Taking a Cool Approach to Business

#Symphony #AmitKumar #Cooling

Niranjan Mudholkar

“We are also looking at how we can achieve carbon neutrality over the next couple of years. So we are working on developing this entire agenda that is part of the larger thought process about balancing between our needs and what the environment can sustain.”

June 2022: In this exclusive interview with Manish Kulkarni, Director, Pro MFG Media, Amit Kumar, Group CEO and Executive Director, Symphony Limited, shares insights on wide ranging topics like democratizing cooling, integrating sustainability with business goals, foraying into global markets and the importance of brand building.

Symphony announced its ‘A 27°C World’ initiative on the World Energy Conservation Day last year. What is this initiative all about?

Thanks a lot for bringing this up because it is something that is very close to our heart. Incidentally, our ‘27°C World’ initiative is something that our founder and board of directors have been very passionate about. And while we increased focus on this over the last one year, it is something that we have been pushing for a couple of years now. In fact, the ‘27°C World’ logo that we are using now, is something that we first published in our annual report three years back. It is on the cover of that annual report.

The basic idea here is that we need to build a world which is just comfortable for all kinds of human activity; it is not too comfortable to cause harm. A ‘27°C World’ is a metaphor for balancing our need to have a thermally comfortable environment. The needs of the larger ecosystems around us should not get harmed by individual needs. It’s in line with what we say: ‘The world has enough for everybody’s needs, but not enough for everybody’s greed’. So, we are trying to balance it. We are saying we need thermal comfort, but not to the extent that it starts harming the larger ecosystems.

As a company, we have taken steps to reduce our own thermal needs as well as our carbon footprint over the last few years. We are also looking at how we can achieve carbon neutrality over the next couple of years. So we are working on developing this entire agenda that is part of the larger thought process about balancing between our needs and what the environment can sustain.

Symphony recently launched “Symphony Forest Park” at Ahmedabad. Could you elaborate on this initiative?

The Forest Park is basically a piece of land that is owned by the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation. It’s a public park and we have kept it that way. However, we adopted it a couple of years back, and we have requested the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation to allow us to build an urban forest in this park. That is our attempt to work on creating what is called carbon sinks for the lungs for the city. Over the last couple of years, we have cultivated this park into a kind of an urban forest. It incidentally sits pretty close to our office. And if you walk through this park, besides the cover of trees, shrubs and everything else, you can easily spot peacocks, monkeys, squirrels and other animals out there. We hope to replicate it in other places as well but this is just one part of what we are doing for environmental sustainability.

When we speak of air cooling, there is of course, the domestic use for smaller room sizes or even smaller offices. How about cooling for large spaces like factories and the commercial sector?

This is something which is, in a sense, under-appreciated. A couple of years back we were thinking about the evaporative cooling solution and how it can be democratized. Basically, we wanted to democratize cooling. We said there’s no need for those working on the shop floors, in the warehouses, in the loading places, and so on to be left there in the open to manage the heat conditions on themselves. We do recognize clearly that running those places with any other cooling solution, whether it is air conditioning or any other chilling solution, would be at some level non-viable in the kind of conditions we operate in. So we had to come up with a solution which goes beyond the traditional room cooling because most of these places are huge. We realized that these are large spaces, these need to be cooled and these need to be ventilated at the same time. We cannot close them to the environment and say that this is how we will cool these places because they interact regularly with the outside world. So, that’s when we came up with the evaporative cooling solution. These are very basic but large scale devices, which can cool spaces in thousands and lakhs of square feet at one time. And we have mastered that solution over the last five years to six years. We developed it and built it into a viable solution, which can be deployed on the ground in a large scale manner. We now have a modular approach to this kind of cooling; the entire system is proudly manufactured in India. Every single piece that we use in these solutions is made at our factories within the country. And we can deploy these within about a week’s time in a factory because we also realise these places do not have the bandwidth to be down for a month for the cooling solutions to be installed. So, it can be installed in parallel to the manufacturing activities.

