Mumbai’s wood champion

At the Kandivali factory, wood and engineered wood panels are stacked. Bottom left: Mr Narsi Kularia. Photo credit: Wood News

Born in a Silwa, a small village near Nokha town located in the Bikaner district of Rajasthan, Mr Narsi Kularia now leads his INR400-crore (US$62 million) interiors firm and furniture manufacturing factory in Mumbai, India. Recently, Mr Kularia sat down with WoodNews for an exclusive interview, and reflected on the obstacles facing the wood industry then and now, as well as the many hidden gems of talent that can be uncovered in India.

At the beginning of 1981, a young man with stars in his eyes made his way to Mumbai, dreaming of making a place for himself in the busy city. When he first set foot in the metropolis to scrape out a living, joining a smattering of relatives there, he only held his Class X (the equivalent of finishing elementary schooling) certificate academia-wise.

However, he still had an edge; with him came his traditional, time-tested skills in carpentry that his ancestors had bequeathed him. He can trace his family line back four centuries into the past, when his ancestors brought their skills in woodworking to bear in the mansions and palaces of kings and wealthy landlords as well as the decorative and utilitarian fittings and products for entire populations in villages.

His late father, Sant Dularamji Kularia, counted faraway Lahore and Karachi in Pakistan – when they were still part of India – to Kolkata, Nagpur, and even Vadodara as his travel destinations, where he would execute and complete his contracts before returning to his ancestral village. In 1972, Dularamji made the decision to remain in Silwa while his brothers migrated to Mumbai in search of greater business opportunities.

Less than a decade later, Narsi would join his uncles in the city, helping them on numerous projects, first as a carpenter, then a supervisor, and then moving on to become a contractor. Work was plentiful and abundant, but they were mostly in the bungalows and manors of the rich Parsi gentry who owned land; and the residences of the merchant Marwari and Gujarati families who had chosen to settle in the nation.

 

Baby steps

“In those days, there were very few big corporate offices,” Narsi reminisced in his interview with WoodNews. “Only big oil companies – such as Indian Oil Corporation, Oil and Natural Gas Commission and Reliance Textiles Industries Ltd. – could afford large-scale designing and interior decoration.”

But it was in those early days that Narsi would come to truly understand the potential he had in the industry.

An opportunity to work in West Asia presented itself in 1983, and Narsi quickly scooped it up, helped by his clean track record in honesty, high quality of work, and timely completion of projects. His employer – a renowned architect who has since ventured into the Persian Gulf – spirited him away to Oman, where he came into contact with other skilled craftsmen and woodworking experts from countries like Italy, Germany, and the United Kingdom (UK).

“It was a vastly different world,” Narsi recalled fondly. “All woodworking was planned in advance, interiors were designed on computers and requirements drawn to include the tiniest of fittings and accessories. Factory-made furniture came from the UK and Italy, accurate to the last millimetre!”

But even as he attended to his tasks on a multitude of projects, such as opulent residences for sheikhs and corporate offices, he directly interacted with numerous experts not only from the carpentry industry, but also from a variety of interior industries: finishings to floorings, and decorations to paintings. But by late 1985, Narsi laughed, his motherland sang to his blood and called him home, and he certainly was not unwilling!

 

Setting up

Aged 22 in January 1986, Narsi opened his business in partnership with a friend. His first job was a INR5 lakh (US$7,750) project, doing Lubrizol’s interiors. A bigger contract for the office of the National Organics and Chemical Industries Ltd soon followed. Alongside them, contracts from several high net-worth individuals also came.

And that was just as the Indian economy began opening its doors. In the early 1990s, the corporate and information technology industries experienced booms, and many interior contractors rode high on the positive wave brought about by the real estate development, Narsi recalled to WoodNews.

In 1994, the Union government decided to open the banking sector, giving licenses to organisations such as the Industrial Development Bank of India (IDBI), Unit Trust of India (UTI), and the Industrial Credit and Investment Corporation of India (ICICI). With their hard-earned and clean track record coming off as an advantage, Narsi Associates won the much sought-after contracts to design and furnish the first offices for IDBI and ICICI in Mumbai.

Simultaneously, the government also drove a wave of computerisation and expansion across all the banks in the public sector, and creating a need for larger office spaces, storage areas, matching computer and seating arrangements, as well as interiors that were user-friendly. Narsi soon found his company busy with projects from Standard Chartered Bank, the State Bank of India (SBI), and the National Stock Exchanges in Chennai, Delhi, Goa, and Mumbai.

 

Starting anew

“India was not ready for the flush of real estate development in the office and commercial sectors,” Narsi admitted during his interview with WoodNews. “Each client had upward of 1 million square feet of premises to design, and thousands of employees to accommodate in this office! Interior firms and carpentry workshops clearly could not keep up with the demand.”

That was the time when multinational corporations (MNCs) began to outsource most of their contracts. With the assistance of agents and distributors, they managed to reach the well-established factories located in Southeast Asia (SEA), most notably in Malaysia, China, and Vietnam. Unfortunately, the trend also brought in many dubious traders who had sub-standard products brought in, left their clients hanging after taking their money, and generally making a bad name for “commission agents”.

That was when Narsi came to the realisation that the industry in India was simply not equipped for the opportunity and had missed their chance to make their mark. Manufacturing and production were being done in “workshops” with limited capabilities, inconsistent quality, and manned by untrained workers.

“Until then, we were just another interiors company, executing civil construction, doing gypsum work, painting and finishing tasks. I thought to myself, ‘What is my core strength?’ and I realised that I must focus on furniture,” Narsi said.

