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Cool companies

Our fifth annual listing of companies that are hip and happening. This listing is not an “objective” one made by researchers poring over data.

What makes a company cool? Well, youth, as we have seen in the recent elections, is one barometer of “coolness”. But that isn’t the only factor. This listing is not an “objective” one made by researchers poring over data. Instead, we at Business Today went to our reporters and asked them to nominate companies. Companies that may or may not have made it into our various other listings. Companies, that, in more ways than one—product offering, communication, management style—were challenging assumptions.

And, while putting this together, we realised that you don’t have to be young to be cool. The Indian National Congress will be 125 years old next year, but voters still love the party. So, we looked at larger, older companies, which were giving themselves a makeover as well. And we found some genuine surprises.

We will not boast that our list is comprehensive or the “best”, but trust us, this is a cool listing made by a very cool bunch of people: Our reporters. So, sit back and enjoy the read!

Pizza Mania: Domino’s Pizza

Tasty treats: Tucking into pizzas at Dominos
Tasty treats: Tucking into pizzas at Dominos
Founded in 1995
Founders: The Indian Franchise, held by Jubilant Group
Main business: Pizza Delivery
Revenue: Over Rs 300 crore (approx.)
Why it is cool: A delivery boy can become GM. (The GM for Western India is one such man)

OK, delivery boy to GM is great for attracting talent. But what keeps the cash flowing into Domino’s is its skill at making pizzas an all-purpose affordable snack. “The biggest challenge for us is not from other chains but from roadside eateries—in a year if people have 60 meals outside home, pizza accounts for just about one,” says Ajay Kaul, CEO, Domino’s Pizza, India. Kaul told his “food technologists” to develop a low-cost pizza, and thus was born the “Pizza Mania” pizza starting at Rs 35. “This pizza began to draw in a whole new type of customer,” says Kaul, narrating how labourers and auto-rickshaw drivers began dropping in. It opened 60 outlets in 2008. Coming up next: a Domino’s in Gangtok, Sikkim, and many more new locations.

Kushan Mitra

Ecomantra: Going Green

Popularising experiential learning: Ravi Goel (left) and Mahrukh Goel (centre)
Popularising experiential learning: Ravi Goel (left) and Mahrukh Goel (centre)
Founded in 2001
Founders: Ravi Goel (35) and Mahrukh Goel (35)
Main business: ‘Green’ experiential learning
Revenue: Rs 1 crore for 2008
Why it is cool:Ecomantra specialises in experiential learning via activities and eco-friendly holidays.

The jungle offers city slickers everything—team building activities in a boom, salesmanship in a downturn. But it took Mahrukh and Ravi Goel to spot the perfect cocktail of eco-tourism, camping and corporate training. Shortly after their website Ecomantra.com went live in 2001 with offers of experiential learning exercises and holidays, the duo were chased by blue chips keen to outsource their learning activities. Ecomantra manages the Rivertrail eco-retreat, a camp site along the river Kundalika that is Maharashtra’s first and only community owned campsite. The next step for Ecomantra, he adds, is to get into sales training for companies. “In the last decade, teambuilding activities were the fad; now sales training will be vital.” The duo is aiming for revenues of Rs 70 crore by 2015. Ravi has been actively involved in setting up Indian Sustainable Tourism Network for eco-friendly tourism agencies to come together.

Anamika Butalia

IndiGo: No-fuss growth

Flying high: IndiGo is fast gaining marketshare
Flying high: IndiGo is fast gaining marketshare
Founded in 2005
Founders: Rahul Bhatia and Rakesh Gangwal
Main business: Passenger Airline
Revenue: Estimated at over Rs 750 crore for 2008-09
Why it is cool: While the big boys of Indian aviation are quickly reducing their fleet, IndiGo keeps on adding planes, destinations and routes

At the 2005 Paris air show, Vijay Mallya made India sit up when he ordered five Airbus 380s. But a yet-to-be-launched Indian carrier, IndiGo, stunned the world and India by announcing plans to order 100 Airbus A320s. Even journalists from India were asking, “Who on earth is IndiGo?” Not any more. What makes IndiGo so special? IndiGo goes about its business quietly. Recently, it inducted its 20th aircraft. And this, when larger players like Jet and Kingfisher are sending aircraft back to lessors. “Well, we do market ourselves as India’s ‘Coolest Airline’,” jokes Aditya Ghosh, President, IndiGo. His formula for successs? “Simple ticketing, simple check-in, and ontime flying.” In less than three years, IndiGo has managed to fly almost 10 million passengers. “Listen, 94 per cent of our flights reach ontime and that is possibly the biggest ‘frill’ you can offer anyone,” Ghosh says. Slowdown or no slowdown, IndiGo plans to add destinations, is adding aircraft, and growing marketshare (from 10.5 per cent this time last year to 13.7 per cent currently). It also has a high load factor of over 70 per cent.

