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Innovating to survive in small-town India

india Updated: Feb 14, 2007 01:03 IST

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Kohini Kelkar knows how tough it is being a woman entrepreneur in small-town India. In 1984, when this engineer started pitching her metal micro-finishing machines, customers would ask for "Mr Kelkar" instead.

Today, the position has dramatically reversed. It is husband Milind who is faced with customers wanting to talk business with “Mrs Kelkar”. Says Mohini, an unassuming 46 year-old, “Their reaction was understandable. There were few women engineers in the business of manufacturing machines, either in India or abroad. Now the scene is different.”

And how. Today, nobody bats an eyelid dealing with a woman talking engineering design. Or baulks at the fact that their products are made in small-town Aurangabad. But for the Kelkars, both class of ‘81 engineering grads from Mumbai’s Veermata Jijabai Technological Institute, it has been a 23-year journey of heartbreak and hard work to turn their dream of “doing their own thing” into reality.

The story of their company, Grind Masters, is in many ways the story of the new, entrepreneurial India. Not the big guys, with access to global technologies and funds, but the story of the small entrepreneur, armed only with an idea. And the drive to make it work.

The Kelkars could have easily followed the middle-class dream of comfortable professional service. But they had other plans. The young couple pooled their savings – a princely Rs 25,000 – and started a company to manufacture metal-finishing machines. Managing the workforce was a snip – they didn’t have any. And when the first order came in – for a metal buffing machine from kitchenware maker Nirlep – the first problem had to be cracked: the Kelkars did not have any technical collaborators to provide them with designs. So they designed the machine themselves.

Though offers for job work followed from Bajaj, they decided to focus on design their own machines. Over time, the Kelkars produced machines and tools for de-burring, belt grinding and polishing, sanding, buffing, micro finishing and super finishing metals for sectors as diverse as the automotive industry to nuclear power.

It was no cakewalk. Recalls Mohini, Aurangabad’s first woman entrepreneur, “When we started, the infrastructure was poor. There was just one flight to Mumbai and no direct train. Getting raw material was as difficult as getting trained staff. So, while my husband drilled holes, I travelled to Mumbai to buy nuts and bolts.”

More than two decades later, they are still doing the same thing. The difference? Scale. Turnover has grown from zero to Rs 25 crore per year. Employee strength has grown from two to 130. And these first generation engineering exporters now occupy a small spot on the world map, with their company figuring among the world’s top five micro finishing companies. They have partners in US, UK and Switzerland and they export to over 20 countries, ranging from USA and UK to Africa and Asia, including the dragon’s own lair, China.

They division of responsibility has not changed. Milind does the research and development, while Mohini globetrots to deal with customers. The third engineer in the family, son Sameer, is getting ready to join them, after finishing his MS in robotics from the US.

With over 2,000 machines in operation, Mohini says, “ We have crafted machines, never copied them.  We believed in experimentation and not on re-engineering.” Today, they manufacture 300 machines a year and are gearing up to meet the 500 target. And after getting three patents for their designs and fighting long-drawn legal battles with those who tried to copy their designs, they have decided that constant innovation is the best defence. “By the time people copy our machines, we move forward,” says Milind.

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