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Why Su-Kam is looking up to the sun

Su-Kam founder Kunwer Sachdev built his company's fortune by cashing in on an unreliable power grid. Now, he's looking up to the sun for inspiration—and profit

By Shravan Bhat
Published: Dec 11, 2014
Kunwer Sachdev, founder and CEO of Su-Kam Power Systems Ltd
Image: Amit Verma
Kunwer Sachdev, founder and CEO of Su-Kam Power Systems Ltd

When he turned 15, Kunwer Sachdev began helping his older brother sell pens to shops in Delhi. It was the late 1970s, and the nation’s capital was not immune to rolling blackouts, which increased in frequency during the sweltering summer months. Today, at the age of 52, Sachdev is the founder and chief executive officer of Su-Kam Power Systems Ltd, one of India’s largest back-up power companies. It manufactures inverters and other devices—which he didn’t have access to when he was growing up—that provide uninterrupted power supply so that electrical appliances such as refrigerators, air-conditioners and fans can function when the grid fails to deliver.

Power outages are still very much a part of life in India, including Delhi. In its most recent study, the World Bank reported that over 1.2 billion people, or 20 percent of the world’s population, don’t have access to electricity, of which more than 400 million live in India. For companies like Su-Kam that benefit when the lights go off, business has never been better. Su-Kam’s revenues for 2013-14 stand at Rs 1,200 crore, up by 20 percent from 2012-13.

These days, though, Sachdev has been paying close attention to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s promise of replicating Gujarat’s 24-hour power supply model across the whole of India. And industry analysts believe that this goal can be achieved over the next five to 10 years. It’s also why the first-generation entrepreneur, who attributes his success to his ability to plan for future needs, is looking up to the sun for inspiration—and profit.

Su-Kam is betting on individual home owners generating solar power to reduce their electricity bills. The majority of consumers currently plug inverters and UPS batteries to their appliances, which then charge and hoard power from the main grid. Sachdev has flipped this model: He has started manufacturing inverters and UPS devices that can draw power from solar panels, which Su-Kam began manufacturing in 2004.

“We started research and development [R&D] for regular inverters in 2000. We don’t have to do anything special for solar-powered products. I’m already dealing in batteries, which use direct current [DC]. Solar panels also use DC. All I have to do is replace the battery in a regular inverter with a solar powered one,” says Sachdev.

He may not have an engineering degree, but he knows the nuts and bolts of the technology Su-Kam is betting on. “We started manufacturing solar-powered products a decade ago, and today it accounts for 20 percent of our sales,” he says.

Su-Kam offers solar solutions for homes and businesses. Apart from solar panels and hybrid UPS devices, it manufactures solar batteries, inverters, home lighting systems and network management systems. Sachdev wants to decentralise the power generating process. Instead of setting up large projects (more than 25 MW) that harness sunlight and sell electricity to the government’s central power grid, Su-Kam is selling smaller 5 kilowatts (KW) to 1 MW solar-powered systems to villages and housing complexes.

“We don’t sell to the government, which involves sourcing land to generate the required 25-30 MW of power. Here, the customer provides the land and we provide the technology,” says Sachdev. “Whatever the solar unit produces will get ‘mixed’ into the customer’s normal power supply because of which a household’s bill will reduce. You recover the investment in a few years, and the burden on the government to generate more power is lessened.”

Sachdev’s solar solutions plans are intriguing because they form a sort of hybrid between completely decentralised solutions such as individual solar lanterns and large solar farms.

Su-Kam is still in the pilot phase of this project. Since the start of 2014, the company has installed solar products—which provide eight to 10 hours of power supply daily—in 1 lakh homes across India. And it says that exports to more than 70 countries account for 15 percent of its sales (both regular and solar-powered devices). “We have a presence in African nations, but we are seeing that the highest demand for solar products is in India itself,” says Sachdev. This is why he has scaled up R&D in solar products at his Gurgaon facility. Five years ago, barely two out of the 45-strong team of engineers researched this sector. Today, it has evolved into a unit of 15 engineers.

