Champion of carpentry

A teenage carpenter from a Rajasthan village, Mr. Narsi Kularia has realised his family dreams and today heads his Rs. 400-crore interiors firm and furniture manufacturing factory in Mumbai. In a recent exclusive interaction with WoodNews, he dwells on the challenges to the industry and points to the immense hidden talent that can be found within India. Excerpts:

Stacking of wood and engineered panels in the Kandivali factory’s ground floor store.

The beginning of 1981 saw another starry-eyed young man making Mumbai his home, with dreams of creating a niche for himself. When Mr. Narsi Kularia landed in the bustling metropolis to join a handful of his relatives to eke out a living, he was armed with only his primary schooling (Class X) certification.

But he brought with him the time-tested, traditional carpentry skills that he had inherited from his ancestors, who hail from the Suthar community, from Silwa, a small village near Nokha town, in Bikaner district of Rajasthan.

He can trace records of his family history back 400 years, when its members demonstrated their woodworking skills not only in the palaces and mansions of kings and rich land owners, but also in construction and fittings, utilitarian and decorative products for entire populations in many villages.

His father, the late Sant Dularamji Kularia, used to travel as far as Lahore and Karachi (in then undivided India) to Kolkata, Vadodara, Nagpur and even Mumbai. There he executed contracts and returned to the ancestral village. In 1972, Dularamji decided to stay back in Rajasthan, but helped his brothers migrate to Mumbai, to seek greater business opportunities.

Narsi joined his uncles on various projects in the metropolis, working initially as a carpenter, then as a supervisor, and later as a contractor. There was plenty of work, but mainly in bungalows of the rich, landed Parsi gentry and homes of trading Marwari and Gujarati families who had settled abroad.

First steps

“In those days, there were very few big corporate offices,” Narsi recalls, “Only big oil companies – such as Indian Oil Corporation, Oil and Natural Gas Commission and Reliance Textiles Industries Ltd. – could afford large-scale designing and interior decoration.” But it was here that he cut his teeth and understood his potential.

In 1983 an opportunity to work in West Asia presented itself, and Narsi jumped at it. His track record in honesty, quality and timely completion of projects came in handy. His boss (a renowned architect who had collaborated with a UK-based company and ventured into business in the Persian Gulf) whisked him away to Oman, where he came in touch with skilled craftsmen and woodworking experts from Germany, Italy and the UK.

“It was a vastly different world,” Narsi remembers. “All woodworking was planned in advance, interiors were designed on computers and requirements drawn to include the tiniest of fittings and accessories. Factory-made furniture came from the UK and Italy, accurate to the last millimetre!”

Even as he went about his tasks on various projects – mansions for sheikhs and corporate offices – he interacted with various experts, not only in carpentry, but also in several aspects of interiors: from flooring to wall finishing, furniture to furnishing, painting to decoration, air-conditioning to lighting. By late 1985, Narsi says, his motherland began beckoning, and he was ready to move back!

Setting shop

In January 1986, at age 22, Narsi opened a firm in partnership with a friend. His first job, doing the interiors for Lubrizol (in what is now Navi Mumbai), was a Rs. 5-lakh project. This was followed by an even bigger contract for the office of the National Organics and Chemical Industries Ltd., again in Navi Mumbai. Besides, there were several residences for high net-worth individuals that also came his way.

But it was the opening up of the Indian economy, the boom in the information technology and corporate sectors in the early 1990s that saw many interior contractors riding on the positive wave of real estate development, Narsi recalls.

Around 1994, the Union government opened up the banking sector, issuing licences to the likes of IDBI (Industrial Development Bank of India), UTI (Unit Trust of India) and ICICI (Industrial Credit and Investment Corporation of India). By sheer dint of their hard-earned track record, Narsi Associates won contracts to design the interiors and furnish the first offices of IDBI and ICICI in Mumbai.

The government also simultaneously embarked on a huge computerisation and expansion drives across all public sector banks, creating the need for more office space and computer-matching seating and storage and user-friendly interiors. The first big projects for the State Bank of India (SBI), Standard Chartered Bank and the National Stock Exchange in Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai and Goa also came Narsi’s way.

Learning afresh

“India was not ready for the flush of real estate development in the office and commercial sectors,” Narsi admits. “Each client had upward of 1 million square feet of premises to design, and thousands of employees to accommodate in his office! Interior firms and carpentry workshops clearly could not keep up with the demand.”

That is when multinationals began outsourcing most of these contracts. With the help of agents and distributors, they reached out to the well-established factories in South-East Asia, notably in China, Malaysia and Vietnam. This trend also attracted many fly-by-night traders who imported sub-standard products, left their clients high and dry, and brought a bad name to “commission agents”.

He realised that Indian industry was found wanting and had missed a chance to make its mark. Most Indian manufacturing was being done in “workshops”, with limited capacities, inconsistent quality and untrained manpower. This upset Narsi no end.

“Until then, we were just another interiors company, executing civil construction, doing gypsum work, painting and finishing tasks. I thought to myself, ‘What is my core strength?’ and I realised that I must focus on furniture,” Narsi recalls.

