30-odd years and still innovating; that‘s entrepreneurship
Three decades of success wasn‘t enough for this unstoppable Kerala businessman, who took his conveyor belts business overseas at the age of 64.
K J Joseph has lived an interesting life. While growing up, this 70-year-old engineer from Kerala had the world at his feet. His father owned a cinema hall, a movie distribution company and rubber plantations in South India. But Joseph was determined to cut his own path instead of joining the family business.
The world of engineering fascinated him and he worked with many big-ticket companies, including the General Reserve Engineering Force, whose engineers work with the Boarder Roads Organisation.
His finest hour, however, came in 1974. A good 13 years after he received his engineering diploma, Joseph launched Thejo Engineering Ltd, an engineering solutions provider focusing on conveyor belt systems used in core-sector industries like mining, power, steel, cement, ports and fertilisers.
But before he floated his firm, Joseph required two things – a partner and a great idea. Bursting with enthusiasm, he teamed up with an old friend and school mate, Thomas John, who he had also worked with in the past.
That One Great Idea
While scouting for an idea, Joseph’s experience with foundry mechanisation drew his attention to conveyer belt systems and the two young lads decided to make this the focus of their start-up. They finally zeroed in on conveyor services which included belt jointing and pulley lagging.
At the time, there were only two processes available to join conveyer belts – clipping and hot vulcanisation. But how could Thejo do one better? “We came across a material for cold vulcanisation. It was a German component and very few companies were aware of it in India,” says Joseph.
The biggest advantage of this technology was that it saved time. With this new process along with the cold lagging process developed by Thejo, companies could get their conveyor belts joined in one single shift as opposed to the two months it took with the older technology.
“Due to this, major production facilities like the Bokaro and Bhillai steel plants were able to enhance their production by as much as 25 per cent,” explains Joseph. Not surprisingly, Thejo built a solid clientele in the service industry. With single-minded zeal, the two co-founders and friends decided not to harvest their profits and, instead, ploughed them back into their business.
From Services to Manufacturing
After a few years, the entrepreneur in Joseph stirred again. So, in 1986, Thejo Engineering converted into a private limited company. That was only the first of many plans Joseph had up his sleeve. When Thejo found it difficult to procure quality rubber sheets and adhesive for its cold vulcanisation technology, Joseph decided to shift the company’s focus from servicing to manufacturing.
Raising funds to make the transition was not difficult as Thejo had an impressive client list, most of whom were government establishments.
The World Is His Oyster
The big moment came in 1989, when Joseph inaugurated his first manufacturing unit. But the going wasn’t easy. Thejo had no experience in manufacturing and there were no benchmarks for this technology. So rejections and financial losses were inevitable. “But it was all in the game,” smiles Joseph.
If they were to succeed in their new avatar, they needed to pull a rabbit out of the hat. Thus the co-founders put in even more time and money and perfected their technology. “Our persistence paid off and by 1994, we enjoyed almost 80 per cent of market share,” reveals Joseph. “Today, we have four manufacturing units in Ponneri, Tamil Nadu, where we produce vulcanising machines, lining operations, adhesives, mouldings and accessories for conveyer systems,” he adds.
Just when most businessmen would sit back and relish their journey, Joseph grew restless again. The year was 2007 and the insatiable businessman, who was 64 years old, decided it was time to expand overseas. Thejo drew on its contacts and established an international presence through partnerships and distribution networks across Australia, Saudi Arabia, the US, Germany, Chile, Brazil and Ghana.
A year later, in 2008, the company set another milestone when it became a public limited company. It also became the first SME to enter the capital market with a public issue aggregating Rs 21 crore in September 2012.
Age has taken a toll and Joseph is largely confined to Chennai. But he credits his old friend John for more than making up for his limitations. “We have only one interest and that is the company’s interest. Whenever we have had differences of opinion, we analysed them from company’s perspective and sacrificed our personal interests for the company’s welfare” reveals Joseph.
Both friends also complement each other in their strengths and weaknesses and have great respect for each other. “Joseph is technically sound and where I am lacking, he used to advise me and vice-versa,” says John, who is now managing director of the company.
Back in the 1990s, when business was booming, the co-founders saw the wisdom in bringing in another core team member. They roped in V A George, a mutual friend, who brought with him technical and financial experience. “From my experience in other companies we have developed a family-like work culture, where we treat our employees as family and maintain that work culture even today. We had never faced any labour issues in 40 years,” adds Joseph.
He has one last bit of advice. “Be extra-cautious before making any new forays and always look before you leap. We took 40 years to establish our business and have grown steadily. I have seen some companies perishing like a pack of cards. So don’t be too adventurous.”