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Ashish Sethi, who heads Su-Kam’s solar business, recalls how, a few months ago, the R&D team produced a one-off (not in the company’s catalogue) solar product as per the specifications of a customer in Uttar Pradesh. “We did it in 48 hours,” says Sethi who believes that by 2018, Su-Kam’s solar arm will grow from its present Rs 250 crore business to a Rs 700 crore one. The company, however, has had its fair share of problems. An industry analyst who did not want to be named told Forbes India that Su-Kam was hit by quality and service issues three years ago. “Peripheral competitors like Exide and V-Guard also stole market share,” says the analyst. Two years ago, profits lagged and Sachdev fired 400 members of the service staff.

Sachdev acknowledges Su-Kam’s not-so-stellar performance in 2011.  “We realised that we were starting to fall apart because we had too many people and no systems or structures. When we got major external funding, my people wasted a lot. I was also part of that,” he says. Apart from developing the solar business, creating a solid management and hiring system is an important part of his agenda.

He’s refreshingly candid about the mistakes he’s made. Perhaps it’s a sign of an entrepreneur who is not burdened by investor expectations. Though Reliance Capital and Temasek Holdings picked up a combined 20 percent stake for Rs 45 crore in 2006, they seldom interfere with operations. His investors trust him, he says. “Few companies have done all the groundwork necessary to reap the benefits in the next five years,” says Amitabh Mohanty, head of debt strategies at Reliance Capital (of the ADAG stable).

That said, eight years is a long time in private equity circles and investors will be waiting (and hoping) for the solar business to take off so that they can make a profitable exit. Success will depend on whether a company can stay relevant to India’s evolving power needs. And Sachdev believes he’s on the right track.

He wants to be seen as a social entrepreneur delivering clean energy to villagers. But he’s also a businessman, one who knows what it’s like to be bound to the whims of a capricious power grid. If Su-Kam can find a model to deliver and service solar generators to clusters of homes (particularly in rural areas), it can provide light and improve their standard of living by powering fans, televisions, mobile devices, and so on.

Like many of the customers he wants to reach out to, Sachdev, the son of a railway clerk who went to a Hindi-medium government school, hails from a lower-middleclass family. His is the quintessential rags-to-riches story. While helping his brother build a writing instruments business, Sachdev graduated from Hindu College in 1984 with a Bachelor’s degree in statistics. He later parted ways with his brother and got a law degree from Delhi University.

Bitten by the entrepreneurial bug, he set up Su-Kam—a cable TV accessories company—in Delhi’s Punjabi Bagh in 1988 with Rs 10,000. The fact that he didn’t have an engineering degree did not deter him. He picked the right business and, by 1998, the cable TV sector in India was booming. Sachdev says he was making a tidy Rs 3-4 crore as annual turnover.

But 1998 was also a turning point for the entrepreneur and, by extension, for Su-Kam. Power cuts were a frequent occurrence, and he recalls that the inverter in his house kept breaking down. He started researching the business and found that it was a largely unorganised industry. He also realised that it was an untapped sector, primed for growth in keeping with India’s accelerated development at the time.

In two years, he moved away from the cable TV industry and began developing and manufacturing inverters. In 2002, Su-Kam’s revenues stood at Rs 10 crore, and by 2004 they had grown to Rs 100 crore. It may have taken Sachdev just two years to grow Su-Kam tenfold but, after 2004, as the industry became more organised, it took him a decade to grow another tenfold. Also, it’s hardly the only inverter company to make the logical move to solar.

In 1991, when Su-Kam was still selling cable TV accessories, businessman and engineer Rakesh Malhotra’s Luminous Power Technologies started manufacturing its first inverters. In 2011, Malhotra sold a 74 percent stake in Luminous Power Technology to European giant Schneider Electric for Rs 1,400 crore. It is now a leader in the Rs 8,000 crore Indian inverter and UPS market (by revenues) with Taiwanese-owned Microtek in the second place, followed by Su-Kam. In 2011, Luminous also launched solar products, which brought in 10 percent of revenues in 2013.

