"I am hunting for more elephants"

Pragati Offset is a celebrity company – and director, P Narendra is its face. He unravels how his company got its reputation of being a world-class printer. WORDS. Ramu Ramanathan

27 Apr 2013 | By Ramu Ramanathan

Ramu Ramanathan (RR) Congratulations. Pragati has completed 50 years. How does it feel in terms of all the successes you have had and you started your studies at Manipal, did you envisage the journey that Pragati has undertaken?

Narendra Paruchuri (NP) When I went to invite Ramaji Rao of Eenadu, he said “it’s just like completing a century by taking singles”. But then each single we ran had 365 days. It’s been a long journey and the point is we never ever thought we would not complete 50 years in the print industry. But I must admit that this is a great milestone. I am happy, first because my parents who started this company are still with us and their blessings are with us – the middle generation. I am even happier that the next generation is in place and has the passion and ability to take Pragati’s endeavours forward.

RR: When PrintWeek India attended the Sappi function in 2011, you hosted the celebrations, twice. One of the functions was for your VIP guests and one with your team. It’s the same for your Golden Jubilee celebrations. And what is heartening to note is that the number of people in the hall were 1,800. There has been increase in your team size ...

NP: In the packaging unit, the growth has been much bigger and hence needs much more employee contribution. It’s a combination of western technology and Indian jugaad(in a good sense). We have about 1,800 employees working for us in the plants at Hyderabad and offices across India.

RR: There is something unusual with the process Pragati deploys for recruiting employees. Can you throw some light on this process of picking up boys “from the street”?

NP: We need personnel in the post-press department. These are not to run the Kolbus binding machine or our high-end machines. We need hands to complete work on danglers, catalogues, calendars, pouch pasting, etc. As you know, these are manual. So we are on the look-out for people and when these boys or girls are employed for work, their performance in terms of attendance, attitude and their ability to learn are observed for the next four-five months. After an assessment, those at the bottom of the lot, around 20%, leave, the middle ones continue to do what they are doing, while the top ones are shifted either on folding machines or printing machine, wherever there’s a bigger role for them.

RR: This is people power in the true sense ...

NP: I noticed a tagline on one of the low-cost airlines, SouthWest Airline, which said: ‘We recruit for attitude and train for skill. That I think is the key. In the first five months, we look-out for the attitude in the new recruits, and then put them through further training.

RR: Has this developed into a sense of Pragati loyalty?

NP: If you ask me, which is the engineering that is most important, I would say its human engineering. For me, someone is not a machine man, he is an integral part of us. He has to be happy and when he has any troubles, we try to help him, alleviate his problems to make him happy. We provide medical help to the employees, their families. My wife, who is a doctor, helps the cause. We also provide assistance for housing or education of their children. These are important things. Just because he is a machine man, I do not want his son to be machine man. We hope and pray that the next-gen achieves higher levels of profession. We have staff whose children have become engineers or doctors. When you become a part of their life then they also develop that feeling of “yeh company mera hai”.

RR: Again there’s an anecdote: when ITC Chairman Y C Deveshwar was taking a round with you in the press, he said, we use the same paper, the same ink, presses, so what is it that Pragati does differently. To which you famously remarked: “hum printing main jaan dalte hai”.

NP: As somebody once said: quality is not an accident; it’s a designed end-product. Each employee in our plants is doing his best and I sincerely think, that is the “jaan” he is putting in it. Many of our customers who come from all over the country, leave more than satisfied, because our employees have run that extra mile in creating a design or a job. We aim to exceed their expectation.

RR: We shift to Pragati’s track-record with Awards and the meticulousness with which you prepare for award entires.

NP: I think over the years we learnt it. First we pick the right jobs. These are jobs that strike you when you print it. These have to be cataloged and kept safely so that we can do the needful at the right time.  

RR: How do you define what is an award-winning job?

NP: When we see a job which impresses me, it should impress the judge. We have 50 to 60 samples to choose from.

RR: What is it that you try to highlight in an award. What are the parameters: aesthetics, value addition, print capability?

