Groups of men at the tea stalls in the busy Nartaki area of the town were discussing a political murder that had taken place the previous day. The mid-day sun beat down mercilessly.
Ignoring both the murder and the heat, YD Balaji Chowdary, 45, was discussing mobile phone sales at his showroom nearby. It stocks several brands and sells 9,000 pieces a month. It posted a revenue of Rs 40 crore in the past financial year. This year, it might touch Rs 60 crore.
Between 1982 and 1985, when he was working at a watch spare-parts shop for a daily age, he wouldn’t have dreamed of this life. “The industry was shifting from winding watches to quartz watches,” he recalls. “The small players could import spares, and that helped me survive.”
He also made some money selling spare parts in coastal Andhra Pradesh. In 1990, he started a watch shop in Nellore and in 2000 he began selling cell phones alongside.
“I didn’t realise I was getting on a jet plane,” he says.
In his first year, he sold 10 cell phones a day. He opened a second shop in 2003. After the telecom regulator made incoming calls free, his sales rose further. But the real spurt came in 2004, when the government drastically reduced import duties.
“One by one, the advantages kept coming: falling tariffs, competitive pricing, the availability of Chinese handsets. It all led to huge sales of low-end cell phones,” he explains.
He opened his third, fourth and fifth shops in 2008, 2009 and 2010 respectively, and co-founded a private limited company with friends called Big C that has 90 branches all over the state. Last year, its posted Rs 225 crore in revenue.
“More than my hard work, it was the industry’s growth that helped me,” he says candidly. In 2000, cell phone users were in the tens of thousands; today they are in the tens of crores, he points out.
But along with growth, liberalisation also brought competition. “I realised service is where most other players falter,” Chowdary says about how he met the challenge.
“I made sure that I have servicing facilities for all brands. I worked on the rural market.”
In 2004, Nellore became a full-blown municipal corporation for the first time. The district has attracted more than Rs 1 lakh crore in investment in the past decade due to four Special Economic Zones, 22 thermal power projects and the huge Krishnapatnam port, which handles iron ore headed for China, palm oil from Indonesia, coal and iron ore from Australia and fertilisers from China.
“The district has been successfully marketed as an industrial and energy hub,” says Sourabh Gaur, joint collector. Its proximity to Chennai and Bangalore helped.
“When the national highway, NH5, was being built, the labourers became my customers,” says Chowdary. “When the port started in 2008, all those working there came to me. Villagers from far away could also come because of good roads.”
Chowdary recently bought a villa in Hyderabad and moved his family there for the sake of his children’s education. He flies to Hyderabad and back every weekend from Renigunta airport.
“I stopped studying after Class 10,” says Chowdary. “I want to give my kids an education that will help my business go global.”