Although Sethi claims that Su-Kam is a leader in the solar UPS business, experts say it’s not easy to verify this claim because the green energy sector is fragmented and niche. Most of the companies operating in this arena are either unlisted or subsidiaries of multinationals, and data is hard to come by. Sachdev is wary yet respectful of competition. “People think Schneider bought Luminous for the brand; they bought it for the technology. Foreign companies have to buy Indian technology even if they want to expand to Africa,” he says.

At the same time, he accuses local rivals of copying his products and laments India’s slow patent regime for allowing it. “We have filed the highest number of patents in the world in our industry, but yesterday I wrote a letter to PM Narendra Modi asking how he would implement his ‘Make in India’ plan if it takes seven to eight years to grant a patent.”

A valid concern given that Sachdev is hoping to make hay while the sun shines.

(This story appears in the 12 December, 2014 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Xyz

    I can relate your story with mine's.... n I must say India needs entrepreneurs like you. I am glad to hear that your company will be utilising solar energy n that's a superb move. Its really inspiring and innovative. thank you.

    on Aug 17, 2015
  • Dr.a.jagadeesh

    Excellent Approach. Infact small solar applications have great demand. Even a reliable dual powered (Solar USB) LED reading light has penetrated in the rural areas. I have been advocating Dual powered Reading Lights to save enormous power. These are mobile and will be a boon for students in Houses and Hostels besides everybody. With the high-rise buildings coming up even in towns Roof Top Solar besides small wind turbines make sense. I think Su-Kam is going for Demand Pull Approach. Wish Su-Kam all success. Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP)

    on Apr 24, 2015
  • Nisha Rao

    I wish all energy companies in India go for solar - green and clean energy. I don\'t support nuclear at all - it is so bad for the environment. One disaster and our country\'s poor will face problems for a lifetime.

    on Feb 18, 2015
  • Sunita Verma

    Great story.

    on Feb 4, 2015
  • Mukesh Kumar

    Inspiring & innovative

    on Dec 26, 2014
  • Rajeev Garg

    Great Su Kam is moving to become a big Solar Co.

    on Dec 26, 2014
  • Muddasser Alvi

    This man is rising very fast I don\'t know if he is a manipulator or straight guy..I need to know more about him.

    on Dec 25, 2014
  • Sanjeev Aggarwal

    Make in India compaign of Narender Modi is taking shape.

    on Dec 25, 2014
  • Peerzada Abrar

    I feel the solar industry is going to go a long way and we read such articles and feel proud of indian entrepreneurs.

    on Dec 25, 2014
  • Suman Raina

    Great job!!!! I wish you good luck for ur future solar project May all ur dreams come true And am sure u will achieve it

    on Dec 24, 2014
  • Renu Katyal

    Solar in India is very important..our PM Modi want to see this happn. So this co is driving in the right direction. I congratlate Mr Kunwer Sachdev for doing this in India..he is a visionary man..

    on Dec 23, 2014
  • Rakesh Trikha

    He is called The Inverter Man of India..

    on Dec 22, 2014
  • Charu Arora

    Really very inspiring hats off to u sir - u r a gr8 leader who created this brand and taken it to new heights

    on Dec 18, 2014
  • Rajesh Mallik

    Mr Sachdeva has been In the fire front of Make in India campaign he has created this co from scratch and true leader

    on Dec 18, 2014
  • Salil

    Moving to solar solutions is a big step by Su-Kam which will help to reduce our carbon foot print.

    on Dec 17, 2014
  • Sandip Shori

    Heartiest Congrats, truely inspiring for us.

    on Dec 16, 2014
  • Suman

    Go green with SU-KAM............

    on Dec 15, 2014
  • Shipra

    A very inspiring story! I take my hat off to Mr. Sachdev for the innovative thinking and exceptional amount of hard work he has put in to reach such great heights.

    on Dec 15, 2014
  • Satendra Singh

    Great sir.

    on Dec 15, 2014
  • Pravin Kumar Ojha

    Great idea of Mr. Sachdev, Wish U All The Very Best!

