Harveer Sahni traces Zircon's journey

Harveer Sahni is the managing director of Weldon Celloplast in New Delhi. In this article, he traces the story of Dehradun-based Zircon, from it's inception to its evolution into a million dollar entity.

05 Dec 2013 | By PrintWeek India

T R Sondhi, a retired bureaucrat of government of India, is a God fearing man and an ardent follower of Lord Shiva! He is a dedicated family man and wanted his children to have proper education and get good jobs to lead a simple and comfortable life. His elder son Sanjeev was always very close to him but also gave him nightmares as he was growing up. Sanjeev a mediocre student at school did all the mischief’s that boys his age would indulge in and more. He would not do his home work attracting his teacher’s wrath and would bunk school to see movies. He would run away on the sly to not only watch Ram Leela, an Indian religious epic that is dramatized in colonies all around the country days before Diwali, but also acted as a religious character in them.

When the news reached the modest T R Sondhi, he would lose his temper and Sanjeev was the recipient of punishments delivered in anger. In the western world such outburst by parents would attract legal implications but in India children have the heritage to accept it as love and compulsion of parent’s aspirations for their children to succeed in life. A worried father wondered what his son will become.

As children grow into adolescence followed by teen years, they start to mellow down and start getting into a shell of their own. They are dreaming everything from fun to future. They look at successful people around and at people who did not succeed. As Sanjeev was finishing school he too was restless. He saw many boys not too far away from him in age leaving colleges and taking up jobs for Rupees 2000- 3000 per month. At that point in his life he made his first commitment and career promise to himself that he will never take up a job like that and for that amount in his life! He would work 18 hours a day to find success. His father, a worried mentor was unsure what further education his son should pursue.

Sanjeev’s maternal uncle worked in Canada as an agricultural scientist and suggested to his brother in law T R Sondhi, to make Sanjeev study B Sc Agriculture and thereafter he would help him get a job in Canada. Sanjeev took up the course despite the fact that his heart was not in that. He did have a technical and innovative trait in him. At home he would repair electric irons, pressure cooker and other appliances. He loved to work on gadgets hands-on. He realized that agriculture was not what he was made up for.  He carried on with his studies till either he made up his mind or the right opportunity came along. He completed his masters in Chemistry and then MBA.
Sanjeev was undecided and restless on what he should do to move on in life so to initiate his career he took up a medical representative’s job with Glaxo in Kanpur. He worked hard and as he had promised himself earlier, he worked long hours. His mother would say, “Your Dad was committed to his job and worked long hours, I used to wait for him every evening to come back from work and now it is the same with you working long hours, I have to wait for you” However still they never stopped him from pursuing his ambitions. He switched jobs for better prospects and moved from Glaxo to Lupin labs. A hard working Sanjeev was restless once again and wanted to move on and take up a job in foreign lands.

His father and mentor T R Sondhi was a taskmaster but decided to support him. His only reservation was that his son should not go to Brazil because he felt the girls there would get to his son! Sanjeev left India in 1994. He travelled in South East Asia taking up various jobs making pharmaceutical product sales. Ten years down the line, Sanjeev realized he was stagnating, he realized his parents were missing him and were very possessive about him. Moreover he came to a conclusion that India now presented opportunities that did not exist before. He decided to quit all that he was doing at his last posting and returned to his homeland.

On return Sanjeev was faced with a strange dilemma, he could not find a job that would compensate him with an amount similar to the one he was drawing at Singapore. He was not wanting, to settle for less. His former employers wanted to start a grocery business in India and asked Sanjeev to head it. The business is something like modern day retail but delivered to home. The business appeared to succeed but yet again Sanjeev realized grocery and commodities was not his cup of tea. He wished to indulge in something in which there was technology involved and he would get a chance to test his creative skills.
Sanjeev Sondhi

After one year in 2004 Sanjeev started the bar-coding business, selling printers and point of sales accessories and soon realized that equipment sales were erratic with lots of empty spaces in between and for regularity of business he needed to also include consumables like barcode labels in his portfolio and thus he came into labels in an indirect manner. Initially he was out-sourcing the labels from other label printing companies and later started to get them printed on job work by supplying them raw material that he would buy from Avery Dennison directly. By this time his father’s faith in Lord Shiva had completely rubbed on to Sanjeev and he too believes that he is doing what the Lord wills for him. His faith has become so strong that anyone meeting Sanjeev is not greeted with a good Morning or a Namaste or a plain Hello but by “Jai Bhole Ki” (Victory to Lord Shiva, lovingly referred to as Bhol’e).
The Zircon Dehradun Unit
Two years later the ambitious streak in Sanjeev made him restless yet again, He was growing in business slowly and steadily but the high growth that he had envisaged could not be sustained by producing just plain labels. He had to move forward to add more value to his offerings. He decided that he had to get into manufacture of labels himself, not just plain labels but printed and with special features.

For inspiration he looked at profiles of other companies. He was highly impressed to note that a company like RR Donnelly could drive-in sales of 7 billion US dollars from printing business. He felt if they can do it, why I cannot attempt to achieve it. Obviously there is enough space in a growing market like India. He made his second commitment to himself that as a first step he has to reach a sale of 7 million US Dollars. With a target in mind to achieve, he started planning his label project. He was sure he could not tread the path to success with piecemeal approach.

