Sixth sense or a typically Sindhi streak of optimism—Gulu Mirchandani’s father, who settled in Delhi after Partition, named his first-born after the Sindhi word gula, meaning “in full-bloom.” Their small family business, which started out assembling watches from the Far East, rapidly transformed itself into a professionally-managed, listed company manufacturing premium colour television sets, DVDs, home theatre systems, air conditioners and microwaves. Today, Onida, along with Videocon, is one of the only two ‘Made in India’ labels left in that particular market from among 500 licensed entrants in the late 1970s. With a turnover of over Rs1,600 crore in 2006, it has successfully staved off multinational giants such as Sony, LG and Haier.
Building a home-grown, consumer electronics business in a competitive environment, and growing a thriving garden —fittingly, Mirchandani’s other passion—have much in common: They begin with solid foundations and cross-pollination of ideas. In 1983, soon after Onida was founded, Mirchandani met Murata, the owner of the $5 billion (Rs21,500 crore) eponymous Japanese conglomerate whose brand, JVC, became a joint-venture partner with Onida. Mirchandani was inspired by the self-effacing businessman, who worked 18-hour days, yet managed to carve out the time for an intriguing pursuit. Says Mirchandani: “He showed me his beautiful butterfly farm, with the largest collection of butterflies in the world. He treks in the Himalayas, and nets the rarest of species, and he breeds every variety himself in Zen-like surroundings.”
The heart of Mumbai, where Mirchandani lives, is far from sylvan. In 1992, he found a small plot of land, an hour and a half away from the city, in the hills of Khandala, where he decided to build first a garden and a home, before he would think of rearing butterflies. ”When I conceived this weekend home, my idea was to have a garden both inside the house as well as outside. We have two beautiful ficus benjamina trees in the living room, which give a green feel to the place.” The foundation of the house has been dug to 15 feet to make room for their roots, and it took 600 trucks of mud to fill the subterranean beds.
Much like the Onida television sets, which have components from China, Japan, India and other places, Mirchandani’s garden, too, is a potpourri. D.L. Oberoi, a local nursery owner, helps Mirchandani source many of his plants.
The greenhouse has orchids and anthuriums from Thailand. Cycas Revoluta trees (Traveller’s Palm) about a hundred years old, which Mirchandani got at an auction, frame the entrance to the house. There’s also the local orange, shankha sur, which means conch-song or Caesalipina, of the gulmohur family, a double-coloured, yellow-and-orange Californian hibiscus and an unusual chitra or painted bougainvillea, a hybrid whose single flower bears two colours, red and white.
It may well be that in the outside world, time is money. But the lure of the garden draws friends who come here to relax over refreshing home-grown nimboo and mint sherbet. As they watch the mist from the hills roll into the house, even seasoned businessmen wax lyrical.
Harsh Goenka, chairman, RPG Enterprises, and an avid art-collector, says, “If you want someone to fall in love with you, bring them to a candle-lit dinner here.” Vivek Nair, whose Hotel Leela in Mumbai keeps 75 gardeners working hard to maintain the landscape between the two airports where it is located, says: “Gulu has created an Eden with his own hands. He has the eye: He can spot both great design at the IFA, the world’s biggest electronic goods fair in Berlin, and spot the right plant for his garden.”
Vindi Banga, former chairman of Hindustan Lever (now Unilever), who currently heads Unilever’s global food business out of London, says, “I admire the way Gulu has built and grown the Onida brand, despite fierce local and international competition.” He adds, “The garden typifies the man. He has a highly developed aesthetic sense which shows in everything he does. His home and garden typify his own warmth and openness to all.”
It’s interesting to see how all these qualities apply to the brand, Onida, as well. Reveals Mirchandani, “In India, the tendency is that if you buy a 10 tonne-loading truck, people expect to load 20 tonnes on it. We empathized with this need. So, our one-and-a-half-tonne air conditioner has bigger blowers and compressors, to cool even in 48-degree weather. And then, by pricing it lower than the competition, we cracked the market. That’s why we called the campaign, ‘Nothing but the truth.’ You engage the customer when you give him a better product at a reasonable price.
Mirchandani reveals that the ideas of Jim Collins inspired him in his efforts to make Onida an Indian brand capable of taking on the world. This Stanford-based management guru shows how companies that evolve by “branching and pruning”—by trying out different things, retaining those that work and quickly discarding what doesn’t—in a highly decentralized environment which supports people in their innovations and failures are the ones that will endure.
So it’s no coincidence that the Khandala garden is a microcosm of the 70-acre Onida TV factory at Wada, Mumbai, where workers assemble 11 million TV sets annually amidst a tumble of anthuriums, orchids and 2,000 trees, fertilized by canteen waste. Here, solar panels heat the boilers, and the total particulate matter released into the environment is negligible. In this clean, green environment, Onida’s special Innovation Cell also comes up with new designs that integrate the best of the world with the best of India.
In a masterful, classical Japanese gardening technique called “borrowing the scenery,” a wise gardener will tactfully accentuate with foliage any dissonant scenery. Brad Pitt, an avid gardener, has neutralized the effect of the ugly “Hollywood” sign on the LA hills above his California home, using tall, leafy palms in his Japanese-style garden to turn attention inwards. Mirchandani, too, has accommodated the view of a jarring new home in the vicinity by framing it with beautiful trees.
Garden and home now thriving, he is contemplating setting aside a small space on the property to finally begin breeding butterflies. As Jim Collins says in his classic work, about 21st century companies, brands and people who can see the butterfly in a caterpillar, are the ones Built to Last.
Name: Gulu Mirchandani
Title: Chairman and MD, MIRC Electronics, which manufactures the Onida and Igo brands
Qualifications: B.E, Mechanical Engineering, BITS Pilani
Pursuits: DIY gardening and architecture
Claim to fame: Has taken the ‘Made-in-India’ label in consumer electronics to new highs
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