In our recent experience, we are seeing sectors like automotive, metal, textiles, cement and so on, that have adopted this big time. It is also being used in warehouses and the logistics sector. In fact, we work with some of the largest warehousing solution providers in the country. And each of these warehouses is possibly about 80,000 square feet to 100,000 square feet in size.

It matches with your slogan thandak sabka haq (Cooling is everyone’s right). What are key advantages of the cooling solutions for the industrial sector - factories, and commercial sector?

We will have to look at it in two ways. If you look at the advantages in terms of the cost advantage vis-à-vis the alternative cooling solutions, those are immense. Purely on the running cost basis, compared to let’s say any other chilling or cooling air conditioning services, the payback period is almost about five to six months. Within that period, all the Capex is paid back! The running costs are barely 8 percent to 10 percent of the running costs of any other cooling solution. Large places of about 50,000 square feet and above are not going to be air conditioned no matter what. So ours is the only viable solution available for them. The alternative is to have an air cooling system or to have the traditional fan and tower fan ceiling fan kind of solution. In that case, the business logic comes from looking at factors like better operating conditions and higher productivity. Studies suggest that the level of errors have gone down, when the temperatures were more suitable for working. In fact, even productivity went up by a certain percentage in those cases. If you consider these advantages, then again, this solution pays for itself. Of course, it also results in better worker morale and the willingness of people to come to work at your place. So, it does make life simpler and more predictable in a positive way.

Symphony has gone through a roller coaster of a ride in terms of business. But today, it has a footprint in over 60 countries. Give us insights Symphony’s foray into the global markets through acquisitions despite turbulent times.

We have gone through that journey of almost extinction and survival and come to a stage where we are again standing back on our feet and are looking forward to achieving more in our brand’s journey. We understand that there are times when things may go wrong. And our approach of buying some of these companies globally is based on looking at the value at the next level. In 2001, possibly most people had written us off. But we knew what our strength was. We focused on the code and we brought it up. We shed the excess weight and focused on the lofty targets we had set for ourselves. When we look at potential targets globally, we look at them from this experience that we have had ourselves. Are they going through a rough patch? Possibly yes. But is there a code which clearly has value? If we are able to bring that code out, then we will be able to make them stand back on their feet again. Fortunately, we have been able to do that with almost every acquisition we have had barring the acquisition in China, which incidentally was well on the track to achieve financial independence, profitability and everything. Then Covid hit and things went the wrong way. But otherwise the focus is on finding companies which have clear core strengths, which cannot be mimicked by the larger market and by the competition. That’s what we have been focusing on globally. And that has helped us have these entities in many parts of the world. Today, we have subsidiaries in Australia, Mexico, US, Brazil and China. Even in China, we are now picking up the pieces to make that entity bounce back.

Please share your experiences and tips on key success factors in building and nurturing an Indian brand in the global markets.

It’s important for us to look at two things. One, ensure that the path of assimilation, both culturally as well as technologically, is clear. Without that, things would be much more difficult in terms of integration as well as in terms of building trust. In almost every instance where we have acquired we have seen that it is necessary to have clarity in communication to build trust. If you are not clear then no matter how good the business is, it would be very difficult to build it back. However, with trust, you can ensure that in a couple of years, the business is back on its own feet with us just standing behind with support and letting the business flourish on its own.

The second key aspect is the importance of building brands. Acceptability in many of the global markets is a tough job. And it is tougher still, at this stage of our economic development, for companies coming from countries like India, especially in the Western markets. It is easy to lose trust if you take one wrong step. You need to do things in ways that build trust! And even if it is slow, it should be surefooted. At Symphony, we avoid any steps which would cause negative vibes in terms of what the intent of the company is, how it is handling customers, and how it is handling relationships. So we take our time in identifying partners in many countries. But once we identify them, we identify them in a way that we can be partners for at least the next 10 years. Of course, we do understand that the standard expectations are higher when it comes to meeting the basic threshold of acceptability in many of the markets. People prefer the original company more so if the parent is from a country like India. So that’s also something that we are cognizant of and working on building slowly but surely.