A pioneer in the pressure die-casting of magnesium, the Roots group has concentrated on aspects of safety (in automotives) and hygiene (in consumer products). Significantly, the group is working on 180 projects for cost reduction and energy saving.

Working with state-of-the-art technology.-K.ANANTHAN

Coimbatore's industrial revolution began with pumps and it now caters to over 60 per cent of the country's requirement. The city-based Fisher Pumps Private Limited (part of the Sharp Tools group, started by K.K. Ramaswamy in 1967), with an annual production capacity of three lakh units, is the largest producer of domestic pumps in the country. It produces 43 types of domestic pumps, including mini-mono block pumps, centrifugal submersibles, and jet and special pumps for open wells. The company, according to managing director K.R. Parthiban, comes out with two new products every year.

Fisher pumps are sold all over India and also in Dubai, Muscat and Sri Lanka. The factory follows the `Just in Time' and `Part Pull Card' methods, which help avoid maintaining huge inventories, and the Pokoyoke method in the assembly line, by which every system is recorded and recognised by remote sensors. This year the company is looking forward to a 40 per cent increase from the current Rs.25-crore turnover. The main problem for the organised pump industry is the 4 per cent excise duty that it has to pay. (The unorganised sector is exempt from this duty.) This, according to Parthiban, escalates the cost and leads to unethical competition. But quality, he says, is the buzzword that will see them through.

Fisher's new product, the Rugby Power pump, is light-weight, starts easily (as the spring tension is low), conforms to the latest pollution test norms, offers an optional kerosene conversion kit, is electronically controlled, is low on maintenance cost (as it has a two-stroke engine) and is totally indigenously developed.

Another major player in the pump industry is the Aqua group's Aqua Sub Engineering, headed by R. Kumaravelu. The company, with an annual turnover of Rs.150 crores, owns the TEXMO brand of domestic and jet pumps, and borewells and submersibles; the Aquatex for agricultural mono blocks, open well submersibles and electric motors; and `atx', its international brand. It bagged the national export award in the last two years.

With over 650 models and 750 dealers, Aqua Sub strives to make everything inhouse, from foundry and research and development (R&D) to motor stamping. According to general manager V. Krishna Kumar, the drought-like situation across the country is bound to generate good demand for submersible pumps. But, says Krishna Kumar, the heavy excise, sales and customs duties make Indian pumps uncompetitive in the international market. According to him, as the company is into making water, and not industrial, pumps, it has managed to survive the recession.

Started in 1984 by making water heaters, Cascade has made remarkable innovations in the product. Moving away from the family business of trading in utensils, A. Mahesh ventured into making water heaters to get ``better margins''. But it is his innovations in the basic product that has made Cascade a household name.

A pioneer in stainless steel water heaters, Cascade went on to match the water heaters to the colour (15 exclusive colours) of the tiles. This was followed by innovation in finishing. Then it made solar water heaters. Recently, Cascade came out with an energy-saving instant water heater at affordable prices; 11 models are available.

There are many more pioneers like Mahesh. For instance, N.S. Kumar, who makes paper conversion machines. He makes about 11 types of the machine, including those for film lamination, paper flexo printing, paper gum tape plant, paper slitting, heavy and special paper bag making and so on. Exporting machines since 1990 to over eight countries, Kumar's YenYesKay Machine Tools bagged the Tamil Nadu government's `outstanding industry award' in 1988. Says Kumar: ``Now the State government's ban on plastics has given my product a boost.'' He adds: ``I do not have anyone on my staff to sell my products. They sell on their own.'' Kumar hopes to cash in on the eco-friendly label attached to it. From a dealer he used to buy and sell machines to a manufacturer to an exporter, it has been a long, hard journey for Kumar, who says that resilience is what saw him through.

Resilience and enterprise this is the story of every businessman of Coimbatore. Recessions, slumps, competition and adverse government policies have not daunted them. Coimbatore's product profile may have changed over the years, but not the entrepreneurial spirit of its people.

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