In Egypt, the brand is synonymous with its best known product
K.R. Balasubramanyam June 28, 2011Is this really your name?" the receptionist at a Cairo hotel asked Sanjay Kirloskar, then Managing Director and now Chairman as well of Kirloskar Brothers, during one of his visits to the city in the 1990s. She kept grinning at him. Kirloskar confirmed it was, wondering what she found so funny. "Here in Egypt, Kirloskar means pump," she explained. Just as in India, Xerox means photo copier. It is every marketer's daydream: his brand becoming synonymous with the product. Kirloskar pumps have achieved this in much of Africa, especially Egypt, where the company has been exporting pumps to since the 1960s.
The saga of the Rs 6,300 crore ($1.4 billion) Kirloskar conglomerate begins in 1888 when Kirloskar Brothers was launched in Belgaum. Initially it was only a trading company. Older brother Ramchandrarao ran it, while Laxmanrao lived in Bombay - now Mumbai - pursuing his academic ambitions. A misstep by the British authorities at Victoria Jubilee Technical Institute, where Laxmanrao taught, eventually led to a big leap in the Kirloskar journey. Upset at being denied his rightful promotion by the British higher-ups, the young man quit his job and headed for Belgaum. (More than a century later, in November 2003, when Kirloskar Brothers acquired a British company, SPP Pumps, it seemd to settle a historic score.)
Laxmanrao's participation dramatically changed the focus of the Kirloskar business from selling to manufacturing. He understood technology; he also had his finger on the pulse of the market and on farmers' requirements in what was then a predominantly agrarian society. The Kirloskars' first product - a handpowered chaff cutter - took shape in 1902. Three years later, the brothers came up with a first-of-its-kind iron plough. Used to wooden ploughs, farmers were initially cold to Kirloskar's offering: it took them around two years to realise that iron ploughs were sturdier than wooden ones. But just as they began selling well, in 1908, the Belgaum municipality ordered Kirloskar to vacate its premises to make space for a new Belgaum suburb. Fortunately, Balasaheb Pant Pratinidhi, the Raja of Aundh - then a princely state and now part of Maharashtra's Satara and Sangli districts - offered the Kirloskars both land and a loan to continue their venture.
The new place, where the Kirloskar brothers rebuilt themselves - starting in March 1910 with just 25 workers - is today Kirloskarvadi, a sprawling factory-cum-township in Sangli district, 270 km southeast of Mumbai.
The Kirloskar empire now comprises eight group companies, with units scattered across several countries, manufacturing a range of items from oil engines to electric motors, pumps to turbines, engines to generator sets.
World War I (1914 to 1918) hit the Kirloskar brothers badly as the supply of iron stopped. This time the Maharaja of Solapur in southeast Maharashtra, came to their rescue, selling them his cannons to melt down and use the iron to continue making their ploughs.
Early on, the Kirloskars decided to start exporting. "My grandfather, Shantanurao Kirloskar, would say every business is cyclical," says Kirloskar. "He said we must reduce our risk by reaching out to more markets." As befits a 122-year-old company, Kirloskar Brothers retains a culture of paternalism. "We do consider merit," says N.D. Wagh, Operations Head at Kirloskarvadi. "But we are inclined to employ people whose fathers also worked here."
"We are trying to make our future as glorious as our past," says Sanjay Kirloskar. "Our products have lower life-cycle costs than any other brand, and consume less energy too."