Kushan Mitra

iYogi: Caught speeding!

Service with devotion: Uday Challu
Service with devotion: Uday Challu
Founded in 2005
Founders: Uday Challu and Vishal Dhar
Main business: Technical support to PC users at home and in small businesses
Revenue: $7.1 million for 2008-09
Why it is cool: Present in US, UK, Canada, it’s growing 15 per cent a month and has now launched its services in Australia

These are testing times for us,” says Uday Challu, Founder & CEO, iYogi. The slowdown? “No, because we are growing faster than ever…at 15 per cent a month,” he replies. What iYogi was adding in six months last year by way of capacity and customers, it is now adding each month. And it has just acquired a US-based PC concierge company. “The challenge is to get the growth right, but we have all good problems,” says Challu. iYogi, which Challu founded with Vishal Dhar, President, Marketing, provides technical assistance to home and small business computer-users via phone and remote access. Based out of Gurgaon, iYogi’s 500 yogis (that’s what it calls its agents) support about 70,000 customers across the US, the UK, Canada, and now Australia. “We have got right what IT industry has not,” says Challu. “OEMs understand enterprises, but the consumer is a different ballgame.” This year, iYogi wants to make waves in India. It is currently running a beta with a telecom service provider to provide complete management of IT services of small business users. Every exchange that an iYogi customer has with its staff ends with a “Good karma” wish for the customer. Seems all “good karma” is coming back to iYogi!

Saumya Bhattacharya

Lifecell: Cold store, hot growth

Banking on stem-cells storage: Mayur Abhaya
Banking on stem-cells storage: Mayur Abhaya
Founded in 2004
Founder: Abhaya Kumar
Main business: Stem-cell banking and stem-cell solutions provider
Revenue: Rs 16 crore for 2008
Why it is cool: It now provides all the services coming under stem cells, thus entrenching itself as a first mover

Mayur Abhaya, Executive Director, Lifecell, is gung-ho about his company’s prospects because of his first-mover advantage in stem-cells storage and application, through research and clinical trials. Starting with cord blood banking, it has moved on to cord tissue banking and is getting into menstrual blood banking. While the first is useful for some congenital diseases, the second can be used to treat a variety of disorders such as Type 1 diabetes, stroke, osteoarthritis, Parkinson’s disease and retinal nerve degeneration. Menstrual blood is particularly good for all kinds of tissue generation, including bone and other organs, owing to its intrinsic regenerative abilities. For men—who don’t have the benefit of stored menstrual blood tissue—LifeCell has tied up with Harvest Technologies of Boston for point-of-contact bone marrow aspirates (for clinical trials) that can inject the stem cell concentrate in 15 minutes. LifeCell has its own DSIR-approved research lab and is planning to set up one more in West Asia. It runs a clinical trial centre in Ramachandra Medical College at Chennai and has joined the select tribe of 600 clinical trials under way in this field globally.

Nitya Varadarajan

Meru Cab Company: Taxiing for Takeoff

Master of the cabs: Neeraj Gupta
Master of the cabs: Neeraj Gupta
Founded in 2006
Founder: Neeraj Gupta
Main business: Radio taxi
Revenue: Rs 100 crore (approx.) India's first and largest radio taxi operator, it changed the way metered taxis operate in India
Why it is cool: India's first and largest radio taxi operator, it changed the way metered taxis operate in India

Taxi commuters in cities like Mumbai and Delhi used to have nightmares dealing with flat rates and faulty meters—till Meru Cab rolled out its fleet of air-conditioned taxis outfitted with radio communications and GPS. Meru began in Mumbai and is now present in Delhi, Hyderabad and Bangalore. For Meru Cab’s Founder Neeraj Gupta, the biggest challenge was to get the permits: the government had stopped issuing fresh permits in Mumbai. So Meru came up with its first innovation: it bought the permits from existing operators by paying a premium. By the first quarter of 2007, it had 50 cabs on the roads. Meru owns the cabs, while the drivers pay it a fixed Rs 700 a day and buy their own fuel. They get to keep anything extra. This way, a driver earns an average of Rs 13,000-15,000 a month, nearly double the earnings of a regular cabbie. Meru also earns from advertising on the taxis. To fund the acquisition of its fleet, Meru brought in private equity firm India Value Fund, which owns majority stake in it. Gupta expects to make a profit from next year.

