As leaders in the tyre business, Manish shares the intricacies of the business.
By Ashima Sethi
I really value connecting with people,” says Manish Maharaj, the charismatic Business Head & Head Commercial—ASEAN of India-headquartered Apollo Tyres Ltd, one of the world’s leading companies in the field. This was a trait that I was witness to upon sitting down in his office, as we began our interview with conversations about our shared interest in the landscapes of South Africa, where Manish was previously based; the partnerships that the company has formed with celebrated English Premier League club, Manchester United, which my family holds dear to our hearts; and more.
“I enjoy the company of good people and cherish business and social events. Making friends has been an inbuilt attribute of mine for a long time,” he explains. “In Thailand, I have been fortunate enough to have found a great group of friends within a short span of four years. This is a result of being active in several business forum groups and social forum groups in India, Thailand, South Asia, and throughout ASEAN.”
As Manish continues, it is clear that his recipe for success is rooted in being able to strike a balance between work and his out-of-office commitments to his family, friends, and further social groups, a refreshing take in comparison the mantras that are pushed around too often today by those who are hyper successful, encouraging the need to sacrifice your own desires and interests for the sake of being successful in your field.
Throughout our conversation, this belief of being an all-rounded person remains a consistent thread, as Manish waxes eloquent about his duties across various industries, working in some of the most interesting destinations around the world, and how his years of experience landed him a head position with one of the most sought after companies in the automotive business. He shares his journey and insight with Masala.
Let’s start at the very beginning. Can you tell us about your early days and educational experiences in India?
I was born in a culturally rich place in the Northern Indian state of Bihar, but I was brought up in Kolkata—a destination well-known for scholars like Vivekananda and Tagore, and pioneers like Subhash Chandra Bose and Jagdeesh Chandra Bose. After completing school and an MBA in Finance, I did my Company Secretary Certification from ICSI, India, and further upgraded my skills by pursuing a Global Business Management degree from the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Calcutta. These decisions align with my belief that continuous learning is the only way to grow in life. Thus, I continued to take short-term and long-term courses from premier institutes like INSEAD and IIM.
In terms of choosing a field of study, were you always interested in pursuing a degree in business and working in the field of business? Why or why not?
From the beginning, I was always inclined towards doing business but I still had my doubts as most of my relatives had been working as professionals. In contrast, I was witness to my father’s hard work as he kept trying his luck in business. At times, I would support him in his business after my school hours. In fact, I launched my first company right after my teen years with a few of my friends but decided later to move ahead with a professional career instead, as I could not do justice to both my own company and the job I had committed to simultaneously. Today when I look back, I realise that it was a great learning experience. Setting up that company made me a responsible business individual from a very young age.
You have worked in a wide-range of industries. Can you walk us through your professional profile up until this point?
I have been a working professional for 16 years now, and I have worked in companies like Assam Company Limited, The West Coast Paper Mills Ltd (Unit Sudarshan Telecom), Birla Ericsson Ltd, and now with Apollo Tyres Ltd. I enjoy telling people that I started my career with tea, moved to telecom, and now I am in tyres [Laughs]. The majority of my career has been in managing accounts, finance, and commercial function as a business controller and regional CFO. During the initial phase of my career, I worked in different states in India like West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, and Maharashtra, but my job requirements gave me the opportunity to travel exhaustively around India.
My international career started with Apollo Tyres. My first international assignment was as Director and Regional CFO for the South African region based in Johannesburg, SA. It was a great learning experience from a social and cultural perspective as it gave me the opportunity to manage and work with a team that came from a different cultural background. Thankfully, being a quick learner, I was able to adapt to the new culture very quickly and enjoyed my time there very much.
After a successful assignment in South Africa, I moved to the company’s regional head office based in Bangkok, Thailand as the Regional CFO for ASEAN, Middle East, and Africa. The culture of Thailand and broader Southeast Asia are very different when compared to countries in Europe and Africa, so this position really added onto my learning experience as I had to manage such a vast area in regards to geography. After a successful four years in the position, I was given additional responsibility to manage the ASEAN region as a business head.
Circling back to your transition into the business. At what point did you decide to venture into the tyre industry and what about it intrigued you?
I had been sailing through manufacturing focused companies in the telecom industry and managed businesses in the capacity of the business controller. However, I was planning on growing my experience on the commercial side of the business, which would make me a better CEO in the future. An opportunity presented itself with Apollo Tyres and I decided to accept it. I am very happy with my decision as it has given me a deeper understanding of the overall business development in a multinational set up.