    on Dec 15, 2014
  • A Sharma

    Inspiring!!!

    on Dec 15, 2014
  • Devanjali

    Very well done!

    on Dec 15, 2014
  • Shikha

    India needs such innovative and future oriented companies. keep up the good work!

    on Dec 14, 2014
  • Shipra

    A really inspiring story! I take my hat off to Mr Sachdev for the innovative thinking and exceptional amount of hard work he has put in to reach such great heights.

    on Dec 14, 2014
  • Shipra

    A very inspiring story! I take my hat off to Mr. Sachdev for the exceptional amount of hard work and innovative thinking.

    on Dec 14, 2014
  • Beena

    Kunwer sachdev is a visionary. A true leader in every sense. Wishing him all the very best for future.

    on Dec 13, 2014
  • Rakesh Mathur

    I feel this is a wonderful story on the Indian company which is truly Make in India story..

    on Dec 13, 2014
  • Hemant Ramani

    Congratulations to Mr. Kunwer Sachdev. Your achievement has inspired us to do something which we dream of, so thanks to you, super congratulations for your\'success. Rgds Hemant (Nippotec.com) Dubai UAE

    on Dec 13, 2014
  • Indrajit Kumar Paul

    We are grateful to Sir in considering us to be a part of his journey and together as a Team we will fulfill all the dreams ahead .

    on Dec 13, 2014
  • Mamta

    Result of sheer hard work, determination and dedication is SUKAM. keep up the good work and all the best .. proud of your achievements.(y) ..

    on Dec 13, 2014
  • Parveen Sharma

    Really we proud of Su-kam

    on Dec 13, 2014
  • Sangeeta

    Mr. Sachdev\'s vision to consume the Green energy is a marvellous idea. India gets 70% more solar energy than Europeon countries, utilising this energy through SPV, will definitely reduse green house effect. Congrats Mr Sachdev and move ahead because sky is not the limit.

    on Dec 12, 2014
  • Priyanka

    Hats off to sachdev sir...su kam is going great

    on Dec 12, 2014
  • Sivarajan

    An inspirational story. The power Industry will see another big leap under Kunwer Sirs Leadership by using suns energy!!

    on Dec 12, 2014
  • Kriti Kolbusz

    True stories like these make you believe that any ordinary person can realise their dreams if they are determined and talented. Oh! I also love the fact that Su-Kam\'s solar stuff is helping India become greener. I know so many people who have installed their solar products and are reaping the benefits whilesaving the planet. Let\'s solarize India with Su-Kam.

    on Dec 12, 2014
  • Bharti Munjal

    Sachdev\'s plans are definitely intriguing as well as ambitious. The success of the plan will largely lie on a quick ROI and smaller investment costs for retail customers, as he is largely targeting this segment. But is it is a great idea and we need innovative thinkers like him who can help conserve natural resources and pave way for better future.

    on Dec 12, 2014
  • Kuldeep Kaul

    Integrating the Power conditioning / Power storage business with Power Generation is an intelligent and timely step in the direction of Growth by Su Kam. Mr. Sachdev\'s timing in the Inverter Business was bang on. I am sure the Solar Power linkage would bring additional leverage to his business. Best wishes to Mr. Sachdev and his team.

    on Dec 12, 2014
  • Chandnee Srivastava

    In renewable energy field Solar has potential and Kunwer Sir has realized this fact.Su-Kam products already have won the trust of people and when it will provide them clean and green power they will accept it naturally.

    on Dec 12, 2014
  • Dharmendra

    Great person kunwar sachdeva!!!

    on Dec 12, 2014
  • Kamal Oberoi

    Always boss in inverter industry (kunwer ji)

    on Dec 12, 2014
  • Sudhir Shukla

    Su-Kam has strategic plan for solar energy, I Salute Mr. Kunwer Sachdeva

    on Dec 12, 2014
  • Santosh Kumar

    ...its begnining of new era in power backup industry

    on Dec 12, 2014
  • Bhupender Kashyap

    The inverter man of india, Mr Kunwer Sachdev just followed his dreams with sincerity and hardwork

    on Dec 12, 2014
  • Parmanand Dahiya

    great thinker and want to achiieve it so fast that people have to run and match his speed.