Virendra Verma

Only much louder: Rocking Rock!

Creative turn: Vijay Nair (third from left)
Creative turn: Vijay Nair (third from left)
Founded in 2000-01
Founders: Vijay Nair (25), Girish ‘Bobby’ Talwar (29)
Main business: Artiste management
Revenue: Rs 1.8 crore for 2008
Why it is cool: OML has created a niche business in which it remains the leader

Vijay Nair can’t make music, but has been making pots of money by doing what he loves best: Giving Indian rock music the same visibility as traditional classical instruments or Bollywood. Nair, Founder of Only Much Louder (OML), was a teenager when he began by managing bands along with Sandeep Mittal, Founder of Gigpad.com, back in 1999. OML came two years later, when he founded it with Vishal Dadlani of the rock band Pentagram. They managed the engagements of other rock bands. In 2004, Girish ‘Bobby’ Talwar joined Nair and turned OML into a private limited company. By 2005, OML was working on over 100 events in a year. In 2007, it set up a record label, Counter Culture, which has cut ten albums for rock bands, and Babble Fish Productions, a production house to shoot live shows. Vishal and Vijay started without any capital; today their annual revenue is nearly Rs 2 crore. “We started out with zero capital and we’ve always made money,” says Nair. “It’s really an exciting business since I lack creativity… I can’t even play a musical instrument.”

Anamika Butalia

Prime focus:‘Unqualified’ genius

Post-production focus: Namit Malhotra (sitting)
Post-production focus: Namit Malhotra (sitting)
Founded in 1996
Founder: Namit Malhotra
Main business: Integrated post-production and visual effects services company
Revenue: Rs 266 crore for nine months ended December 2008
Why it is cool: A youthful Indian multinational that has been built purely on talent and technology

Considering that they knew nothing about the business of television post-production and visual effects when they launched Prime Focus in 1996, Namit Malhotra and four of his friends have done pretty well: 60 per cent of the Indian market. Prime Focus offers end-toend services in every aspect of production and post-production, for film as well as advertising. “Imagine, a decade ago, when I started along with four of my friends, we knew nothing about this business. We did not have big qualifications and had never worked in big multinationals. But we are today the only Indian multinational in post-production and visual effects,” says Malhotra. He takes pride in employing many freshers who do not have any qualifications but are great creatives. Malhotra has another skill: taking over distressed assets abroad and turning them around, as Prime Focus has done with VTR in the UK and Frantic Films in the US. The acquisitions have given Prime Focus a chance to be associated with films such Spiderman 3, Fantastic Four and Superman Returns. A third of Prime is international talent. “… A significant amount of work can be carried out by facilities across time zones in a cost-efficient manner,” says Malhotra.

Anusha Subramanian

Turtle: Ninja Turtle

For that perfect cut and jib: (Left to right) Turtles Amit Ladsaria, Manoj Agarwal, Sitangshu Jhunjhunwala and Amit Saha
For that perfect cut and jib: (Left to right) Turtles Amit Ladsaria, Manoj Agarwal, Sitangshu Jhunjhunwala and Amit Saha
Founded in 1993
Founders: Sanjay Jhunjhunwala and Amit Ladsaria
Main business: Branded men’s fashion wear(Shirts, suits and trousers)
Revenue: Rs 62 crore for 2008-09
Why is it cool: Has posted best ever figures despite the downturn, with affordable high-fashion

Recession is more in the mind—if your mind thinks there is recession, the recession is very strong,” says Amit Ladsaria, Director of Turtle Limited, the Kolkata-based men’s apparel maker. Turtle has just reported a turnover of Rs 62 crore, its highest ever, in 2008-09, up from Rs 46 crore the previous year. “We did better in the second-half…this year, we plan to grow by another 30 per cent,” he says, explaining why: “People will stop buying Louis Philippe and buy Turtle”. Turtle shirts end at Rs 900, way below its rivals. It has implemented Oracle e-biz to connect its 32 stores to its head office in grimy Howrah. “Our nature is not rampant growth,” says Ladsaria, adding that Turtle stands for turtles: slow and steady…long life…tough exterior, soft interior… When it comes to shirts, Turtle is fussy: it creates its own fabric designs and gets the fabrics made to order. Today, it also makes suits, trousers and denims as well. Last year, it created a sub-brand, London Bridge, for shirts made of blends, leaving the pure cotton shirts for Turtle.

