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HomeRIND SurveyHow a mentor helped turn the tide and grow a label business

How a mentor helped turn the tide and grow a label business

The pressure- sensitive adhesive labels industry is growing at a steady and rapid pace in India. It is now time that the contribution of those who have achieved success is chronicled so that those who wish to move ahead have a platform to look for information and news, says Harveer Sahni

Hari with the writer.

Born to Malayali parents in the South Indian state of Kerala, Hari Nair, CEO of Digital Labels in Toronto, does not sound like a Malayali; he sounds like a typical Mumbaikar (local longtime residents of Mumbai). The Malayali people are a Dravidian ethno-linguistic group originating from the present-day state of Kerala in India, occupying its southwestern Malabar Coast. They are predominantly native speakers of the Malayalam language. They constitute the majority of the population of Kerala.

It is pertinent to mention here that Hari is proud of his Indian heritage and firmly believes in the oneness of being an Indian rather than be recognised as a part of separate religious or caste-based segment of the society. Long years ago, Hari’s parents had moved residence to Mumbai, where he grew up. They lived in Santa Cruz, close to airport. He did his schooling from Kalina Education Society and college in Parle College. He followed this with master’s in Organic Chemistry from Bombay University. Finally, he completed his Master of Management Studies from Sydenham Institute of Management Studies, Mumbai.

In 1989, Hari, along with a few others, were hired by Suresh Gupta, former chairman, Huhtamaki-PPL, which at the time was Paper Products, promoted by the late Sardari Lal Talwar and his family. Paper Products was later acquired by multinational Huhtamaki. Sardari Lal Talwar’s son in law, Suresh Gupta, had joined Paper Products when it was facing tough times. Suresh Gupta, fondly called SG, was in the process of transforming the company from being purely owner-driven to a professionally managed one. 

An elaborate programme of in-house training was put in place. The programme was designed by SG and his colleagues to suit their specific needs – technology, sales, customer or people handling. They were transforming the company to project their acumen in offering the latest in packaging. So, he hired youngsters and trained them. He would not let them to take it easy. They were initially trained in flexible packaging, learning every part of the process, including slitting.

Hari mentions, “SG had long term vision.” He achieved success by implementing his ideas. The new incumbents included six or seven persons to be groomed as his core management team. Hari Nair was one of them. He considers Suresh as his mentor and remains in awe of his capabilities to transform a company that was just Rs 35 crore when Hari joined. Under SG’s leadership, Paper Products had crossed Rs 2300 crore when SG retired.

Hari started his career at Thane in Mumbai, at Paper Products’ plant, in the flexible packaging division. When SG introduced shrink sleeves 1993-94, Hari was sent to Fuji Seal in Japan for training, along with others in the organisation, for training. In 1997 he was made general manager of the company’s Hyderabad plant.

Hari moved to Canada in 2001, after his last posting in India at Paper Products, Hyderabad. When asked why he moved to Canada, he says he was not sure. “I always thought it will be good for daughter, plus I was fascinated by the West.” Each time he visited the countries on his business trips, he was in awe of the infrastructure, the roads and facilities. Comparatively, he felt India was always ‘work in progress’ and in his lifetime, it will never be like what it was abroad.

Hari yearned to live in the countries of the developed world and drive on the roads, though today he says, those were stupid reasons. However, his vison for daughter Mythili getting a  better education has worked out well. She is a doctor and moving on well. When they moved to Canada, his family had no clue what they were going to be up against. Arriving in Toronto, they were all holed up in one room of a town house in which four families were living, sharing a kitchen. It was an extremely challenging situation, far removed from the life they had been leading in India.

In Toronto, Hari tried looking for jobs in the field he was experienced in and approached companies. Sandeep Lal, then owner of Metro Labels, called him for an interview and felt Hari was overqualified and he did not have a position for him at the time. For a full year thereafter, Hari did not get a break and he was so distressed that he even sent a message to his mentor, SG, that he might want to come back to Paper Products. The experienced mentor and a professional management leader that he was, SG advised him that while he was welcome to return, yet he did not want Hari to regret later and feel he did not try hard enough. SG asked him to wait for some more time and try some more till things worked out. That was motivation from a mentor, it was the encouragement that changed Hari’s mind.

