After studying law I vectored towards journalism by accident and it's the only job I've done since. It's a job that has taken me on a private jet to Jaisalmer - where I wrote India's first feature on fractional ownership of business jets - to the badlands of west UP where India's sugar economy is inextricably now tied to politics. I'm a big fan of new business models and crafty entrepreneurs. Fortunately for me, there are plenty of those in Asia at the moment.
Kuldip and Gurbachan Singh Dhingra
Chairman and vice chairman, Berger Paints
Age: 67 and 64 years
Rank in the Rich List: 49
Net Worth: $1.92 billion
The Big Challenge: Faced in the Last Year Slowing economy resulted in lower growth and squeezed margins
The Way Forward: Recovering growth and a strong brand means that they are on track to grow at twice the rate of the national GDP
Paint is the only thing we know,” says 67-year-old Kuldip Singh Dhingra. It is the only business that the family has involved itself in for five generations. Yet neither Kuldip nor his brother Gurbachan Singh Dhingra, 64, interfere with the running of the Rs 3,384 crore Berger Paints, the second largest paint company in India with a market share of 18 percent.
For all their industry knowledge and expertise—which spans the better part of their lives—the brothers follow a philosophy that may seem antithetical to the way business families run their companies. Kuldip and Gurbachan, who are chairman and vice chairman of Berger Paints, hold no executive position in their company. The family is based out of Delhi while Berger Paints is headquartered in Kolkata.
Even though they have tried their hand at various paint businesses in the past, the Dhingras limit themselves to an advisory role in Berger. But it was their intimate knowledge of the paint industry that held them in good stead when they acquired the company from United Breweries chairman Vijay Mallya in 1991.
Over two decades, under their guidance, Berger climbed from the fifth to the second position, which it has held on to for four years now. Last year, its stock outperformed sole rival and market leader Asian Paints on the BSE by 18 percentage points, increasing the brothers’ wealth by 56 percent to $1.92 billion and propelling them from the 53rd to the 49th spot on the 2014 Forbes India Rich List.
They’ve achieved this with their insistence on a hands-off approach and are clear that their children, too, will do the same. No one from the family will occupy the chief executive’s seat, the Dhingras tell Forbes India. Kuldip’s daughter Rishma Kaur and Gurbachan’s son Kanwardeep Singh who, at present, are being put through their paces in the company will, in time, move on to the board. That is, only after they become proficient in every aspect of the business. “The sooner that happens, the better,” says a jovial Kuldip.
The Dhingras see themselves as non-interfering custodians of Berger Paints. Gurbachan recalls an example from a few years after they bought the business. A long-time distributor had complained to him that he was being treated unfairly by the company. “He expected me to pick up the phone, call the management and get a resolution in his favour,” says Gurbachan. “But I refused and asked him to deal directly with Berger. I might tell them (his executives) behind the scenes that this is no way to treat an old distributor. But I will never be seen interfering in the company.”
Kuldip cites another instance when Berger’s management did not make full use of a contract they had signed with actor Katrina Kaif. She had not been featured in any television campaign. (This was more than a decade ago, at the height of her modelling career, before she entered Bollywood.) Kuldip “gently” suggested that the company use her in their ad campaigns, but it took a couple of years before Berger acted on his suggestion. Reason: It would upset the advertising budget.
The brothers prefer to look at the bigger picture; they set targets and make strategic decisions. This is a role they adopted from day one. In 1990, Berger was the smallest player in the Indian market. To grow quickly, the company would have to offer discounts and give clients and distributors longer credit periods. “But if we had done that, then the management could blame us for not meeting targets. That was a situation we wanted to avoid,” says Kuldip.
He knew that such aggressive and quick-fix strategies were not sustainable in the long run and would, at some point, affect Berger’s financial health. Rather than going down this path, he and his brother set achievable targets with only one rule: Grow faster than the industry and increase market share. This strategy was probably why it took Berger 20 years to outperform Nerolac, AkzoNobel and Shalimar.
The company has several firsts to its credit which, it claims, have been copied by competitors. These include the low-maintenance product, Berger Easy Clean Paint, which is resistant to even the most stubborn stains. One product that is still one-of-its kind in the Indian market, it says, is an oil paint that has silicon in it. This technology prevents the paint from absorbing water and even helps ward off fungus. Such technological innovations further cement Berger’s position in the Indian market.
In the last four years, it has outperformed its rivals on sales and profit growth. During this period, its compounded profit growth rate has been 20 percent a year compared with Asian Paints’ 13 percent. Margins, however, are still lower than that of the market leader. One of the reasons is that its main rival operates solely in the highly profitable decorative (paints we use in our homes) market. This segment accounts for 80 percent of Berger’s business. The remaining 20 percent is from industrial (painting cars, factories, and so on) contracts, which are not as lucrative.