Somnath Dasgupta

COOL LARGE COMAPNIES

Bata: Naughty boys to chic ladies

Making the right moves: Marcelo Villagran
Making the right moves: Marcelo Villagran
Founded in 1931
Founder: Thomas Bata
Main business: Footwear
Revenue: Rs 1,008 crore for 2008
Why is it cool: Has emerged stronger in the face of competition from cheaper players in the unorganised sector

Be surprised,” goes Bata’s campaign slogan. And surprised we are at Bata India’s turnaround story. For 2008, which is also Bata’s financial year, it posted its best-ever numbers: a PBT of Rs 71.84 crore, a growth of 30 per cent over the figure for 2007. Bata also stepped into new territories like industrial safety shoes, built a direct marketing channel and expanded its retail chain. The story hasn’t always been rosy: labour trouble, bad decisions, competition from cheaper brands. Things started looking up in 2005, when old loyalist Marcelo Villagran was made MD. New collections, a tiered store structure, specialised manufacturing bases and stores kept time with mall culture. “We started focussing on concept-based designs, and paid attention to the smallest of things: keeping stores open till late and displaying all our shoes in pairs,” recalls Villagran. New designers and changing collections also helped. No-frills school shoes gave way to chic high-heeled numbers and the customers returned. Bata plans to open 70 stores this year and is expecting a 10 per cent increase in sales.

Anumeha Chaturvedi

Cavinkare: Still blazing a trail

Pioneering effort: (Left to right) CavinKares C.K. Ranganathan, Ramesh Viswanathan and T.D. Mohan
Pioneering effort: (Left to right) CavinKares C.K. Ranganathan, Ramesh Viswanathan and T.D. Mohan
Founded in 1983
Founder: C.K. Ranganathan
Main business: Retailing personal care, foods
Revenue: Rs 700 crore for 2008
Why is it cool: Has several unique lines of distribution and is getting into manufacturing to provide a benchmark from those it outsources

Cavinkare, the company that pioneered the satchet revolution in personal care products, is still a pioneer in distribution, and remains cool. It acquired fame by fighting Hindustan Lever, but has never seen a negative growth since inception, either in top line or bottom line. Today, it files patent claims every other month, and has shifted from being a pure-play distributor to being a manufacturer also “only to set a benchmark for our vendors in terms of quality”, says C. K. Ranganathan, Chairman & Managing Director. He learnt the art of delegating and continued to build the company by acquiring new lines of business like packaged food. He also acquired the distributorship for Adidas, the men’s sportswear brand, to get an entry into high-end retail stores and leverage this with premium personal care products. CavinKare also has its own beauty parlours and plans to get into the restaurant business. “We plan to touch the customer every day some way,” says Ranganathan. The turnover target for 2009-10 is projected to be above Rs 1,000 crore.

Nitya Varadarajan

HCC: The tougher the better

Building dreams: Ajit Gulabchand
Building dreams: Ajit Gulabchand
Founded in 1926
Founder: Walchand Hirachand
Main business: Construction
Revenue: Rs 3,572 crore for 2008-09
Why it is cool: Taking up complex engineering projects like Bandra-Worli sea link in Mumbai, setting up India’s first man-made hill station Lavasa and Mumbai’s biggest commercial complex

In early 2000, Hindustan Construction Company (HCC) got a real estate survey done through Accenture and Indian Market Research Bureau to find whether there was scope for setting up a selfsustained city. The findings: no, there was no market for such a thing. But HCC Chairman & MD Ajit Gulabchand went ahead. His dream project is coming up near Pune, as Lavasa hill station. The first phase is expected to be operational by next year; HCC subsidiary, Lavasa Corporation, has already reported a net profit of Rs 122 crore on revenues of Rs 212 crore for the quarter to March 2009. One of the oldest construction firms, HCC has a habit of going off the beaten track: it is also building the hugely complex Bandra-Worli Sea Link in Mumbai and has plans for the nuclear power sector. “We find large projects help us achieve our turnover targets with fewer projects that we can manage with fewer project management teams,” says Gulabchand.

