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SPARK OF THE CORPORATE

This visionary entrepreneur had to take the unusual route of battling with his guardian angel, his dad in boardroom over business decisions, to stand by what he truly believed is in the best interest of the company and its stakeholders. He clasped on to his dream, worked hard with all his heart and started building a global Indian company even before liberalisation. Onkar Singh Kanwar, Chairman of Apollo Group is an epitome of modernisation, excellence and quality and the man behind Apollo Tyres. The conglomerate has diversified to areas like logistics solutions, marketing, distribution of tyres, tubes, flaps and rims, international business and export of various products, equipment & projects, manufacturing and export of leather garment and accessories etc. He found a place in Forbes' list of India’s top 100 richest for the first time in November 2012, with a fortune of $510 million, when the shares gained enough traction amid falling rubber prices, shooting it up by 60%. He has driven the company from a small single plant Indian manufacturer of commercial vehicle tyres, to a global entity with a full - fledged product portfolio, with six plants worldwide.

The journey of building this brick and mortar company from scratch was no joke. He has had it all - strikes and union intimidation, the restrictions of the Licence Raj, politically motivated nationalisation, near bankruptcy and conflict with his entrepreneur dad. As clichéd as it might feel, he was a true blue Punjabi - aggressive and enterprising. His biography titled "The Man behind the Wheel" authored by a leading UK based journalist Tim Bouquet walks us through his journey and the strategy behind the rise of 40 year old Apollo Tyres and exposes the man beyond his business tycoon face.

The birth of Apollo Tyres...

It was Oskar’s dad, Raunaq Singh who founded the company in 1976 when the Government of Kerala gave him a paper license to manufacture tyres. However there was no factory then. After graduating in industrial engineering and business administration from University of California, he joined in a factory in US that produced machines for manufacturing pipes. It so happened that the president of the company wanted to visit India and Onkar fixed an appointment for him with his father. Upon meeting, the he consented to finance and provide machines for him to set up their own factory in India. In 1977, the first plant was established in Kerala, India.

The struggle...

Year 1979. Things did not work out as expected and the company could not take off. It bore great losses and was about to collapse in just two years time. Things got worse when Supreme Court appointed an interim board to take over the firm on account of huge financial losses against its dwindling share capital resulting in long legal battle. When the Onkar expressed his desire of joining the ailing company, many called it as a no-fail recipe for failure. He had just honesty, youth and determination to rely on. He gathered the employees and told them about the two doors in front of them – either shut the factory and move on or attempt to create a 1 billion company. The echoes of employees' laughter that filled the room post presenting the plan of this novice motivate him even today. Many exited right away. A few stayed – more so because that was their only option.

What followed was magical. The passionate, hardworking and determined bunch took the company to 1 billion mark in seven years carving a space for itself in truck tyres industry. The balance sheet and the industry showed a promising future for the company.

The boardroom clash...

Onkar's struggle did not end there. His dad wanted to convert Apollo into a typical Indian conglomerate by diversifying into unrelated businesses. However, Onkar was against this as he wanted to stick to and concentrate on tyre manufacturing business. He had to pick up a battle in the boardroom with his dad, his role model, for what he believed was the right thing for the company, its employees and stakeholders. He refers to it as the darkest, bleakest period of his life. It was a time when he was questioned by one and all. He had to face a lot of brickbats from his family as well as from the company. Everybody had to take sides and the strong bonded family split into two. In the best interest of the business, he had to take over his dad's position leaving a deep scar for the rest of his life.

At the helm...

Onkar Kanwar assumed the mantle of Chairman of Apollo Tyres in 2002. Neeraj Kanwar, his youngest son took over daily operations of Apollo Tyres from his dad. He could convince the Board about focusing and growing in the tyre industry rather than diversification. He strongly believes that the bitter experiences he has had and the decisions he made in his life has played a huge role in shaping who he is today and how he sees things.

In 2003, the company partnered with French peer Michelin to make radial tyres for trucks and buses. However, it had to terminate the JV in two years as it never took off in Indian market as expected. In 2006, Apollo acquired Dunlop Tyres International’s South African operations and Netherland’s bankrupt tire maker Vredestein Banden in 2009, making strong roots in Africa and Europe. He later sold South African factory to fund his biggest buyout in 2013. The company also started an Rs 2,500 crore radial tyre plant in Sriperumbudur near Chennai in 2007. In 2009, Apollo began selling its Indian made products in Europe. It opened its Global R&D Centre in Netharlands in 2013 and in Chennai in 2016. Two years back, Apollo bought Germany’s Reifencom for €45.6 million. It has recently inaugurated its new $500 million consumer and commercial tire plant in Budapest, Hungary crossing another milestone in their global growth journey. It will continue its focus on India, even while strengthening its operations in Europe. The company also ventured into two wheeler tyres market last year.

Back in late 80s, when Apollo Tyres was just at 3 billion, Onkar met the Chairman of U.S based tire maker Cooper Tire & Rubber Company and expressed his desire to buy Cooper's technical collaboration, he shooed away saying “Apollo Tyres? Big company! Never heard of it’. Cut to 2013, he was almost going to seal the biggest deal of his business career by buying Cooper Tire & Rubber in an all-cash deal worth about $2.5 billion. However, he lost the deal following a highly charged courtroom battle in the United States.

Other initiatives...

Onkar Kanwar is always high about giving back. He is always enthusiastic about bettering the lives of people around. He treats his employees as assets and has some of the first employees of the company still with him. He is highly interested in education and healthcare. The company has won many awards for its CSR initiatives. Well travelled and an avid reader, he is very keen on learning about modern management practices and its successful implementation in business.

His interests in health have led to the establishment of super specialty hospitals under the Artemis brand in northern India. Apollo Tyres Foundation's Health Care Centres is another initiative from the group. The centre provides HIV-AIDS awareness and prevention programme for the commercial vehicle driver community.

Memberships and associations...

Member of the Trade Advisory Committee to the Government of India
Chairman of the India chapter of the BRICS business council
President of Indian Rubber Manufacturers Research Association (IRMRA)
Member of the Board of Governors for the Indian Institute of Management (Kozhikode)
Member of the Board of Governors for the Indian Institute of Information Technology Design & Manufacturing (IIITDM)
Member of Board of Directors of PTL Enterprises Limited, Artemis Health Sciences Limited, Leto Realtors Private Limited, Classic Auto Tubes Limited And Ufo Moviez Limited
Past President of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry
Former Chairman of the Automotive Tyre Manufacturers’ Association

Awards and accolades...

Awarded Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award – Manufacturing’ in 2012
Named in Hurun’s India Rich List 2015
Named as #99 in Forbes' list of top 100 richest Indians in 2012

Quotes

I was a novice in the business and and had little idea of the tyre trade. That was to be my biggest advantage — an uncluttered mind.
If something is worth doing, it is worth doing to the best of one’s ability. If the cause is right then no matter who opposes it, one has to fight for that cause. The greater good is always supreme and personal feelings and relationships cannot hold one hostage to doing what needs to be done.

Hope readers caught up the spark …

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