NP: It’s a team effort – the designer, paper, printer, everything put together. The fusion of all their efforts in an excellent output is the key. Sometimes, we find that just a four-colour print might not win an award. But if there is an embellishment or value-addition in terms of touch and feel, the involvement with the job becomes much higher.

RR: What according to P Narendra is the best print job from the Pragati stable?

NP: It’s our calendar. The reason is: we try to benchmark it against what we have. Also it’s our effort to win another Sappi elephant. If you ask me: how will you define my life from here on, I will tell you it’s been the same, it won’t change. I am hunting for many more elephants, and that defines the journey of Pragati and my life. If I think that I am going to win the elephant every year then I am a fool. But, would I compete every year, yes, that I will.

RR: What is the kind of timelines for a calendar?

NP: The idea and concept takes 10 months to develop, R&D another month and a half. It’s a great joy when the first calendar is bound and delivered on to my table. One of the toughest job we go through is our own calendar and that’s the reason we are attached to it.

RR: Please share with our readers the exceptional book that you produced as part of Rabindranath Tagore’s 150 birth anniversary?

NP: When the authorities came up with the idea of doing a four-volume 1,600-page compilation, we told them that we would like to do it in a different way. We procured a ColourChecker target and asked the photographer in Shantiniketan to place it next to the original painting in all their photoshoots. The paintings were all colour corrected in Hyderabad using the ColourChecker as a reference and then press proofed. We then had two of our colour correction specialists who visited Shantiniketan with all the files and highend workstations, and they fine-tuned the images looking at the originals. That’s how we got a close to perfect reproduction of Tagore’s work. Rabindranath Tagore is the first Nobel laureate and we wanted to do our best. I think, with this print job, Pragati has been involved in creating history, which will be there for posterity.

RR: Does this quality of work help Pragati create a brand?

NP: Yes. It opens doors both with corporate and government transactions. Over a period of time Pragati will earn money, but we want to keep enhancing our reputation.

RR: What deters Indian press owners from creating a brand?

NP: I would put it as follows. First, you have to a have strong belief in yourself. Second, is your profession. If you are a print service provider, you got to be the best. Never ever forget the fundamentals of business principles. The simple single goal of business is to make money. At the same be honest and straightforward in as much as the system allows you to be. Also, when you are running a small business, you are in a position to control many things personally, but as you grow bigger, you should have proper systems in place.  You have to lead by examples. Be a mentor to your employees.

RR: Your brother, Mahendra. What’s his role?

NP: We are two terminals of the same server. And I sincerely think what I know he knows. If I am not in office, he can deputise for me sitting my place. He is an extremely capable person. I don’t think I could have done without him or him without me. It’s as simple as that.

RR: We have heard stories about his visit to manufacturing factories abroad when buying a machine. It seems he can actually strip and machine and then re-assemble it. We’ve heard he has facilitated Pragati’s installations.

NP: Right from our very young age, we have been involved with the installation, maintenance and its upkeep and learnt a lot of about what a machinist would do, hands-on. So when it was time for us to install the first four-colour machine, we sent him to Miller and then to Komori.

RR: Your choice of presses has been unusual. Initially you focussed on Japanese technology when the rest of India was obsessed with German technology. There was this buzz that there’s a company in Hyderabad, doing fantastic award winning jobs on a Komori press.

NP: Being an engineer helped in the sense that we were studying machines and machine parts all the time. So when we look at it, the Japanese presses seemed better, the automation was higher, the cost was lower. When we opted for these presses, the results produced were better. From our point of view, these are zero-defect presses.  We moved from Komori to Mitsubishi presses, because of after-sales issues with Komori’s Indian representative and now Proteck is not handling Mitsubishi, though there is a new representative in place. But the good thing is that we have engineers who can service the machines.

RR: How do you decide configuration and sizes of a press?

NP: One of the good things in the last 20 years has been the software-based quotation. And so, our decision has been based on data. It’s not coming from anywhere, but our own data. So we know the right kind of machine to pick, which area of work needs a particular size of machine.

RR: You used the word zero-defect in one of our conversations. So typically, where are bottlenecks in your operations?

