Subhash Kapur (sitted), Chairman, Steelbird Group, Rajeev Kapur(left), MD, Steelbird Group and Kashish Kapur, Director, Steelbird Group
Image: Madhu Kapparath
1996, Italy. A father and son were eagerly looking forward to their first global contract. The duo was about to meet the CEO of an Italian helmet major, which entered into a tech tie-up with the Kapurs two years ago and was eager to take supplies from the Indian partner. “They would be pleasantly surprised to see the quality,” Subhash Kapur said to himself. It was a big moment for Kapur, whose father came to India after Partition. From being one of the richest families in Pakistan with a chain of gold stores and acres of land under their belt, the Kapurs started from scratch in India. Over the next few years, they tried a couple of small ventures which could not be scaled— such as making sacks for salt players.
In 1964, Kapur started Steelbird Group by making auto components and then dabbled into the business of helmets over the next few years. His son Rajeev joined straight after finishing high school in 1989. The reason was not a lack of interest in studies. “I was too impatient,” recalls the managing director of Steelbird, one of the top helmet makers in India. He justifies his haste. “Three years of graduation, and then a few more years of MBA… didn’t want to wait for so long,” recounts the second-gen entrepreneur who joined the venture when he was 20.
Back then, in 1989, Steelbird used to make around 100 helmets every day. Branded helmet was a hyper-niche market in India, and the Kapurs didn’t play price warrior. “Hamari helmet pehen ke koi marna nahin chahiye (nobody should die wearing our helmet),” was the senior Kapur’s advice to his son, who was frustrated to see a flourishing sea of fake helmets across the country. The message from the patriarch was clear: Don’t cut corners. “Helmet might be a business, but it’s a safety device,” he underlined.
The young one soaked in the message, and started working on a bigger game plan. In 1994, he managed to stitch a technical collaboration with Bieffe, which was then the world’s leading helmet manufacturer. The idea was not to sell Italian helmets in India but to supply helmets to them. For two years, Steelbird worked on making a helmet which could meet the global standards on all parameters.
Meanwhile, in Italy, in 1996, the father and son were sitting in office, with a ‘Made in India’ helmet firmly parked on their laps. The CEO walked in, liked the quality, but got more interested in a small component of the helmet: Buckle. “Have you made it? How much did it cost you?” he asked. The Kapurs looked at each other. They didn’t make the buckle. They had sourced it from a contract manufacturer and it came for peanuts. “Yes, we have made and it is for 30 cents,” said Rajeev. “Okay, give us one million pieces in a year,” the CEO ordered, and signed the contract. The Kapurs had hit a jackpot.
Once back in India, the Kapurs realised their pot of gold will remain empty. Their buckle supplier expressed his inability to fulfil such a large order. “I don’t have the infrastructure to make it,” he rued. Other buckle makers didn’t have the tech knowhow to make high-quality products. The duo panicked, and reached out to all auto component makers. This also didn’t work. “Imagine, we had a huge order, we could make tonnes of money and, in reality, we were staring at zero work and zero money,” says Rajeev.
For the Kapurs, executing the contract was critical. Steelbird had grappled with a string of failed ventures—starting from safety kit for bikers in 1984 and business of making satellite dish in 1992—over the last few years. The helmet business had not taken off in India due to a wide prevalence of fakes, and the group was now banking on exports and auto component verticals to keep the family afloat. The buckle order from the Italian major was the only lifeline that the father and son could see.
In an act of desperation, Rajeev decided to manufacture the buckle in his helmet plant. After weeks of trials and tweaks, he managed to replicate the quality. But there was another problem. The buckle needed powder coating, and the Kapurs didn’t know how to do it. They got hold of a contract manufacturer, but all supplies got rejected because of poor quality. The second-gen entrepreneur decided to set up a unit for powder coating, and the Kapurs finally despatched their contract. For the next three years, everything went according to plan. The domestic market for helmets stayed mute, but the export business flourished.