And so it was that, between the years 2000-2004, he undertook travel across the world to learn and understand modern, factory-made furniture production. He visited furniture and business exhibitions; called on machinery manufacturers and interior designing firms in Europe; he checked out factories and production methods in China and Malaysia; he scouted for the best chemicals and processes in Europe and the US; then returned home to implement what he had learnt.

Narsi set up his own factory in Kandivali (a suburb of Mumbai) in 2007 (Narsi Interior Infrastructure Ltd.) to suit the products he was making, extract the quality his clients demanded, and deliver in time for the large contracts in hand.

He relied primarily on Homag to meet his needs: the BHX-055, NB-65 and BST-200 multi-boring machines; the BHX-050 drilling machine; the HPP-250 and HPL-350 beam saws; SCO-113 sanding machine; the KDN-550 and Ambition-2260 edge banders; and the BAZ-322 CNC router.

His factory chose Felder for the K-915 and Kappa-400 panel saws; the F-700 spindle moulder; and AD-41 thickness planer. To this were added hot and cold presses from Orma, Woodmaster and Jai Industries. It has also deployed Cefla’s Kleen Spray system for PU coating.

India Vs China

South-East Asian countries, especially China, had an advantage because the West offered investments in technology for cheap Chinese production to service the huge market demands in Europe and North America, Narsi notes. So the Chinese and Malaysians adopted the latest technologies, used the best material, and deployed software to achieve mechanisation, automation and industriali-sation in furniture making.

“India suffered because we did not have a big market. So there was no incentive to invest in good machinery, or software, or source the best raw material, or use state-of-the-art consumables,” he adds. Moreover, there was a tendency among Indians to make a quick buck in trading, rather than invest money in manufacturing.

“But this is no longer the case,” Narsi smiles. “The Indian market itself is booming. We now also have the world’s best material suppliers – such as Greenply, Merino Laminates and Century Plyboards – who make excellent plywood, veneer and laminated boards, which they export across the world.”

He also wants machinery, hardware, fittings and accessories to be made in India. “Yes, we have some entities (among them Ebco, Hettich, Biesse, etc.) that manufacture here; but what we need is an entire industrial-scale infrastructure to meet the various requirements of interiors: metal work for furniture, aluminium for skirting and ceiling systems,” he feels.

The trends in the interiors sector, particularly office and retail spaces, is changing very rapidly. “We used to finish a project in six months, but nowadays clients want quick setups – they want their premises ready in two days!” Narsi says. There are more agile systems that are replacing contemporary designs; there is minimal use of material; and many office configurations are becoming more “open”.

Skill development

Narsi believes the country needs thousands of youth to be trained and certified. He should know – he employs 3,000 carpenters, interior and product designers and civil engineers in his Rs. 400-crore company!

He agrees with the Furniture and Fittings Skill Council (FFSC) estimate that India requires 50 lakh skilled and certified people for the woodworking industry alone. He is happy with the leadership of its CEO, Mr. Gurpal Singh, who has launched many schemes across the country. “For the first time in independent India (70 years), there is a Union ministry for skill development and entrepreneurship,” he exclaims.

However, mere statistics don’t impress him, nor does he get carried away by rhetoric. He is of the firm opinion that initial skilling and certification must be followed with continuing education. “Ultimately the youth must be trained and equipped to start their own factories and run their own enterprises,” he says.

In his upcoming new factory in Navi Mumbai, Narsi has allocated more than 2,000 square feet of space to skill development, of his own employees as well as those seeking such education and training.

“’Make in India’ is very essential for us,” he says. That is the only way to keep up employment, achieve self-sufficiency, develop the economy, and emerge as a manufacturing powerhouse in the furniture sector. “I can say that when it comes to skills and talent, Indian carpenters can do better than global standards,” he insists.

Success & future

Narsi counts the blessings and support he received from his clients – from multinationals like Amdocs, Credit Suisse, Citibank  and UBS, to Indian entities like Infosys, Kotak Bank and Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) – as central to his success. In particular, he has derived encouragement from their long business relationships and belief in ‘Make in India’.

He credits Mr. Ramdas Kamat (who heads infrastructure projects at Infosys), Mr. B.V.M. Sharma (infrastructure head at TCS), and Mr. Ravi Sarangam (architect with Edifice Consultants Pvt. Ltd.) with sharing knowledge about project management and the nuances of procurement, back-end operations, etc.

Within the company, he attributes success to the collaboration between his teams that design interiors, engineers who execute projects and the expertise of his carpenters and factory employees. That is the reason his companies have been consistently registering a growth of 20% year-on-year.

He also places great importance on quality of work/products, timely completion/delivery of projects, and a clear focus on good service. But he places personal and professional integrity above all else – honesty with oneself and one’s staff, clients and suppliers, architects and associates.

He is largely influenced by Infosys founder, Mr. Narayan Murthy. Like him, Narsi wants to give back to society. “I know one entity cannot make an entire industry grow,” he says. “But as a leader, I am duty-bound to find ways to facilitate growth, improve standards and set a course for global recognition.”

He is ready to rope in other interior firms and furniture manufacturers to act as mentors and facilitators in helping start-ups with project planning and management, technical and financial feasibility studies, financial and marketing assistance. That, he says, is his next goal in his professional life.



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