Harveer Sahni: I live labels, I dream labels

This year’s R Stanton Avery Global Achievement Award has been bestowed on Weldon Celloplast’s chairman Harveer Sahni, the first Indian to be a recipient of the award. When Noel D’Cunha spoke to Sahni, he said he is “exhilarated and overwhelmed” since he was the first Indian ever to get this prestigious award

21 Jul 2022 | By Noel D'Cunha

Harveer Sahni of Weldon Celloplast

A chemistry graduate, Sahni began his career in 1971, working in his father’s stationery company, Weldon Sales Corporation. From being a company making just fountain pen inks, office adhesive and hair fixers (used by Sikhs), Sahni added different varieties of inks, industrial adhesives, injection moulding, blow moulding, plastic scales, artist materials, ball pens, and  adhesive tapes to the company’s portfolio. 

“Weldon in stationery was a household brand built by my father. I only kept adding items to the range. I later transformed Weldon into a brand recognised widely in the label industry,” says Sahni.

Sahni’s blog in which he writes about the self-adhesive label industry in India and world has over 200 articles on success stories, technology, market size and events, among other topics. The blog has close to five-lakh page views this year. Besides, Sahni also sits on the board of directors of Label Manufacturers Association of India (LMAI), supporting and mentoring the association. “As a director, I try to curate and organise events that drive value for label printers,” he says.

Sahni’s journey has been long – over 45 years. “Initially, it was transforming manufacturing processes conforming to technology changes happening in the western world. Then it was my networking capabilities to grow my friendship worldwide with global leaders in the label industry,” Sahni says, adding, “I live labels, I dream labels, I continue to learn labels, and network with label industry peers.”

Label production – coming of age
Sahni took the opportunity to reflect about India’s labels journey. He shares with PrintWeek, “In those days, labels meant stickers, mostly for advertisements and stationery applications. A majority of the small factories produced these stickers through the manual process by screen printing it. In the decades of the 1970s and 1980s, compact five-inch narrow-web flatbed presses from the eastern part of the world entered India. And then, by the turn of the century, flexographic printing on 10-inch rotary presses arrived. Soon, there were giant strides in pre-press, plate-making, inks, press design and anilox rollers, and flexo labels became a dominant technology. Today, the presses are hybrid and they incorporate multiple printing technologies.

Also, the presses are getting wider and are up to 670mm.”

Sahni feels the evolution from wet glue to pressure sensitive adhesive (PSA) labels has been slow and steady along with the transformation and evolution of labeling technologies. Sahni says, “From the initial flatbed printing it has advanced. Now, we see a combination of printing, embellishing and converting processes on a single machine in a single pass. The Indian label industry has become segmented with different label printers catering to different and diverse industry segments.”

He adds, “The Indian label industry does not lag behind the rest of the world. Our label collaterals are comparable to the best in the world in terms of quality.” He feels, “If there is a difference, it may be in the economies of scale and the diversity of printers from obsolete to most modern.”

Sahni explains how the manufacturing processes conformed to technology changes, which transpired in the western world. These included change in silicone chemistries, using different substrates as release liners, and change in adhesive technologies. Today, he feels, the factories are evolving – flexo presses are being automated, there are end-to-end production lines, a fusion of flexo and digital that’s capable of short-run to ultra long runs. Sahni says, “It’s each printer to his own – depending on their customer profile.” For example, those catering to variable and short print runs have deployed digital capabilities.

Sahni adds, “Brands love digital, but they use it sparingly due to the high cost involved at present in producing digitally printed labels. Where there is need for variable printing, they have no other option than digital printing, but for their larger needs it is still flexo. There is enormous traction,” he says, adding, “This will multiply.”

Meanwhile, those catering to the wine and liquor segment require sophisticated embellishing capabilities. Sahni says, everything is dictated by “the market needs”. And so, it becomes imperative for label print CEOs to invest suitably, or else “they know they will be left behind.”

About the R Stanton Avery Global Achievement Award

The award to Weldon Celloplast’s chairman Harveer Sahni was made by the global awards panel of judges comprising Lori Campbell, chairman of TLMI, Linnea Keen, president of TLMI, Philippe Voet, Finat president, Greg Hrinya, editor of Label & Narrow Web, James Quirk, content director at Labels & Labeling, and Jean Poncet, editor-in-chief at Etiq+Pack.

Sponsored by Avery Dennison, this award reflects the values and vision of Stan Avery and his innovative breakthroughs that founded the label industry.

