BOOK EXCERPT

How Onkar Singh Kanwar started building a global Indian company even before liberalisation

A new book details the journey and the strategy behind the rise of Apollo Tyres.

The 1980s was the decade when the tyre industry went global in response to technological advances and market changes. When it came to technological innovation, French tyre maker Michelin, based in Clermont-Ferrand in central France, led the way. To Onkar Singh Kanwar, they were the gold standard, the Rolls-Royce of tyres.

Back in the late 1960s, Michelin had introduced radial tyres to the American market. The major US manufacturers had not responded well and it lost a significant market share. So much so that Firestone, once judged the best managed and most innovative of the US companies, which also operated plants in Spain, France, Italy, Portugal, Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela, had been swallowed up by Japanese company Bridgestone on 17 March 1988. Tokyo-based Bridgestone was by now the world’s third largest tyre company after Goodyear and Michelin.

As reported by the New York Times-Business Day: “In a stunning move intended to shut out the unsolicited intentions of Pirelli SPA, [then the world’s seventh biggest player] the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company agreed last night to be acquired by the Bridgestone Corporation of Japan for $80 a share, or $2.6 billion. The new agreement was expanded to also give Bridgestone control of Firestone’s domestic network of 1,500 automobile service centres, where its tires are sold.”

That Bridgestone had agreed to pay 38 per cent more than Pirelli for Firestone emphasised just how eager the two rivals were to win a significant presence in the United States, which accounted for 45 per cent of the world tyre market. Now, only Goodyear of the five biggest American tyre companies remained independent.

In a research paper, Professor Donald N Sull of the Harvard Business School summed up this major tremor in the tyre industry. “Firestone’s historical excellence and disastrous response to global competition and technological innovation posed a paradox for industry observers: Why had the industry’s best managed company turned in the worst performance in a weak field? Close analysis reveals that Firestone failed not despite, but because of its historical success. Firestone’s reliance on managers’ existing strategic frames and values and the company’s processes proved counterproductive in a changing competitive environment.” Firestone had become mired in “business as usual” and paid the price of standing still.

The demise of Firestone as a proud independent company had shown how easy it was to slip from innovation to inertia. It was a lesson not lost on Onkar Singh Kanwar.

Apollo felt the force of change in October 1987, when Germany’s Hanover-based Continental AG, the second largest European tyre producer, acquired General Tire. Explaining Continental’s strategy, its then Chairman Helmut Werner said, “The acquisition will provide us with a sound and strong presence in the world’s largest tyre market. This step is of vital strategic importance to us and will provide Continental with an opportunity to expand worldwide.”

Onkar was not so sure and had already sounded out alternative collaborators to General Tire prior to Continental’s acquisition. “I had become very interested in Cooper Tire in America.”

The Cooper Tire & Rubber Company, founded in Akron in 1914, and now headquartered in Findlay, Ohio, was among the top ten tyre companies of the world. In 1983, it had joined the Fortune 500 as one of America’s largest industrial companies. Producing replacement tyres for most markets, Cooper had been listed on the New York Stock Exchange since 1960.

“It had an excellent technical design department and a very healthy balance sheet,” Kanwar says. “We were just Rs 3 billion but I sought an appointment with the Cooper Chairman. He agreed to see me. I told him, ‘I want to buy your collaboration because I am not happy with General.’

“I explained my vision for Apollo. He looked at me and said, ‘Who are you?’

“’Onkar Kanwar – Apollo Tyres.’

“’Apollo Tyres? Big company! Never heard of it,’ he said. ‘That was the end of that.’”


In India, Apollo was making strides. By 1986, Hercules had replaced the Modi N416 as market leader. It was refined, improved and relaunched as the Hercules Loadstar in 1991.

In 1986, Raunaq Singh had moved out of the old grey house in Friends Colony, where his first wife remained, and moved himself and his second wife into a superior house in the grounds, which Onkar had built for him. Gleaming white and Lutyensesque, its front door opened on to a big lobby on the ground floor with an impressive central spiral staircase going up to the first floor. On one side of the lobby was a drawing room and on the other a waiting area and Raunaq Singh’s office, where he would greet his many visitors.

Baljeet Ravinder Singh remembers having a meeting in Raunaq Singh’s office when he was the Divisional Sales Manager of Premier Tyres. “His office was very nicely done. Raunaq Singh was a man of taste.” It was the first time that Baljeet met Onkar Kanwar, who was to become his boss one day. “Mr Kanwar came out with a tray of cold drinks.”

However, Onkar was showing increasing independence from his father. He had opened an office for Apollo at Nehru Place, a large new commercial, financial and business hub in south Delhi next to the Outer Ring Road, which had been developed in the early 1980s to rival Connaught Place. It comprised high-rise towers, four-storey blocks, large pedestrian courtyards and underground parking.

But as always with Apollo in those days, it was a case of two steps forward and one back. The Perambra plant was once again plagued by strikes. In 1985, a third lockout lasting two months from 14 October to 10 December was imposed following an illegal strike. Minimum production levels had not been achieved and so Kanwar had cut salaries.

The unions had gheraoed and assaulted senior management. In December 1989, there was a further lockout following low productivity, indiscipline and wilful damage to machinery. It lasted until 15 January 1990.

Onkar Singh Kanwar refused to see Apollo hobbled by strikes and lockouts. “I decided that I would open a second factory in another state. Being able to manufacture in a second plant would give me the scope to carry on production and might concentrate minds in Perambra. Apollo could not be held to ransom by unions.”

Prevented from building a new plant in Kerala by the MRTP Act, he went looking for possibilities in Bengal, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Haryana and UP.

However, every state in India already had a tyre factory operated by Apollo’s rivals. Except one! That state was Gujarat.

“There was already a licence issued fourteen years previously by the Government of India to the Government of Gujarat to set up a factory in a joint sector (state-private) venture. This licence had been given to Nirlon, which had become sick in 1988. They were making tyre cord, which had always been in short supply. Nirlon was now under the Board for Industrial and Financial Reconstruction [BIFR], which was responsible for trying to rehabilitate sick companies. So I went and met some of its bureaucrats.

“I suggested to them that if I paid Nirlon’s outstanding income tax, could I take over the licence?” BIFR agreed but Kanwar would have to strike a deal with the Income Tax Department. “I sent my Chief Financial Officer [CFO] to talk to the tax department and not to come back until he had done a deal. I told him to pay the money and get the licence transferred into our name. No under-the-table payments, only a straight cheque.

“He called me and said that the outstanding tax was Rs 40 million, but the tax department wanted fifty. I said, ‘Pay it.’ It was a major decision.”

Although Kanwar thought the way ahead was now clear, another problem reared its head. “The Government of Gujarat told me they didn’t have the money to create a joint venture with Apollo and that I must create another company through which I would build a factory and that they would reimburse by way of dividends. I told them that this was nonsense, not economically viable. On top of that my technology agreement with General Tire and now Continental allowed me to put up as many factories as I liked for a 3 per cent royalty. If I set up a new company I would have to pay a higher royalty for a whole new set of technology agreements.”

Kanwar went back to Delhi and lobbied the Joint Secretary for industrial development at the industry department. “Madam, this licence has been issued and has been languishing for the last fourteen years,” he told her. “All I want is the licence, nothing else. I want no government money. I just want to build a factory.”

Excerpted with permission from The Man Behind the Wheel: How Onkar S Kanwar Created a Global Giant, Tim Bouquet, Rupa Publications.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.