Unlike other entrants in labels who buy a small label press, add slitter/rewinder later, then plan a packaging arrangement and so on, Sanjeev planned to select the best and proven international equipments. All in one go. Most entrants first try and approach the pharma companies to reach their breakeven point with new investments, Zircon (as he decided to name his project) was lead on to attempt the more difficult and demanding FMCG consumer product labels. He was aware of the fact from day one that if he had to sell to large FMCG companies and multinationals, he will have to get his plant audited by them. He was not going to settle for something that would get his facility rejected. He was quite inexperienced in printing but the yearning to learn was prevalent and he acquired the knowledge quickly. People wondered how he will succeed when he asked them how many colours we need to print a picture.

The interaction with industry suppliers and industry peers was helpful in the initial stages. In the year 2006 Zircon Technologies India Limited formally entered into the field of high-end printed product labels from their plant located at Dehradun in the state of Uttaranchal. Their first label press was an eight colour Mark Andy 2200 along with a Rotoflex/Rewinder/inspection system. He understood that for good printing, he needed good printing plates, so he sourced them from the best suppliers. To prove, that he was going to be ahead of others, at a time when the industry was using 1.7mm plates, on suggestion from DuPont he started with 1.14mm plates.

The industry across the country was largely printing 133 LPI he started to print 175 LPI. Anilox is a very important part of the flexo printing process and to have a clean anilox is an imperative for the quality conscious printers. There are many in the industry, who clean their aniloxes manually using solvents but Sanjeev did not compromise and bought an Alphasonics anilox cleaner. He was a late entrant and had to stand up to the established players in the industry. He had to be suitably if not better equipped.

Sanjeev’s startup had no time to fail and falter and then evolve. To be able get things right from day one he hired trained and experienced people. Understanding the need for meeting the challenge of operating in a distant location and facing a breakdown, even though all his equipment were new and under warranty, his second employee was a maintenance engineer who still works for him.  Zircon was in production from the word go. He himself was an experienced sales person so sales were also not difficult to generate. In 2007 with just one label press at that time the Zircon facility was audited and approved by 15 companies in India. No wonder when I asked him what was his first label and the difficulties faced in creating his first label, he had no answer. He faced no problem and no difficulty, the first label produced was well accepted by the customer and there has been no looking back.
Sanjeev & the new Omet-Varyflex at Dehradun
Thereafter Zircon has continued to upgrade, innovate and expand. They keep investing in new and modern equipments to achieve enhanced capabilities. For Sanjeev it has been and still continues to be a continuous learning process. He spends a lot of time in his lab and with his team in creating new products and innovations. When a new customer comes to Zircon besides offering to do their existing labels, Zircon commits themselves and their infrastructure to the customers need for up gradation and innovation.

Sanjeev has in the last few years sharpened not only his manufacturing skills but his capability do create pioneering security and anti counterfeiting solutions. His technical excellence is evident; six years ago he started by printing 175LPI and now he claims to be one of the few companies around the world who print 230 LPI. He has applied for two global patents and four patents in India two of these patents have been published. Zircon has licensed four security design technologies to a company operating globally and located in Europe under royalty agreement.

They are India’s first Esko HD-Flexo certified Label Printing Company. Zircon presently employs 250 people and operates with multiple label presses out of three plants occupying a covered area of 55,000 sq/ft which is being expanded to 90,000 sq/ft in the near future. Two of these plants are in Dehradun and one in Chennai. They have seven sales offices spread across India.

They have complete prepress and plate making systems for letterpress and flexographic printing in-house from Esko and Flint. All three plants have fully equipped laboratories to assist them in research and development work. The icing on the cake came this year when Zircon acquired perhaps the largest label press in India a 430mm Omet Varyflex. It is a highly loaded press incorporating a combination of flexo and rotogravure printing technologies. The press has been built and configured to some proprietary web passes and attachments as per Sanjeev’s designs. It is a fully servo driven press having automatic registration control with facility to print back and front in a single pass. The press can print from 12 micron film to 600 micron board. With this press in operation Zircon has enhanced capabilities to produce not just labels but also shrink sleeves and folding cartons.
Sanjeev is satisfied that he has achieved both the commitments he made to himself. He never took a low paying job and he has surpassed the first goal of reaching the 7 million dollar sales. It is time to move ahead and he feels in five years he will be a total packaging solution provider catering to customer needs from labels, shrink sleeves, folding cartons, flexible packaging and micro flute monocartons. He intends to introduce security features in all packaging supplied by him ensuring a degree of protection to his customer’s brand as also driving value for the consumer who will buy the packaging along with the product.

New plants will be coming up in Dehradun and west India ensuring a pan India presence and service to multi-location customers. He hopes to reach a level of Rupees 250- 300 crores in sales in five years time. Working at multiple locations and travelling all the time, takes a toll on one’s personal life. His wife Poonam has supported him all along. His mother feels earlier she used to wait for him and now, Poonam does that, however both have no complaints seeing the level of commitment he has towards his work. His only son, Sanchay, is pursuing Business management at Symbiosis Institute in Noida. The young lad is being mentored to become a leader but the father firmly believes Sanchay has to prove himself.

A self made first generation entrepreneur Sanjeev Sondhi is only 44 years old and there is no plan of resting with his achievements. He is extremely grateful to his former employers, Industry friends, suppliers and Zirconians, as he calls his team. Without whose efforts neither the past was possible in a short span of six years nor can the future be achieved. Having said that he goes into a pensive mood he says, “My father put me on the road where God’s blessings come on their own…Jai Bhole Ki!”