RIP: Mr. Surinder Kapur (who was part of an exciting phase of Indian business history)

Just got to know of demise of Mr Surinder Kapur, chief of Sona Koyo Steering.

Bhupesh Bhandari of BS pays a nice tribute:

Surinder Kapur died on June 30 in Munich after being ill for about a fortnight. He had sizeable business interests in Germany and had set up home in Munich. In the last few years, he would spend more and more of his time there.  He was humble and cheerful at all times. I always found it difficult to imagine him angry and dispirited. And he loved his family. Towards the end of March, he had sent me a link to the first YouTube video of his granddaughter, with a request to “like” it. Kapur’s large and serene farmhouse was a reflection of his urbane persona.

Kapur was a product of the Japanese wave of the 1980s. The then government, under Rajiv Gandhi, had taken the first tentative steps towards liberalisation by allowing in Japanese automobile makers. These companies decided to source components locally in order to keep their price tags low. Sensing an opportunity, Kapur met the bosses of Maruti Udyog, in which Suzuki of Japan had taken a stake, and R C Bhargava, who told him he could choose whatever he wanted to make so long as he would let Suzuki buy 26 per cent in his venture. Kapur chose to make steering systems and gave just 10 per cent equity in his company, Sona Steering, to Suzuki. (It was renamed Sona Koyo after Koyo of Japan acquired a stake in the mid-1990s.)

The entry of the Japanese automobile companies revolutionised manufacturing in the country. Earlier, Indian quality was poor, deliveries were shoddy and costs were high. This was unacceptable to the Japanese. To give credit to Indian businessmen, instead of complaining about it, they took it as a challenge and, in a few short years, they were churning out stuff that was almost as good as what was made anywhere else.

Several of them, in due course of time, became global players. Kapur was one of them – at the time of his death, he had manufacturing operations in India, Germany and the United States. Fuji Autotec, in which he had taken a strategic stake, has subsidiaries in Brazil, France, Sweden and the Czech Republic.

He took on to Japanese tech like no other:

Kapur was the biggest proponent of Japanese manufacturing practices in India. He worked with quality gurus like Yoshikazu Tsuda and consultants like Shoji Shiba. His relentless pursuit of quality made Kapur a highly efficient manufacturer of automobile components. He pursued global quality certifications with missionary zeal. He wrote a series of articles on the subject, under the head The Quality Conundrum, for Business Standard some years ago.

In the Confederation of Indian Industry, he was the strongest champion of total quality management, or TQM. Whenever a new concept was discussed, he would offer his company as the guinea pig. His team had no choice but to go through the drill. Kapur’s vision was to “create a company that India is proud of”.

He took to the Japanese way like fish to water. Apart from manufacturing best practices like Kaizen and JIT, he did not ignore the softer aspects of the Japanese work culture. It was not uncommon to find him outside office in company uniform. The only Japanese habit he didn’t pick up was golf, though he learnt the next best thing: singing in Karaoke bars.

In later years, Kapur became an ardent fan of German engineering excellence as well. Sona had the heart of a true multinational corporation.

There is more in the article. Amrit Raj of Mint also has an article on Mr. Kapur.

This was quite a phase for Indian business history. In his book The Maruti story, Mr. RC Bhargava narrates the tell of how Suzuki became a partner as a matter of luck and chance. It was hardly a preferred partner. How this chancy matter eventually set a process of innovation in the Indian auto industry is something we hardly appreciate. People like Mr. Kapur (along with many others) played a crucial role in this process. And not to forget, Maruti was a govt company which led the charge and change.


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