Hunsurply points to the way forward

One of the oldest surviving plywood manufacturers in South India, Hunsurply is all set to expand. A movement by its Managing Director, Mr.Moiz S. Vagh, to bump up cultivation of Meliadubia (locally known as Kaadubeevu), is beginning to bear fruit. Kaadubeevu and Silver Oak are now in adequate stock to feed the plywood industries around South India, he told Roy Thomas in a tete-a-tete.

Hunsurply’s Founder and Managing Director, Mr MoizVagh (right) is now assisted by his son, Mr Aziz Vagh.

The plywood industry in India was set up primarily to cater to the requirements of plywood chests used for exporting tea from Assam, West Bengal and Kerala. As per records, the first two plywood factories in the country were set up in Assam in1923-24.

Globally, the first mention of plywood dates back to 1870, when the process of using a rotary lathe veneer manufacturing is described. Subsequently, plywood was introduced into the United States in 1865 and industrial production started shortly after. In 1928, the first standard-sized 4’x8’ plywood sheets were used as a general building material.

Plywood is an engineered wood from the family of manufactured boards which includes medium-density fibreboard (MDF) and particle board and has many structural advantages. Plywood has been proven to be stronger than steel and a great variety of products in various sizes and shapes can be manufactured.

Early days

The small town of Hunsur, where the Hunsur Plywood Works is located, appears stuck in a time warp with its quaint tiled buildings and languid and leisurely pace of life.

Established in 1946 as Coorg Timber And Plywood Corporation, it was set up, along with Western Indian Plywood which was set up in 1945, to meet the growing plywood requirements of the tea industry in South India, and can definitely claim to be one of the earliest factories in South India.

Hunsur was selected as the location by virtue of its geographical proximity to the forests of Chikmagalur and Coorg, two important sources of raw material.  In 1961 Coorg Timber and Plywood Corporation, which was running into losses, was taken over by the Vagh family to become Hunsur Plywood Works Pvt. Ltd.

Mr.Moiz S. Vagh, the soft-spoken Managing Director who has been working in the company since 1963, says that the factory was dilapidated and run down at the time of the takeover. Coming from a family that had been trading in hardware, it was a steep learning curve for him.

The family had, till then, been involved in the business of supplying hardware to one the largest tea companies in South India, the KannanDevan Hill Produce Company. Realising that there was a requirement for plywood to manufacture tea chests they explored the possibility of taking over a running factory and eventually bought over this loss-making unit.

The total factory production at that point in time was around 1,500 square metres comprising of mainly 4-mm plywood. Gradually, from just plywood for tea chests, the company started deploying the slicing machine, which was hardly being used till then, and began the manufacture of commercial and decorative plywood, which is now the mainstay of the business.

After the takeover the company was revamped thrice and new machinery installed. Today, the expanded plant has an approximate 60,000 square feet area built on a 3-acre site.

Raw material

“Procurement of raw material was the biggest problem and was a constant headache,” recollects Moiz, “Timber was mainly sourced from private forests and plantations. Since our emphasis on quality was non-negotiable, good timber had to be sourced for the factory. This was a very difficult and hindered any plans for expansion.”

Even now a lot of emphasis is on quality: for instance while the price for 18-mm plywood in the market is Rs. 55-65 per square foot, Hunsurply is sold at a premium of Rs.100-110 per square foot because of its quality.

Later, the government allowed the Forest Department to give large tracts of forest land or ‘coupe’, for the harvesting of timber. Each tract of land was in the region of 4,000 acres with each coupe being around 80 acres; but accessibility to many of the areas was extremely difficult.

Roads had to be laid to these forest areas by the concessionaires and elephants were used to move the logs after it was cut. Finally, heavy-duty, four-wheel-drive trucks were used to move the logs to the factory.

The company paid great attention to conservation and the health of the forests and only 5-6 trees per acre were harvested. The Forest Department also ensured that replanting was done to compensate for trees cut. “We practiced sustainable forestry even then,” remarks Moiz, who is passionate about conservation.

Only around 5 months of the year (November to May) were available for the felling of trees as these coupes were located in high rainfall areas that experience over 150 inches during the monsoons. The reasonable cost of the logs, which were fixed by the government, made sourcing from these evergreen forests attractive.

The wood that was preferred was from species such as Kalpine (gurjan), Velapine, Pandapine, pali and jungle mango.

However, in 1983 the Government banned the extraction of timber from forests in an attempt to protect them. Subsequently, timber became exponentially more expensive as sources dried up.

