Do I quit, even before I have begun the job?’ and ‘do I fight the person I respect the most just because I believe in something different?’ As I look back, in my 50 years-plus professional life, I think these two questions have defined everything I know about friendship, values and business, and have touched every aspect of my life—personal and professional. These are moments that either made me what I am or showed me who I am. In 1979, I had taken upon myself to revive the ailing tyre business of my father Raunaq Singh.
The accounts showed that in just two years, Apollo Tyres had wiped out its net worth four times over and on a capital base of Rs 80 million; the losses were Rs 300 million; tyres were being returned faster than they were being produced, as the technology was coming from an international company and had not been localised; shop floor employees had stopped work. Not ideal conditions to step into business for anyone!
And to compound the problem, I was a novice in the business and had little idea of the tyre trade. In hindsight, I think that was to be my biggest advantage—an uncluttered mind. Most acquaintances felt that my initiation into business was a sure shot recipe for failure. But youth and determination came to my rescue. Giving up was not an option. I just had to find a way.
My plan was simple—be transparent, communicate honestly and show a bigger positive picture. I called the employees and laid the facts on the table. We had nothing, not even enough to pay their salaries. I told them of the two options we had before us: Shut the factory and move on or attempt to create a Rs 1 billion-company in the near future.
Even after three decades, I vividly remember that meeting. I cannot forget the employee laughter on the ridiculousness of the ambitious plan.
However, a few serious eyes looked piercingly at me to make sense if the young man from Delhi was really serious or just adding salt to their wounds. They questioned and knew that I had no knowledge about running a company or making tyres. I’m sure I did not convince all of them, as many employees exited the company. Many continued only because they had no option, but it was a defining moment for many of us who shared the same belief as I did.
What was created after the meeting was people sharing the same values and culture and chasing the same goalpost. Beyond corporate hierarchy, many people have become good friends and trusted advisors for me and the company. Some continue to work for Apollo Tyres even today. A fresh young technologist believed, stayed and went on to become the chief of research and technology a decade later, and remains an advisor to this day. Employee number Two (my father was number One) is still part of my team, as are many from that fateful day.
I saw the magic happening as the young team was willing to go beyond the call of duty to take Apollo Tyres to dizzying heights. We hit the Rs 1 billion-mark in October 1986—seven years after we set our sights on it. Together we had not only saved Apollo Tyres from going belly up [bankrupt] but also created a successful new entity in the Indian business scene. We worked together with passion.
Our technology people travelled the length and breadth of the country in the cabin of a truck to understand the real life of a driver. Our sales people went out determined to win over dealerships with a missionary zeal. While there might have been the unspoken fear of failure in people’s minds, I do believe that the bigger driver was the shared vision and commitment to achieve it together. As the company stabilised, I used to think that for me and Apollo Tyres, that meeting was the defining moment and it would now be the usual corporate life with its ups and downs. Fate was thinking differently.