Can you tell us about Apollo Tyres and what continues to make it one of the biggest tyre manufacturers in the world?
Apollo Tyres was incorporated in 1972 and its first plant was commissioned in Perambra, Kerala in India. The company was started from scratch by our visionary Chairman, Onkar Singh Kanwar. Today, Apollo Tyres is one of the nation’s most successful automotive companies and also the biggest tyre manufacturing company with five plants in India and two in Europe. We have two brands under the company—Apollo Tyres, and the other is a 113 year old Dutch brand called Vredestein, which was acquired by Apollo Tyres in 2009.
From my perspective, there are many factors that have helped Apollo Tyres reach this level. Our commitment towards the quality of our products, ensuring that our business partners and the end users are happy with what we do, and giving back to society in whatever ways possible. Moreover, to stay ahead of the curve, we have invested greatly in R&D. We have two global R&D centres in Europe and India, with the company being a leader in R&D spending in India. We are also a step ahead of industry peers in regards to sustainability, launching several initiatives related to raw materials, manufacturing, and on the value chain front.
Going into more detail about the industry, can you tell us how tyre design and production has changed in the last few decades?
The need for more automation and faster size changes in tyres over the last decade has definitely led to a transformation of the industry. This transformation has changed factory design and driven changes in tyre building machines, process equipment, and the tyres themselves. Some changes are due to country-specific regulations, heightened OEM and consumer performance requirements, newer raw materials for tyres, and government spending on infrastructure that differs in each country.
What are some up-and-coming trends in the industry? For example, has the trend of embracing sustainability found its way into the tyre business as well?
Sustainability will play a very important role and the industry is constantly searching for the best environmentally-friendly technologies. Several initiatives are already in place, such as developing fuel efficient tyres; and electrical vehicle tyres and autonomous vehicle tyres, where tyre sensing and communication capabilities are emerging at OE and aftermarket level. The use of recycled and renewable materials is also on the rise in the industry to ensure a sustainable future. Going forward, we will also see airless tyres or puncture sealing tyres in various segments.
Apollo Tyres has launched several initiatives on the sustainability front, such as investment in solar plants to ensure a green power supply for manufacturing plants, deploying electric vehicles for last mile deliveries, and setting up EV charging stations at select branded retail outlets in India.
Are there regional differences between what consumers prefer in regards to tyres?
In the ASEAN region, the consumer preference is more towards brand, appearance, and price. Whereas European consumer preference is more towards performance quality, function, and then price. Tyre preference also varies depending on the country-specific regulations. For example, summer, winter, and all-season tyres for weather-related regulations, and REACH/Labeling norms for tyres sold in Europe.
There is no doubt that the cost of raw materials is on the rise, strategically how will you continue to build sustainable profitability while ensuring value for money for the consumer?
We are always working towards cost control measures and increasing manufacturing efficiencies in order to absorb some of the increase in raw material costs. Beyond that, price corrections are taken into account to ensure a profitable growth.
How do you stay ahead with R&D and technological developments?
Apollo Tyres, being the preferred partner for Global OEMs, is continuously enhancing capabilities at its state-of-the-art R&D centres. Across our centres, we are able to meet discerning OEM demands. The synergies between the two centres, and their advanced capabilities, have helped develop category leading products in addition to being at the forefront of meeting new regulatory requirements.
In regards to your role at the company, what are some of your general responsibilities and in your opinion, what skills did you cultivate over the years that have gotten you to this point?
My current responsibilities include full P&L responsibility for the ASEAN region. In addition to my professional skills in sales, strategy, accounts, finance, and supply chain. Other skills that have helped me grow to reach this point include collaboration, open-mindedness, creativity and innovation, ethics, decisiveness, and having a growth mindset.
What are some of the things you enjoy about working in the industry? In contrast, what are some challenges you have faced?
The industry is one of the world’s largest by revenue and its contribution in terms of employment and GDP is substantial for countries like Thailand and India, ranging from 7-10 percent. Control measures are the major challenges as different governments are taking measures in terms of tariff and non-tariff barriers. Every country wants to grow their export market but want to control imports. So far, we have been successful in managing these challenges.
What do you hope to achieve in the near future?
Personally, I wish to continue being a good human being who cares for everyone, I want to make a positive difference wherever I go, and I want to continue learning and upgrading myself to suit the ever-changing business dynamics. In the next three years, I am looking forward to bringing growth to the company by having deeper market reach in the ASEAN region through leadership and data analytics.