The company then started sourcing timber from Burma (now Myanmar) and the logs were brought to Mangalore port. Timber was also sourced from Central India and Madhya Pradesh.

Earlier, the company was into the manufacture of marine plywood which was exported to several countries. Teak plywood was also manufactured and was in great demand.

“Even now dealers in Iraq and Bharain talk about Hunsurply’s Swan brand, which was very popular and the company won several awards from the government for export promotion,” Moiz recollects.

Ensuring quality

“Ideally, for producing quality plywood the timber has to be brown, the four sides should be clear and it should not be hardwood. The density of the wood should be around 0.5 -0.7 g/cm3 but more importantly it should be peelable,” he notes.

This kind of wood is available only in the evergreen or semi-evergreen forests. According to Moiz, to produce good quality veneer, teak, rosewood, mahogany and beech are the best. These are procured from certified African and European plantation timber suppliers.

Stepping into the factory one notices a number of American black walnut and white oak logs in the yard that are being prepared for processing. The factory is equipped with a comprehensive range of quality machines that are required to ensure a good product.

These include guillotine machines, cross-feed and zig-zag splicers, core jointing machines, sanders, glue spreaders, presses, roller driers for thick veneers and chain driers for thin veneers.

Once inside the factory the log is subject to various processes that include cross-cutting, slicing and peeling (0.6mm gauge), clipping, drying, gluing, hot press treatment, trimming and sanding before the layers of veneer are converted into plywood. Finally the finishing, grading, inspection of the finished plywood is carried out before it is despatched to Hunsurply’s depots and distributors.

‘Miracle tree’

The unified Goods and Services Tax (GST) has been a boon for the industry after the tax rate was reduced from 28% to 18%. However, the government’s insistence on phyto-sanitary clearances for imported timber causes delays and consignments are sometimes stuck at the port of arrival for long time.

Although trained labour is potentially a problem with demographic changes that are seen over the country, the company has, till date, prevented attrition with excellent management practices that ensures the labour force is well looked after.

Quality has always been a top priority for the business, and this has been achieved at Hunsurply by proper training, supervision and imparting of knowledge.

Currently, Hunsurply has been managing with imports and locally sourced Silver Oak (Grevillearobusta) from plantations in southern states. Moiz, who has been involved in social forestry for over 30 years, has identified Meliadubia as one the species ideal for growing throughout the country. Today, it is being touted as the ‘miracle tree’ that should help solve the shortage of raw material for the plywood sector.

As a board member of Indian Plywood Industries Research and Training Institute (IPIRTI), Moiz has encouraged deeper research into this species and it is already being grown is several areas of the country. Meliadubia belongs to the neem family and has inherent anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties that prevent termite infestation.

The use of formaldehyde – a colourless, potentially carcinogenic, water-soluble gas – in the manufacture of glue is another challenge the plywood sector must address, Moiz says.

Hunsurply, he says confidently, uses glues that have been developed in-house, and have emissions that are well within safe parameters.

Plywood market

“The market will never be a problem,” feels Moiz, “This is a country of 1.3 billion people. In the earlier days people had a solid wood fixation and plywood was considered as second-rate material. Today, this perception has changed and plywood has found its deserved place in the furniture market.”

Hunsurply has a strong dealer network in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. “We focus on carpenters, interior decorators and architects to provide the necessary push. B2B channels are also used to sell our products in a limited way,” he says.

Expansion plans

“Expansion is very much on the cards as our survival depends on this,” notes Moiz, “Our factory capacity, which is currently 4,000 square metres per day, has to be increased, and more systems have to be put in place while ensuring the quality that ‘Hunsurply’ brand is known for, is available at competitive prices.”

A Chinese peeling machine has already been installed and the order for an imported core composing machine has been placed. Drying capacity is to be doubled and higher capacity driers have also been ordered,

When all the machines are in place the management anticipates that the turnover, which is currently around Rs. 40 crore, will have doubled.

Moiz, who is now assisted in running the company by his son, Mr. Aziz Vagh, notes that in the 1970s the United Nations had declared the Hunsur factory as a model for the plywood industry in India.

He takes equal pride in the fact that Hunsur Plywood Works has spawned five new businesses related to the wood industry. Today, the Rs. 200-crore Vagh Group, run by members of Vagh Family, has activities that include manufacturing of doors and frames, decorative veneers, finger-jointed boards, furniture handling equipment and veneer moulded components. “We will continue to grow and provide quality products to the market,” he concludes.

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