Home / Companies / People /  Surinder Kapur, doyen of India’s auto component industry

New Delhi: Surinder Kapur, the 71-year-old chairman of auto component maker Sona Group and the man instrumental in creating India’s auto components industry, died in Munich on Tuesday.

Kapur died at 8pm India time of cardiac arrest, a person close to the family said. A company press statement later said Kapur passed away after a brief illness. He is survived by his wife Rani Kapur and children—Sunjay Kapur, Suparna Motwane and Mandira Koirala.

Kapur will be cremated in Delhi on Friday evening. Sunjay Kapur has left for Munich to get his father’s body to India. He will also take over the business of the group.

Surinder Kapur was instrumental in setting up India’s auto component industry after Japanese auto maker Suzuki Motor Corp. decided to locally produce its small car M800 in the country in 1983.

Active on various industry forums, Kapur was known for his articulate views on manufacturing and skill development in India. He also served as chairman of the industrial relations council of the Confederation of Indian Industry, and was a member of the National Manufacturing Competitiveness Council (NMCC) and the National Council for Electric Mobility (NCEM). He was also a member of the Automotive Mission Plan (2006-2016) set up by the ministry of heavy industries.

When Suzuki and the government of India came together to form Maruti Udyog Ltd to put India on wheels, it provided a stage for a number of businesses to grow around it. There are numerous success stories ranging from the $5 billion Motherson Group (which now aspires to reach $18 billion by 2020) to Maruti’s first chairman and director V. Krishnamurthy’s official driver Ishwar Singh, who went on to set up the 1,000 crore (revenue) Haryana Industries.

Surinder Kapur also started around the same time but there were two things that differentiated him from the rest. While his peers focused on growing businesses by forging partnerships, acquiring companies, and diversifying into non-core areas such as hotels, tourism, etc., Kapur was clear in his mind about not participating in the mad race to grow business. Second, he was passionate about developing the skills of his employees. When Shoji Shiba, a former management professor of Harvard’s MIT Sloan School, started a programme in India for visionary leaders, Kapur was the proponent. He not only made some of his executives train under Shiba but also brought in people from various fields into the programme.

“This comparison (with Kapur’s peers) is not fair," said Jagdish Khattar, managing director, Carnation Auto, and a former managing director of Maruti Suzuki. “One can be aggressive and not over-aggressive. It is an individual choice. Because of his engineering background, he could get into making complex manufacturing machines like steering systems, which others could not. Which is what we respected him for."

A big fan of manufacturing, Kapur once said in an interview that one should not get distracted from what he or she does best. “I don’t do anything better than manufacturing," he said in 2014. “Small and medium businesses like ours do not have the bandwidth to operate in various sectors."

But his business performed fairly well. From a 7crore firm in 1987, Sona Group’s annual turnover was $800 million in the fiscal to 31 March. He perfected 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.

Critics say that the group played it too safe. For instance, it, unlike several other Indian companies at the time, passed up on the opportunity to snap up assets abroad cheaply during the 2008 financial meltdown. To be sure, Kapur did make one big buyout abroad and the bet backfired.

He bought German forging company BLW, which was worth 2,500 crore in 2008 when Sona Okegawa (Sona Group’s overseas venture) was a 300 crore company. Kapur’s idea was simple—to get automotive technologies from where they originate. He had strong partnerships with Japan’s Koyo Group and now he had turned to the Germans. Bad idea. Three months later, the firm was on the verge of insolvency and it took seven years to turn the firm around.

He regretted the decision.

“It was not the right decision to acquire German forging company Sona BLW," Kapur told The Economic Times newspaper in a 2014 interview. “We leveraged a lot, which in hindsight was not right."

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 (which he chose 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.

Kapur began his career in his father-in-law Raunaq Singh’s Bharat Gears Ltd and went on to lead the company before setting up the Sona Group.

“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 told Mint in a 2007 interview.

After Bharat Gears, Kapur considered the idea of a start-up in the auto components segment after Singh introduced him on to Krishnamurthy and he chose the name Sona after his father’s jewellery business, Kapur di Hatti, in Delhi.

“Surinder was an absolute pro," said R.C. Bhargava, chairman of India’s largest car maker Maruti Suzuki. “He came in with great academic credentials and vast experience. He knew a lot about Japanese and German manufacturing."

Even in those days, surviving without technology was a risky job and Kapur knew it well as he wanted to make steering systems—complex automotive machines that convert the rotation of the steering wheel to the wheels of a vehicle in such a way that the steering wheel rim turns a long way to move the road wheels a short way.

His search for technology took him to the Osaka offices of Koyo Steering Systems, a leader in 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. Currently, Koyo owns one-fifth of Sona Koyo, up from a 6% stake it picked up in 1991, and supported Kapur even when the Indian car industry issued one of its first recalls in 1994, when Maruti Udyog, now Maruti Suzuki India Ltd, recalled 30,000 units of its M800 cars.

He will be missed badly, said Ramesh Suri, founder of auto parts maker Subros Ltd and president of Automotive Component Manufacturers Association.

“We have lost a very important member of the auto society, a visionary," Suri said. “He will be remembered for his articulate views, clear opinion and a considerable influence on the industry."

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