    on Dec 12, 2014
  • Gaurav Tyagi

    Today major challenge is protecting the environment. Very few people are practice of protecting the natural environment. Mr. Kunwer Sachdev are following this practice with the help of advance technology. I really grateful to him to provide us great technological product and breathable environment.

    on Dec 12, 2014
  • Sudhir Sathiyamoorthy

    Excellent to hear that Su-Kam is already invested for more than a decade on solar technlogy; This is one spectrum that will certainly shape up tomorrow\'s energy needs.

    on Dec 12, 2014
  • Shobhit Trivedi

    Ideas are easy. It\'s the execution of ideas that really separates the great form the good.......................

    on Dec 12, 2014
  • Shobhit Trivedi

    Ideas are easy. It\'s the execution of ideas that really separates the greats from the goods......................

    on Dec 12, 2014
  • Gautam Jain

    Great job by Sukam and Kunwer in leading the way in alternate power generation

    on Dec 12, 2014
  • Sandip Shori

    Truely inspiring , a man who always thinks differently. Always ready for new challenges.

    on Dec 12, 2014
  • Vikram Sanghvi

    It\'s with your inspirational vision that Su-Kam has reached such great heights and still raring to reach greater ones.

    on Dec 12, 2014
  • Ravindra

    Great sir

    on Dec 12, 2014
  • Praveen Kumar Jain

    Mr. Kunwer Sachdev MD of Su-kam , more popularly knows as \"Inverter Maestro\", has demonstrated how homegrown technology and innovation can transform a small company to one of the highest names in india and across the globe in power back up and solar energy sector. His innovative thinking , winning attitude and commitment to excellence has positioned the brand Su-kam in the top slot in india and abroad. I am confident Su-kam will now achieve new milestones in solar solutions and contribute lightens life of millions & billions for indians and across the globe !!!

    on Dec 12, 2014
  • Rajesh Kaul

    Mr Kunwer\'s success story is an inspiration for entrepreneurs like us. He single handedly with sheer dedication, strength and vision took this company to this stature. And continues to work towards making this company \" A company of choice\" in the power sector. Best wishes to him for his continued successfull journey.

    on Dec 12, 2014
  • Arjun Gupta

    Great work by Su-Kam. All the Best.

    on Dec 12, 2014
  • Sakshi Bajaj

    Great work n the vision! Good luck ahead!

    on Dec 11, 2014
  • Sakshi Bajaj

    Great work n the vision! Good luck ahead

    on Dec 11, 2014
  • Reena Shori

    Really inspiring.great........

    on Dec 11, 2014
  • Animesh Diundi

    Truly amazing . Hats off sir!

    on Dec 11, 2014
  • Sanjeev Saini

    A great leader who has created a great brand and taking it to a new height!! His actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more!!

    on Dec 11, 2014
  • Sundaram

    Truly inspirational!

    on Dec 11, 2014
  • Arushi

    Sukam is definitely a brand one can trust and will surely soar high in the future.

    on Dec 11, 2014
  • Kmehrotra

    A very progressive approach; Kunwer Sachdev is a true visionary. He is now out to tap solar energy.

    on Dec 11, 2014
  • Shankar Mehadia

    Hats off to Mr Sachdev. He is self made man. And thinks at least 20 years ahead of all his competitors. He is doing a great job of Saving this earth by promoting Green initiatives. He is role model for many Indians

    on Dec 11, 2014
  • Kartik

    Great leader and inspiration for every entrepreneur.

    on Dec 11, 2014
  • Vipin

    I salute to this Great and True Leader (Kunwer ji)

    on Dec 11, 2014
  • Vipin Rawat

    Kunwer is really a true leader in this industry who set the standard / benchmark. I salute him.