NP: It’s called the moving point. Sometimes it’s a 40-inch press, sometimes it is in the 28-inch press, sometimes in the folding, etc. We keep adding facilities to those areas where there’s up-and-down. In this way, the moving transition points are taken care of.

RR: You had once said, my ideal dream is to achieve zero-wastage. Is that possible? Do you have any formal waste-reduction programme?

NP: If we are all doing our jobs correctly, like producing the first sale copy within the accounted wastage sheets. For me, that’s zero-wastage. And by and large, we have been achieving. Every Saturday afternoon at 12.45pm we have a meeting, which everyone comes with a note of those few jobs which goes above the wastage limit and has to give reasons. The reasons are discussed and solutions suggested. We try to learn from our mistakes. The main thing is, the waste-reduction programme is an ongoing process. We want to reduce the wastage every time we go to production. It’s a learning process and we win somewhere, we lose somewhere.

RR: In terms of quality control (QC), is it independent of your production process?

NP:  I think every department has to have quality control and they should produce quality. We have one. For example, the pre-press department. Every morning, the department prints out a test chart on the proofers, and checks that the delta-E value is within the acceptable limits. This is done to achieve consistency and we also get repeatable and guaranteed results for the press to follow.

RR: How have you designed your QC system?

NP: On the press, we have densitometers, which check every 50th or 60th sheet. There are number of other thumb-rules that every department has to follow, including post-press.

RR: Even now in printing, would you say that 50% of problems arise due to mis-communication between the clients and the printer?

NP: In spite of having a robust communication system, there are communication failures, either from the clients side or within the departments in the plant. For example, a client would have suggested to the pre-press department to include a page change, who would have failed to inform the account executive. Therefore, the job ticket, goes without the necessary change suggested by the client. At times we may be in a position to correct, sometimes no. But it’s a problem we could do without. During the Saturday 12.45 post-mortem meet, we sort such issues.

RR: Of late, there are these international brands, which clamour for international standards. There are two theories doing the round – Indian standards. Or a blind allegiance to follow international standards. What is your preference?

NP: I sincerely think that all of us are working to ISO standards and we use those standards. Do we have a certificate to that effect, then the answer is no. But as I said earlier, we know our job better. Yes, standards are important to know what you are printing. But there are certain things the customers have to understand and as a service provider we help explaining it to our clients.

RR: In what way?

NP: For example the Pantone shade. The print buyer needs to understand how it would print on a certain type of paper and how would the result look.

RR: Shifting our discussion to packaging, you have created a certain type of niche in the space in a short time. How and why did you create Pragati Pack?

NP: We are not in the volume game. The point is Hyderabad is not a big manufacturing base except for pharma. In packaging even if do the regular run-of-the-mill jobs, it will not match up to volumes that players in Mumbai or Delhi would have. Though, the bread-and-butter still comes from label and cartons for the pharma sector at the same time, if I want clients from Mumbai or Delhi to come, I must offer something unique. That’s the difference we create at Pragati Pack. Yes, a majority of these jobs can be done by the local provider, but if there are special jobs we are open to them.

RR: The one thing that strikes me, is the huge amount R&D that goes into creating these super-speciality jobs ...

NP: Engineering design forms an extremely integral part of the packaging job. In every packaging job, design is the key. What we do is design products that keep the cost low, by using appropriate type of board and its thickness, etc. We make sure we design a snug-fit box that is sleek, strong as well as space saving. We do not take the responsibility of graphic design, which we expect the clients to do, because its subjective.

RR: You have started patenting the Pragati brand on the boxes. Has that been a conscious attempt at branding as well as to protect your patent?

NP: Intellectual property is a property worth preserving.  One, it adds to the value of the company and makes business sense. Two, it’s a pat on the back for the company.  These two things are very necessary and we are definitely looking to unveil to the world.

RR: How many product prototypes have you created?