And thus, between the years 2000 and 2004, Narsi travelled the world, learning about and striving to understand the workings of modern factories in furniture production. He haunted international business and furniture exhibitions; frequented numerous machinery manufacturers and interior designing firms in Europe; poked around production lines and factories in China and Malaysia; and examined the best chemicals and processes in the United States (US) and Europe before returning back to India to put all he had learned to practice.

He built his own factory, Narsi interior Infrastructure Ltd, in Kandivali, a suburb of Mumbai, in 2007 specially for the products he would make, as well as the ensure the high quality of the products he would offer to his clients, and get them all delivered within the contractual deadlines.

He has depended heavily on Homag to meet his requirements: the HPL-350 and HPP-250 beam saws; the BHX-050 drilling machine; the Ambition-2260 and KDN-550 edge banders; the NB-65, BHX-055, and BST-200 multi-boring machines; the BAZ-322 computer numerical control (CNC) router; and the SCO-113 sanding machine.

For his factory, he is reliant on Felder for the Kappa-400 and K-915 panel saws; the F-700 spindle moulder; and the Ad-41 thickness planer.

Additionally, there are also the hot and cold compresses from Jai Industries, Orma, and Woodmaster. For the polyurethane (PU) coating, the factory uses the Kleen Spray system from Cefla.

 

China and India

Many countries in SEA, notably China, hold an advantage over India in that the West often invests in technology to boost inexpensive production to serve the massive demands found in Europe and North America, Narsi noted. Thus, Malaysia and China quickly brought in the newest technologies, utilised the best materials, and employed the latest software to bring about automation, industrialisation, and mechanisation in furniture production.

“India suffered because we did not have a big market. So there was no incentive to invest in good machinery, or software, or source the best raw material, or use state-of-the-art consumables,” Narsi continued. The situation was exacerbated by the Indians preferring to make quick profit margins rather than invest in something long-term, like manufacturing.

“But this is no longer the case,” Narsi said with a grin. “The Indian market itself is booming. We now also have the world’s best material suppliers – such as Greenply, Merino Laminates and Century Plyboards – who make excellent plywood, veneer and laminated boards, which they export across the world.”

He is looking beyond what many see now as well, and wants India to manufacture their own machinery and hardware, among other products. “Yes, we have some entities [like Biesse and Ebco among other companies] that manufacture here; but what we need is an entire industrial-scale infrastructure to meet the various requirements of interiors: metal work for furniture, aluminium for skirting and ceiling systems.”

On the rapidly-changing trends in the sector for interiors – especially spaces for retail and offices – and the faster systems slowly supplanting contemporary designs, use of material is minimised and more and more office spaces leaning toward an open concept, Narsi commented in the interview, “We used to finish a project in six months, but nowadays clients want quick setups – they want their premises ready in two days!”

 

Developing the skills of the nation

Narsi is of the opinion that India needs to train and certify thousands more youth, and his is an opinion that cannot be discarded lightly – his company employs some 3,000 carpenters, civil engineers, and interior and product designers.

He has aligned himself with the Furniture and Fittings Skill Council (FFSC) estimate that his nation needs 5 million skilled and certified people for the wood industry. He finds joy in the FFSC CEO, Mr Gurpal Singh, who has initiated many programmes around India. As Narsi put it, “For the first time in independent India [that is, 70 years], there is a Union ministry for skill development and entrepreneurship.”

However, statistics by themselves do not go far with him, and he is certainly not taken by rhetoric. He stands firmly on the opinion that learning does not end with the skilling and certification, but must continue on. “Ultimately the youth must be trained and equipped to start their own factories and run their own enterprises,” he explained.

In that same vein, the new upcoming factory has more than 2,000sqft (185sqm) of space dedicated to skill development alone. The space will be open to employees as well as others in pursuit of the education and training in the industry.

“‘Make in India’ is very essential for us,” he insisted. After all, it is the one way to keep employment rates high, realise self-sufficiency, continue developing the Indian economy, and make a name for the nation as a manufacturing powerhouse in the furniture industry. “I can say that when it comes to skills and talent, Indian carpenters can do better than global standards,” Narsi continued.

 

Looking at his success and future

Narsi never takes his blessings and support from his clients over the years for granted. He counts MNCs like Credit Suisse and Citibank to Indian organisations like Kota Bank and Infosys as the main drivers behind his success. Most significantly, he takes heart from their long-established business relationships and his strong belief in ‘Make in India’.

In particular, he gives credit to many industry professionals he has worked with over the years for sharing their knowledge with him on project management, back-end operations, and many more business nuances.

Within his company itself, he looks to the successful collaboration between his teams of interior designers, engineers, and factory employees, the main forces behind his company growth of more than 20 per cent year-on-year.

He also places great emphasis on the high quality of the products offered, timely completion and delivery of projects, as well as a large focus on good customer service.

But above all, he puts personal and professional integrity, honesty with oneself and one’s architects, associates, clients, staff, and suppliers.

One of his influencers is Mr Narayan Murthy, the founder of Infosys. Much like the man he looks up to, Narsi wants to give back to society. “I know one entity cannot make an entire industry grow,” he explained. “But as a leader, I am duty-bound to find ways to facilitate growth, improve standards and set a course for global recognition.”

To that end, he is more than ready to get other interior firms and furniture manufacturer involved as facilitators and mentors in aiding entrepreneurs with financial feasibility studies, and project planning and management among many more. That is, he stated, his next target in his professional life.

 

Source: Wood News