In the long years since our last meeting, Surinder Kapur has not changed much. Yes, he’s gained some weight in the middle (“I had to take some steroids for an eye condition”), but the chairman of the Delhi-based Sona Group remains as warm, focused, inquisitive and bordering on the academic as he was.
Kapur, 62, greets me in the living room of his airy home just outside Delhi, off the highway to Jaipur, in The Green, which is among the Capital region’s poshest communities. “I like entertaining at home. The noise at bars gets to me. There are too many people at bars,” he says. “Besides, it’s too expensive.”
Kapur normally prefers “a glass of wine with my wife in the evening”, he says, before ordering an attendant across the sprawling room to get us a bottle of champagne. Almost on cue, an iced Moet & Chandon appears in a silver bucket, borne by a server dressed in white (including sports shoes). The nibbles—wasabi peas and prawn-flavoured rice crisps— he serves, are early indicators of the Japanese influence in Kapur’s life. Six of eight Sona Group companies have Japanese partners.
Kapur’s Japan connection materialized in 1987, two years after he started tossing around a start-up idea after leading Bharat Gears Ltd, a company owned by his father-in-law, Raunaq Singh, for 15 years. “It was clear to me then that Bharat Gears is not where I’d be in the long term. I had no equity in the company, my brothers-in-law would soon take over and I had to look out,” he remembers.
Singh patched Kapur on to V. Krishnamurthy, Maruti Udyog Ltd’s first chairman, and the idea of an auto-components company was born. The name Sona was chosen as a legacy of Kapur’s father’s jewellery business, Kapur di Hatti in Delhi.
That done, the missing piece in Kapur’s jigsaw was the technology to make steering systems, his chosen area of business. His search for technology took him to the Osaka offices of Koyo Steering Systems, a leader of steering assembly technologies. It didn’t help Kapur’s pitch that Koyo’s experience with India was not encouraging: Little came out of a minority stake it had picked up in a public sector venture in Andhra Pradesh, and the technology royalty promised by the Indian partner never came in.
Kapur persisted, and two trips later, Koyo relented: “In Japanese, tatamai means an agreement with an outsider and hone (pronounced ‘honi’) represents the kinship between friends and family where nothing is written down, yet is very generous. The strength of our relationship was such that, over the years, Koyo gave us a lot more than we had signed on for.” Koyo today owns a fifth of Sona Koyo, up from a small 6% stake it picked up in 1991, and has stood alongside Kapur at “the lowest point in my life, when Maruti had to recall 30,000 cars over potentially faulty steering columns in 1994”. The company’s image was hit, but in hindsight, it emerged stronger from the incident, Kapur says.
Sona’s association with Japanese companies—others in its stable are Sona Okegawa, Sona Somic Lemforder, Sona Cold Forgings and some smaller entities—has had a telling effect on Kapur’s management philosophy. He swears by management practices such as kaizen which emphasizes small, continuous improvements; lean manufacturing techniques such as TPS, short for Toyota Production System; ‘breakthrough management’, which advocates rapid change of gears to create a business based on unmet consumer demand; and, the more popular Total Quality Management or TQM. Each of these techniques is being implemented at Sona Group companies with telling results: Sona Koyo has reduced costs by 30% since 2000, says Kapur.
Shoji Shiba, a former management professor of Harvard’s MIT Sloan School, who is helping Kapur put his companies through the paces, calls “excellent” the Sona chairman’s ability to learn new concepts and translate them into action. “Sona launches new products and new businesses such as the car rental business following the exact process of breakthrough management and got successful results,” Shiba said in an email interview, referring to Sona Mobility Services Ltd, which runs Sixt India, a service franchised from the eponymous European car rental and leasing firm. Another example: Late in May, Kapur, announcing a Rs100 crore expansion at Sona Okegawa, a joint venture with Mitsubishi Materials Corp., said the company would aggressively consider buyouts and expansions to become one among the top three in a global business led by names such as ZF Friedrichshafen AG, Voith AG and Getrag Corporate Group.
The first engineer among six siblings—two brothers continue the family jewellery business, a third runs a car-seats company, one sister lives with her family in Mauritius and another is in Delhi—Kapur spent 11 years at Michigan State University (chosen over Stanford for financial reasons). For the first two of his doctoral years (1965 to 1972), Kapur worked on a paisley-shaped heart valve design to replace cylindrical valves in vogue then with an aim to reduce cholesterol deposits. “When I was finished with the theoretical proof and ready to test it at California, I was told that a similar valve had already been patented by someone called Christiaan Barnard,” he chuckles. Kapur still treasures a letter Barnard, the first surgeon to transplant a human heart in 1967, wrote to him congratulating him for his design.
The workaholic in him (“You can never really switch off from work”) takes a back seat when it comes to his family, an attachment that becomes increasingly evident as the Moet begins working on us. “When my granddaughters are here, nothing else matters,” Kapur says. Alea, from older daughter Superna and son-in-law Gaurav Motwane, and son Sunjay and his actress-wife Karisma’s little one, Samaira, are the focus of his time when they visit. Relations with at least one of his siblings are not that warm. The friction between Kapur and his brother, Ashok, who runs car seat supplier Krishna Maruti, stems from the days when the younger sibling walked out of Sona Koyo in 1994 following differences over the way the family stake in Sona Koyo was split.
Kapur is a regular at Italian and Japanese eateries in India. San Gimignano at The Imperial in Delhi and Wasabi at The Taj in Mumbai top his charts. He takes pains to discover restaurants that are preferably small—“less than 20-seaters”— and have strong character. Examples: Pizzeria Mama Mia, a mom-and-pop gig in Lausanne, Frankfurt’s gourmet hit Aubergine, run by a bookkeeper-turned-restaurateur, and Kai Mayfair in London, which he argues serves the best Chinese cuisine in that part of the world.
His love for the good life notwithstanding, Kapur says he finds his grounding in religion. Every morning, wife Rani and he walk half an hour in the sylvan acres around their house and follow it with 30 minutes in prayer, before he runs into a 10-hour workday. Besides driving management initiatives at his companies, Kapur is also an evangelist for innovation among other companies in India and heads a team at trade body, Confederation of Indian Industry, pushing $1-million companies’ dreams for the $1-billion league.
Sona’s 19-year journey from scratch to a $140 million group may not be stuff that legends are written about at a time when Internet start-ups go from nothing to more than $100 billion valuations in less than a third of that time. But for Kapur, who started with “just Rs50 lakh”, it’s been a learning voyage. But, can Sona ride the automobiles opportunity India is chasing and hold its leadership in the industry? Says Shiba: “Sona definitely needs many capable senior mangers who can support Dr Kapur. This issue may be the key for (the) future Sona.” Sooner than later, that will be a concern pitting the indulgent parent in Kapur against the hard-nosed professional in the Sona Group chairman.