NP: Three. These are patented or a patent has been applied for. One of the techniques for which we have applied for a patent is called Pragati Authenticate, which is printed with a near invisible ink. It is supplied with a special device, which when placed at the point will display/read its authenticity. Pharma companies were looking for something that is 100% tamper proof and when they saw the product, they jumped at it. According to reports, 40% of the pharma products are spurious. This is a huge loss and more than that to the buyer, it maybe something his health/life depends on. That’s why we will need many more anti-counterfeiting systems.

RR: How simple is this process?

NP: It is as simple as printing an extra colour. But the key is coding and the ink.

RR: We hear from pharma companies, that at some point of time, inserts and outserts would be available on the net. Will we also see a shift in that space?

NP: Because of the iPad, some volume of catalogues and brochures has shifted away from print. Can we complain? Change is the only constant thing around and we have to keep changing with the change. Similarly, forms and applications were a big business, now it’s online. Again, balance-sheets and annual reports were big, they are not that big now. So if inserts and outserts are available on the net, so be it. Online will play a role, but the greatest advantage for the printer is that tea and coffee or food items can never be consumed online.

RR: With you own specialisation with pre-press, post-press and IT, do you see a role for Pragati to play – after five years?

NP: The way the technology is exploding, five years seem to be a long way away. Ten years... I don’t even know, except that I’d be 69 years old. I only know that constantly changing with change is the only way to go. That said, I must say that we have a great advantage to leverage the technology we have. I am not going to fight technology, but will go with it. It’s foolish to fight technology.

RR: You’ve been operating in the commercial segment for a number of years, and adding to your infrastructure. You are one of the few players who had the foresight to see potential in the label segment? How so?

NP: In 1997, we started a partnership company called Walnut that did packaging. In 2000, we ended our partnership and started Pragati Pack. We were supplying most of the cartons to Dr Reddy’s Lab. One of the things that was coming from outside Hyderabad for Dr Reddy’s Lab was labels. So we set up the label plant. For which we installed a MPS press, then another MPS, and now an Omet. Therefore we could offers labels as a part of the complete chain of commercial and packaging products to the company.

RR: There’s a talk of the next Drupa being more of a flexo Drupa than an offset Drupa. Do you think that’s a likelihood?

NP: Some of the minus points is that as we go forward, the offset presses will become more expensive. The reason is the amount of technology that goes into building an offset press is far higher than a flexo press. An offset press has far more parts and complications than a flexo press. But the quality is also superior.  I don’t see offset presses going away. It’s going to be around.

RR: What about the demi sizes (576 x 670mm) in inkjet? Is A3 digital is tipped to replace offset. Possible?

NP: We must understand that in the west its $USD 25-50 per hour per person. Digital is catching up because print runs of 200-500 works out cheaper. Recently, Heidelberg gave a demo to show that printing 200 sheets on offset can be equally efficient. In India those numbers are even lower.

RR: But digital numbers are adding up; even in India ...

NP: We should use digital where it’s useful. Selling two or three copies, is not my cup of tea. A lot of people are talking about digital without mastering the art of pre-press.For me, that’s a great minus point. You must have an excellent pre-press to be a good digital print service provider. Take for example, Fred Poonawala of Comart in Mumbai. He can talk about digital because that’s his forte. He knows what’s right and what’s wrong. The unfortunate thing with all the digital manufacturers, sellers and buyers is that they are unnecessarily comparing digital with offset. There is a cross-over point, which is being marketed by everybody without taking into account the parameters like usage and application. In my opinion, digital will supplement offset and will co-exist, but it will not take-over.

RR: Every organisation has a hitch in a journey as long as 50 years. Looking back can you recall the challenges?

NP: We faced problems with personnel in key position, who left mid-way. The negativity in their thought process, was not conducive for Pragati’s smooth run. That has been one minus point. But I believe that in a firm which has 100 employees, if 98 are good, the other two do not matter. Even so, I have not given up my faith on people because when I say ‘Team Pragati’ I mean it because it’s the team which makes Pragati or not. I always give the example that Schumacher or Sebastian Vettel get to pop the champagne, but if the pit-crew is not able to change the tyre in six seconds, he would not be the champion. I believe your team makes the difference. I make sure my employees are comfortable and happy.