    on Dec 11, 2014
  • Chetna Sundaram

    Truly amazing & inspirational. It takes none other than someone like Mr Kunwer Sachdev to build a mega brand called Su-kam. Kudos!!!!!

    on Dec 11, 2014
  • V-ar Filmers

    Hats off to the toil that Mr. Sachdev has put in to bring sukam to this level. The story is like a fairytale.. A man who truely is a milestone, an epitome of learning, a person to whome everybody looks forward.. A nayi soch.. A great company and even a greater human being..

    on Dec 11, 2014
  • Rajesh Kaul

    Kunwer\'s success story is an inspiration to entrepreneur\'s like us. Indeed a self made man, with sheer hard work and determination, he has set a company of this stature...on top of it ,always on it to make it company of choice in power domain..best wishes to him.

    on Dec 11, 2014
  • Shiv

    It\'s only a hard work of Mr sachdev and his team. I wish he will became worlds top Industrial. Keep it up.

    on Dec 11, 2014
  • Nidhi

    Story of Mr. Sachdev is like a fairy tale- from rags to riches. Su-kam going the right path. only eco-friendly organisations are going to stay in the long run. Keep up the good work.

    on Dec 11, 2014
  • Naresh Mathur

    Sukam ek nai soch really proved

    on Dec 11, 2014
  • Anirudh Sachdeva

    Mr Kunwer\'s creation of solar solutions will be a great success being the need of the nation and is based on his strong research and development expertise.

    on Dec 11, 2014
  • Intelizon

    Solar is a multi-$B market and Sukam has an opportunity to become a global player. The next 10X growth may not be far away.

    on Dec 11, 2014
  • Ashwani Sehgal

    I am sure visionary like Mr Kunwer Sachdev shall succeed with flying colours in this endeavor too.Not only he is smart and visionary but he has a keen sense of predicting the future too along with steely resolve to make it a grand success. We wish Sukam a great success for this----Alpex Solar

    on Dec 11, 2014
  • Chetna Sundaram

    Great story of a great brand. It takes a visionary none less than mr kunwer sachdev to build a mega brand like sukam. Kudos!!!!

    on Dec 11, 2014
  • Dr Sanjay Kapoor

    With exquisite ventures in solar power Su Kam is set to be the company of future.

    on Dec 11, 2014
  • Sarita Chadha

    Mr Sachdev is an inspiration always ...he is like ...a believer ...motivator .. Creator of the change ...... We always wanted.. Oxcellent person God bless our Sukam ..

    on Dec 11, 2014
  • Tenzin Choedon

    Solar is the future...good to know companies like Su-Kam is leading the change.

    on Dec 11, 2014
  • Shivani

    Go Green with Su-Kam!

    on Dec 11, 2014
  • Shivani

    Go Green with Su-Kam!

    on Dec 11, 2014
  • Ashwani Sehgal

    I am sure visionary like Mr Kunwer Sachdev shall succeed with flying colours in this endeavour too. Not only he is smart and visionary but he has a keen sense of predicting the future too along with steely resolve to make it a success. We wish a great future to sukam. ALPEX SOLAR

    on Dec 11, 2014
  • Aditya Raj

    Good Service

    on Dec 11, 2014
  • Sudhir

    Awesome! I really proud of Su-Kam & I would like to say thanks to Mr. Kunwer Sachdev

    on Dec 11, 2014
  • Harinder Singh

    A dynamic leader with long term vision , committed to uplift the lives by harnessing the potential of the renewable energy . He is a inspiration and motivation to so many of us

    on Dec 11, 2014
  • Sudhir Sathiyamoorthy

    Solar is certainly the way forward; Glad to see Su-Kam has invested in solar related technology for long. This certainly is one spectrum unlike 2G, 3G that the government can\'t meddle with even if it wants to...

    on Dec 11, 2014
  • Ashish Kohli

    this is an awesome story

    on Dec 11, 2014
  • Khushboo

    Kunwer Sachdev, The Inverter Man is now out to capture the solar energy. All the best!

    on Dec 11, 2014
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