Virendra Verma

SBI: Banking on brand value

Leader in the pack: SBIs O.P. Bhatt
Leader in the pack: SBIs O.P. Bhatt
Founded in 1921
Founder: Govt. of India
Main business: Financial services
Revenue: Rs 1,13,093 crore for 2008-09
Why it is cool: Introduced 8 per cent home loan when other banks were afraid to lend, received huge retail deposits after the financial crisis and improved profits despite lower lending rates

What financial storm? State Bank of India seemed to be saying as depositors spooked by the global banking collapse stuffed their cash into SBI—at the rate of Rs 1,000 crore a day! Chairman O.P. Bhatt threw out this factoid while presenting the annual results for 2008-09 recently (a 35.5 per cent increase in net profit). “After the US crisis and liquidity crunch, investors felt the need for a safe place to park their money and SBI was preferred over other banks,” says Bhatt. When the government wanted the economy to get a fillip, it was left to SBI to lead the way. As the downturn bit, SBI also spooked rivals by offering cheap car loans and home loans (8 per cent a year for the first year). Mind you, Bhatt says the bank is making money at even this 8 per cent lending rate. So, even as fearful banks put the brakes on retail lending, SBI expanded its loan book, growing its home loan portfolio by 21 per cent in 2008-09 (industry growth: 17 per cent). In January 2008, it had become the No. 1 bank by market cap, overtaking private sector giant ICICI Bank—and has maintained its position since then. During the year, it also raised a total of Rs 16,000 crore via rights issues from the public and the government.

Virendra Verma

Madison World: Fun—and work too!

Employees give the thumbs up: Sam Balsara and his team
Employees give the thumbs up: Sam Balsara and his team
Founded in 1988
Founder: Sam Balsara
Main business: Media buying and planning
Revenue: Over Rs 2,300 crore of media billings
Why it is cool: Works hard to deliver cleint objectives and is the only Indian agency to pick up a majority stake in a foreign media agency

Sell out to a foreign partner? What better way to kill such rumours than buying another agency. Last year, Sam Balsara and his home-grown agency, Madison World, took everyone by surprise when it picked up a 51 per cent stake in WPP’s media agency, Mediacom. Today, with media billings in excess of Rs 2,300 crore, Madison World is now second only to Group M agencies put together, and one of the fastest growing in India, with an annual rate of around 25 per cent. Its clients include P&G Gillette, Coca-Cola, Airtel, Godrej, Marico, TVS, Cadbury, GM, Levis and Indian Oil Corp. But while they work hard, they also have fun. Balsara admits that the fun thing became big ever since he decided to make Madison an employer of choice. Plus, the focus was never on growth or money. “All I always wanted was to do a good job for the clients…We look upon money and growth as by-products of our delivery to our existing clients,” he says. So, Madison is big on strategy sessions to discuss how to make the client’s business grow. None on growing Madison!

Anusha Subramanian

Larsen & Toubro: Tasked to build

Passionate about building India: For A.M. Naik, its country before the company
Passionate about building India: For A.M. Naik, its country before the company
Founded in 1938
Founders: Henning Holck-Larsen and Soren Kristian Toubro
Main business: Engineering, infrastructure, construction
Revenue: Rs 25,187 crore for 2008
Why it is cool: Widely held, professionally managed, open organisation with an India-first motto

An engineering major that loves hard-hats more than it does MBAs, a seniority-led company that has been restructured into a cluster of virtual companies allowing talent of any age to rise to the top. And the clincher: there is no defined “promoter” group or controlling faction, the bane of many Indian companies. That’s Larsen & Toubro for you. Why is it cool? Throw that question at L&T Chairman A.M. Naik and he says: “It’s India first, then the company and then the individual at L&T. There are many ways of making money, but we choose to make money while building the country.” It has faced takeover threats in the recent past—from Reliance and from AV Birla Group outfit, Grasim. “Our motto remains customer first. Even as there have been boardroom battles with Reliance and Grasim, they remained and still are our biggest customers,” says Naik.

Suman Layak