You are standing on a street in London and suddenly you are transfixed by a small cute car, making not the slightest sound, zipping past and parking in a spot no other car could possible fit into. This is the very popular Reva electric car.
One of the cutest cars in the electric vehicle market, it has a strong body made of a special high-impact polymer which is dent-resistant and non- corrosive. The Reva is the world’s most economical car to run, with a range of 80 kms and a top speed of 65kms/hr. Its compact size and shape gives it a very tight turning radius and it is very easy to park. As it has no gears, it is a pleasure to drive and is very comfortable, with climate control seats which use Thermo Electric devices to generate localised heating and cooling. The story behind this car starts in Punjab, India.
MAKING THE INDIA BRAND BETTER
Born into a business family in Punjab, Sudarshan Maini went to England on a Loughborough Burmah Shell scholarship in 1954. “I wanted to do two things: one ” promote India, which I felt was my duty as an Indian ” and the second was to do something to make the India brand better.”
At the time the image of India was not positive. “India was looked down upon,” Maini explains, “and we were treated as second class citizens. I went to America in 1965 and I was working as a general manager for an Indo American venture. I was invited by a colleague and his wife for dinner and they showed me articles in Time and Newsweek that talked about the negative aspects of India like poverty, filth and everything that was bad in India. They asked if it were true and I said, “Yes.” But the following weekend I went armed with a cheap camera to Philadelphia and took photos of the ghettos, people fighting, breaking windows and the general chaos of the city. Before returning to India I went to them and said, “I am taking some photos of your beautiful country to show my family back home.” They were aghast at seeing the pictures. Then I explained that just as those photos do not represent America, though they are a part of it, India too has been unfortunate to be shown in a bad light by the magazines.”
India’s strength, he realised, is that “Indian labour is excellent, and if treated and trained properly Indian workers are much better than others. India is a talent gold mine which can do wonders. People are willing to work and learn” ” an insight which the software and outsourcing world has discovered.
In 1973, after working in two other companies in India, Maini went to Bangalore where he joined MICO (Motor Industries Co. Ltd., a member of the Bosch Group, Germany). A keen observer of people, he noticed that the middle management was not interacting with the workers. “I sorted out a lot of problems just by listening and talking to the labour union.” He soon became the General Production Manager, but felt he had hit a glass ceiling, so he quit and started a machine tool business in 1973 with 10 people. His main criterion in selecting this business was that he wanted a high-precision product to show that even a small business in India could make high-quality goods to international standards. The first product that was produced was a consumable called a “Mandril’.
CONFIDENCE IS KEY
A person with a very independent nature, once he believes in something there is no stopping him. “Confidence in oneself is the most important factor for achieving success. Once you believe internally, help comes from all over and from unexpected quarters.”
Working out of a small shed in the Peenya Industrial Estate on the outskirts of Bangalore, Maini was soon making entrepreneurs out of small-scale businessmen. In Bangalore he’d found there was an abundance of talent and a number of people who had started small scale industries, who had a wealth of technical knowledge, but who lacked the necessary business acumen to make it big. They were swamped by the problems of money, getting orders and procuring raw materials. Seeing an opportunity, Maini offered to give them huge orders, and he would take care of all the nitty gritty details. What he asked for in return was for reliable products delivered on time. This gave them time and a hassle-free environment to concentrate on what they were best at doing ” making their products. In this way, Maini encouraged a large number of entrepreneurs and helped them grow into bigger and better operations.
What is entrepreneurship? “It is subjective,” Maini replies, “and cannot be defined. Entrepreneurship to me is not risk taking. An entrepreneur is one who looks at opportunities which other people are not able to spot. He does not take a risk if he is clever; he gets into an area of value and then he will make money, even if he is inefficient.”
Maini began by supplying to MICO and later BOSCH, with not a single complaint from either. “One of the main problems for companies abroad is the high cost of quality control; and manpower is very expensive, especially in Europe and North America. I promised to take care of this. Having BOSCH as my customer gave us respectability and helped open doors with other companies. In 1993, we got an order from General Motors and we still supply them,” he says proudly. Today, Maini Group’s exports, primarily to Europe and USA, exceed £10 million.
THE ELECTRIC CAR
Excellent business ideas often come from the need to resolve problems, as were the seeds for an electric, zero- pollution car. Maini recalls, “The idea came at our plant. In India there was no pollution-free in-plant handling equipment. My concern for the well-being of my employees led me, in 1984, to sign a technical collaboration with Brodrene Vestergaard of Denmark to start Maini Materials Movement. We introduced to India zero pollution in-plant handling equipment. I borrowed their technology and built an R&D center. Today, we are the best in the world and sell to many companies, including Toyota.”
Once the company had the expertise in building electric vehicles, Maini started dreaming of and planning for the electric car. “India needed an environment-friendly small car. With depleting oil reserves and soaring petrol prices, with the noise and pollution of conventional cars, I realised the electric car was the car of the future.” Meanwhile, his son Chetan, a budding engineer, was working for a company in Los Angeles that had the technology to make hybrid cars. A joint venture with AEVT Inc of Irvindale, California, in 1995 resulted in the Reva being launched on May 11, 2001.
It was a big step. “It was a huge investment for us, and I knew we had to sell 3,000 cars a year to break even. I was also extremely confident, as we already had the necessary infrastructure, experience, synergies and network in place. An enduring dream of mine was to export high-quality products and cutting edge technology. The export of Reva cars to the U.K. in 2002 fulfilled this dream.”
Reva is being exported to Japan, Nepal, Malta, Hong Kong, Switzerland, Ireland, Romania, Malaysia and China. In 2002, the Reva Electric Car Company signed a long-term contract with GoinGreen, a company in the UK formed to market Reva’s products. The first batch of 16 cars sent to the UK was demonstrated in London in 2003 and received a resounding welcome. Ken Livingston, then Mayor of London, imposed a daily congestion charge of £5.00 on all vehicles entering central London except for electric vehicles like the Reva. This move got an excellent response and Mr. Archie Norman, a Conservative member of the House of Commons, began driving a Reva to work.
Maini has come up with a simple yet brilliant philosophy which forms the foundation of the Maini Group. He defines the company’s unique culture as the “Zero Philosophy’. The Group’s motto in Sanskrit: Karma Parma Dharma ” Work is Worship, has transcended from a motto to a vibrant way of life. The Zero principle aims to deliver Zero defect products with Zero time delays, Zero excuses and Zero complaints. This is further achieved through Zero wastage, Zero compromises and Zero inefficiency. There is also a strict adherence to achieve Zero Pollution in all the processes and by-products. Zero becomes the inspiration.
Maini has passed on the reins of his company into the capable hands of his sons Gautam, Sandeep and Chetan. They all have risen in the Group on merit and are ably advised by a distinguished board. Maini has now turned his attention to the social enrichment of India. The great divide between rich and poor is a special concern to him. He is passionately involved in improving the safety, congestion and environment of Bangalore. He is also involved with various organisations spreading basic education in villages in India. In July 2006 Maini was conferred with an Honorary Doctor of Technology (Hon DTech) by Loughborough University (UK), In recognition of his outstanding service to industry and India.