A year later, while Hari was contemplating moving out of the packaging industry, he saw many youngsters joining banks as the jobs were there on offer. On a suggestion from a friend, he did a course in financial securities hoping to get a bank job. He was then living at Kingston, Ontario and met almost all the bank managers there, looking for a job.

Hari kept following up with Sandeep Lal at Metro Labels. A year had elapsed and one fine day he got two calls, one from a bank offering him a teller’s job for 10 dollars an hour and that, too, for just 10 hours each week, which was not enough to feed a family, and the second job offer came from Sandeep Lal, which Hari accepted. And so, he joined Metro Labels as an estimator.

The job was entirely different from what it was in India; the workload was heavy. One of the first lessons Hari learnt was that in India if you are dealing with large customers the price for a particular customer remains same for all quantities of same label but in Canada each job is estimated and quoted separately. In six to eight months, he became the plant manager for Metro Labels. A year down the line he felt discomfort, as the environment was a lot different from the time he worked in Paper Products in Mumbai.

After having spent over two years, he quit Metro Labels and joined another label company, Labelad, as a supervisor and gradually moved up and stayed there for the next seven years. During his tenure at Labelad, while Hari was attending a seminar, the speaker mentioned that there were two big opportunities in North America and those were flexible packaging and digital printing. Sitting at a round table along with his colleague Chris Henderson from sales in Labelad, referring to digital printing, Hari said to Chris, “this is the future.” They parted on that note and forgot about the incident.

Six months later, Chris was at Hari’s office asking him if he remembered his comments on digital and whether he wished to start something. With an affirmative reply, both indulged, and Digital Labels was born. Chris had spent 14 years in Labelad and it was an ideal combination with Hari as the production person and Chris as the sales expert. From experience Hari felt that the HP Indigo 4000 series could not sustain business expense but when the 6000 series arrived, it became a different story. Two years after launch, they felt comfortable to buy the press.

Within six months they came in contact with Charlie Maclean, president of ASL Printfx. They then decided to get into an association with ASL investing in Digital Labels, taking a small part of the ownership, since they also had interest in digital. It was a win-win situation, as ASL could use the digital capabilities of Digital Labels who in turn would have access to ASL’s sales network.

Digital Labels are into manufacturing of all segments of labels, shrink labels and decals, but mostly concentrating on short and specialised runs. To start, they had huge challenges as both partners were into service before and had no business background, so banks were reluctant to fund them. Working capital dried up soon. Once they got over the initial hiccups and proved their capabilities, it was smooth sailing.

The first six months were tough as buyers did not trust them since they were new in the labels business but then a Godsend opportunity came when a scented candle manufacturer who was having trouble with current vendors of labels, approached them. That business was a big saviour. Once orders from the customer came, they were operating better and, later, when ASL came into the picture, things changed for good.

Chris and Hari have worked tirelessly, and their efforts have been fruitful as Digital Labels has been growing in the past few years at around 25 per cent each year. Their business is now around seven million dollars, and they plan to touch 10 million in the next three or four years, from organic growth alone. They presently operate from premises measuring 8000 square feet and the space it is fully utilised.

Due to shortages faced following the pandemic, they had to increase their inventory. They rented a lot of space around their present premises so that they could maintain enough stocks to service their customers well. They operate with 25 employees, presently working on an eight to 10 hour basis. They are a slim-trim enterprise, careful with expenses and focused on grow the business. Commercial real estate in Toronto is expensive, so they feel that for any expansion that becomes imperative, they will try to rework the present set-up and increase the working shift for the time being.

Hari’s wife Surekha is from Goa. She is a social worker by training and since 2007 she has been working for the Social Services Division of the City of Toronto. Their daughter, Mythili, was born in 1995. Hari remains connected with all his friends in India. But he has no business with the country. He still remains in awe of Suresh Gupta and feels he is yet to meet anyone as smart and knowledgeable and as professional.

(The writer is chairman, Weldon Celloplast. This article is from his blog and is reproduced here with his permission.)

February 2023

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