Then came the crisis in 2000. The Italian owner died, his company ran into financial trouble and the Kapurs were sitting with a huge stock and zero takers. Signing an exclusive contract meant leading an insulated life with no contact with other global players. The export business came to a grinding halt, and Rajeev went on a 45-day European trip. “It was an outreach tour,” he says. Over a dozen buyers of buckles refused to do business with an Indian entity. In spite of the fact that Steelbird was supplying to an erstwhile European major, people still suspected the quality of an Indian company. “I was even willing to sell the buckle for 20 cents, but there were no buyers,” he says. Subhash Kapur (left) at the Bieffe factory in Italy in 1995
A miracle happened on the last week of the tour. An Italian company placed an order for half a million buckles. Things gradually came back on track for the Kapurs who also managed to win a huge order of supplying 7 lakh helmets every year. Rajeev took a bank loan of ₹23 crore, beefed up existing production and set up new plants to produce more helmets. In 2002, the factory shipped out the first export order, but misfortune struck again. There was a huge fire and the plant got gutted. Over the next year, Rajeev managed to get more loans and build new manufacturing centres. Things sailed smoothly for two years.
In 2005, the Kapurs again hit a bump. The Italian company, which was buying helmets, went bankrupt. Rajeev was dejected, he decided to quit the helmet business, and the Kapurs sold a few factories to clear the debts. Rajeev, meanwhile, went back to the old business of buckles. The venture blossomed till 2012, and then again history was about to repeat itself. Rajeev could sense a shift in preference of European countries towards China which had emerged as a cheap manufacturing hub. There was another problem that had emerged. A bunch of buckle buyers across Europe and other countries were getting into other businesses. Buckles were fast going out of focus.
So, Rajeev decided to return to the business of helmets. In 2012, Steelbird used to make 5,000 pieces every month. The market for branded helmets was picking up, percent of fakes in the segment was coming down, and consumers were willing to pay a premium for good quality. The Kapurs decided to double down on the business of helmets.
Fast forward to 2022. Steelbird Group, which is into the business of helmets, biking gears, pannier boxes, visors, accessories such as crash guard and seat covers, retail, skincare and haircare products, posted a revenue of ₹418.5 crore in FY22. Out of this, two-third comes from the helmet business. The Kapurs now export to over 50 countries, and have six manufacturing plants across India. The third generation, Rajeev’s son Kashish, joined the business in 2016 and is looking after new verticals of sports helmets and manufacturing of other components for exports. The patriarch is happy with the progress. “I risked a lot, and gained a lot,” he says. What, though, is most satisfying, he underlines, is to see that the next generation is still willing to experiment, fail and learn. “They are still hungry for more. That’s what matters the most.”
Rajeev shares the biggest takeaway for a helmet entrepreneur. “You can never buckle under pressure. You always have to stay buckled up,” he smiles, adding that it’s not easy being a helmet entrepreneur in India, which is still flooded with fakes. “The percentage might have come down to 50 from a staggering 90 a decade back. But fakes still rule,” he rues. The consumers, he lets on, are still not serious about protecting their lives, and a lot needs to be done by the law enforcement machinery to ensure that quality rules don’t get flouted. Underlining that a family business is just like components of a helmet, Rajeev reckons that every part has to act in sync to make it work. “There is no business without family and no family without business,” he says.
What the Kapurs, though, have to be careful about is the extent of diversification. They have had a history of experimenting too much. “Why would a helmet and accessories brand make skincare and haircare products?” asks Ashita Aggarwal, marketing professor at SP Jain Institute of Management and Research. “Doing too many things will take a toll on focus.” When you are strapping a helmet, she lets on, your eyes are firmly on the road. “The Kapurs must not forget the thumb rule of the helmet business, which is focus,” she adds.
Rajeev believes a wider play helps him keep his retailers happy. “They get to sell more from the same brand,” he says. “Even if I am riding fast, I am wearing a safe helmet,” he smiles.
(This story appears in the 12 August, 2022 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)