Andy Thomas-Emans, Labelexpo global series strategic director and chair of the judging panel, commented, “The judges felt Harveer Sahni met all the criteria for excellence demanded by the industry’s most prestigious award for an individual’s global contribution to the growth and development of the labels industry. His history in building a company to manufacture self-adhesive labels in India, through to his central role in building the Indian label association and then acting as an influential ambassador on the world stage, all helped the judging panel to come to their decision amongst a field of excellent candidates.”

The number crunching
In 2003, Sahni made a presentation about the Indian market size at the Cham Symposium at St Moritz Switzerland. His presentation created ripples because of his projections. “It became a launch pad for India to be noticed by the rest of the world,” Sahni claims.

And so, two decades later, we requested Sahni to do some number-crunching.

He says, “The Indian label market has been achieving double-digit growth. I am sure the growth of all PSA labels in India is in excess of 15%. And out of this, 5% of the total market is digitally printed labels.” Sahni says his personal guesstimate is that the digital label market is growing at a CAGR of 17-20%.

He says, “The Indian industry grew in and around the metros, so the printers in these centres have had a head start. Thereafter, it has spread to the interiors of India.” However, Sahni adds, “The business size does not match those who have been present in the market for a long time. Yes, it is true the numbers are growing, but the talent pool of the label industry remains in the golden triangle.”

Opportunity in the bag
When PrintWeek prodded Sahni further, he said, “When we scrutinise the topline, the number is confirmed to 70 firms. These are factories with multiple lines and boast of international label presses. If you consider those firms with multiple Indian and
Chinese presses (not single press owners), the number may swell to 100 to 125.” Then there are the smaller firms that have mushroomed in the smaller towns, and these may add up to 1,000-2,000 firms.

Sahni feels, “The base has not grown exponentially despite the growth in the market size of labels.” 

This is because the new entrants at grassroot levels or those migrating from the offset print sector or flexible packaging are entering in labels. These firms have one or two presses. “In the next few years, we will see these numbers being boosted; and that’s how the top line will grow,” he adds.

Sahni agrees that the two pandemic years have stalled the label march. But he is bullish, since investments are happening. He says, “The total number of label printers (big and small) is growing.”

When asked about financial feasibility vis-a-vis the thin margin of profit in the label business, Sahni says, “For starters, finance schemes are not as difficult as they were. Also, the print promoters who are innovative and possess advanced capabilities are able to maintain healthy bottom lines. As a result they do not find it difficult to implement new technologies.”

Sahni’s mantra: The fitter they are, the better they get. He explains, “Label manufacturers need to have a product mix that caters to better total revenue and robust profits so as to service the debt or return on investment.” It’s as simple as that.

In another dimension
Is it time to bid Harveer Sahni adieu? Not really. He has been a busy man. Weldon is now being handled his younger son, KD Sahni, while Pawandeep, the elder son is the managing director of Omet India. That leaves him time to indulge in promoting the Indian label industry.

Sahni is a director of LMAI. It is the time to adorn the hat where he supports and advises the LMAI for “the betterment of the industry and also try, curate and organise events that drive value for label printers.” LMAI hosted two webinars plus a networking meet for members on 13 June 2022.

Sahni is planning to host a panel discussion in New Delhi on what the print buyers need from label printers. “This will be a promotional event for Labels Awards Night. Later, on the sidelines of Labelexpo India, a Label Awards night will be 
held. Last time we had 700 delegates. In 2022, there will be many more. And then in July 2023, it is time for the LMAI label conference,” says Sahni.

Three talking points with Harveer Sahni

Linerless labels
There is a lot of work being done. Recently, Avery acquired Catchpoint to grow the linerless business. But given the cost of new label application or dispensing equipment and specific needs of special shapes, the growth is presently slow. Eventually, as the application evolves and  due to environmental, sustainability and waste management concerns, the growth will start happening.

Label waste in PSA is almost 50% of all labelstocks. For the larger part of the label industry, label printers are not much up to it. It is a fact that will be and to some extent is presently being promoted by print buyers. The effort has to be stepped up across all stakeholders. Logistics due to the industry being fragmented and spread across the country is a challenge.

The smaller size of units and their low volumes does not make recycling financially very viable. Having said that, efforts are being made. There is a need for regulatory measures and government support in this area. 

Flexo vs gravure
Flexo is likely to eat into the gravure segment due to improved results because of advanced pre-press and plate making, wider presses, faster changeovers, quick set-up and short runs.

A unique contribution
What makes a person’s contribution to the print industry ‘great’ anyways? There’s no definitive answer to the question. But by becoming the first Indian to be bestowed with the R Stanton Avery Global Achievement Award, Sahni has made a unique contribution to the Indian label industry.

PrintWeek congratulates Sahni and applauds the role he has played in furthering the interest of the Indian label industry.n