Obituary: Sanat Shah of Manugraph (1932-2023)

Sanat Shah, chairman emeritus of Manugraph sparked a revolution in how the Indian newspaper industry performed. He helmed Manugraph and served the industry for seven decades. A tribute by Ramu Ramanathan

11 Aug 2023 | By Ramu Ramanathan

Sanat Shah: A master newspaper press builder, who re-invented the way newspapers were printed around the world

For Manugraph and Sanat Shah, it all began as importers of printing machines. However, due to the acute foreign exchange crisis, imports were restricted for a few years. With large overheads of salesmen and engineers, Sanat Shah thought about manufacturing print machines. In those days, precision machinery was not manufactured in India. Even Fiat and Ambassador cars being produced were created with outdated designs. Perhaps, HMT was producing machine tools of above-average quality.

That's when Sanat Shah took up the challenge. During one of our chats in the Manugraph headquarters in Colaba, he shared, "One thing was sure, that if I produced on my own, the quality should be of international standard. I also knew I'd have to tie up with an overseas manufacturer to build quality machines."

Sanat Shah tried to tap manufacturers in Japan, West Germany and the USA. Finally, he succeeded in his mission with an East German company, and thus started the newspaper journey, of course, under a collaboration. Sanat-Bhai said, “The East German company laid down the condition that it will give knowhow to manufacture offset presses, provided we start with letterpress first. “What?” I said. Letterpress was being phased out in the world, and here was this ridiculous condition.”

But the East Germans had a reason. The logic was: Manugraph had to learn the art of producing high-quality machines. Sanat-Bhai explained to me, “Printing machines are not like textile and machine tools; they have a much higher level of accuracy. The precision in a printing machine is on par with the aeronautical industry”. That’s how Sanat-Bhai started with the OM-2 as per the agreement, then the web offset RO-62, followed by the blanket-to-blanket eight-page Zircon.

The year was 1971.

What happened, then?

Sanat-Bhai chuckled, "When the news spread that I was starting with letterpress, there was shock and surprise. Many questions were raised as to why I was embarking on this journey. The jury was out that the project would be a failure. Our engineers underwent rigorous training on how to produce printing machine parts with high precision; each and every part had a drawing, including an assembly drawing. The machines were assembled strictly according to the details given in the sub-assembly and main assembly drawings. The first commercial letterpress machine, OM-2, was produced in June 1975, almost three years after laying the company's foundation stone."

These were the little nuggets that Sanat-Bhai shared during these meetings.

But it was not only about Manugraph. There were digressions about life in Mumbai after India gained independence. He remembered the particularly hot summers. He recalled the economics of a cup of tea as well as a tonne of paper, plus stories about boarding a flight to Moscow. Also, the rupee was weak and forced his hand, every time. 

In all this, my memory of Sanat-Bhai was: always helpful, illuminating and, most importantly, one step ahead of the rest of the pack.

I knew from many others that he was a larger-than-life legend, But he was very happy to share insights and anecdotes from his 70 years of business in the printing industry with an absolute newbie like me. He discussed the crisis in 2008-09 over cups of beverage, served with old-world charm.

He said, “The period between 2004-2007, the rise was phenomenal; there was so much of a boom that we did not have time to develop machines. Then all of a sudden, the economy plummeted. The experts told us, the American sub-prime crisis triggered it. And to add fuel to the fire, we acquired DGM in 2006, wherein we pumped Rs 100-crore in a bid to double our turnover. It was a time when we had to gather our resources to wriggle out of the crisis. It was because of our huge cash reserves and liquidity that we could sustain ourselves for almost 18 months.”

Luckily for Manugraph, the market picked up in September-October 2009, but Sanat-Bhai was not smiling.

When I asked him, if the newspaper market would pick up again, he said, yes, it will. But he added, “The newspaper and even publishing industry may not see that boom which India witnessed between 2004-2007.”

This prediction was made 15 years ago.

By then, Manugraph had seen demand pick up in India and Middle Eastern countries. Again, Sanat-Bhai had said, two decades ago, “The whole of Africa has potential.” Then there was Brazil, Columbia, and parts of South East Asia, like Indonesia and Malaysia. As well as, CIS countries like Russia were being driven by the humble 2x1 presses, that is, 4-page machines.

There were many things I understood about the industry, thanks to Sanat-Bhai (and indeed the Manugraph team in Mumbai and Kolhapur). The importance of spare parts and warranty services. How to prepare the finance documents to convince investors (in those banks were not willing to finance medium and small-sized organisations)?

Also, Sanat-Bhai had anticipated that there would be growth in India’s smaller cities and towns. He used to say, every time a new state is created or an election is round the corner, print flourishes.

He anticipated the boom in UV. He used to say, “The UV curing method for printing on glazed newsprint will be an attractive tool in the hands of newspapers.” The reason: it has become cost-effective compared to gas drier, which defies the pollution norms.

Manugraph exited from the sheetfed business quite early. Once I was with him, there was a Manugraph colleague from Nairobi. This gent was talking animatedly about 17-20 of Manugraph's sheetfed machines (the Commander, Pure 36, Pure 25) in that part of the world. The gentleman was asking why don't you manufacture PrintMagic, particularly for printing on boards. After he exited, I asked Sanat-Bhai, why don't you? He said, I don't think we would be able to sustain sheetfed. For starters, we will need volumes. Today's print firm CEOs want fully loaded machines. India will move in this direction, soon."

He added, "To make sheetfed machines, you must have volumes. You have to produce nothing less than 200 presses to be manufactured. I had the capacity to produce 400 presses in 1992. But there was a glut of secondhand machines coming; so how could I compete with those machines? And so, I had to sell 95% of my machines to customers outside India, to countries like Germany, France and America. I sold hundreds of machines. It was like carrying coal to a coal mine. I could sustain the Shiva sheetfed business because I could get a price for the presses."

Did he regret this decision?

No, Sanat-Bhai said, a good businessman cannot be sentimental. “One must see the writing on the wall.”

One of my favourite sessions with Sanat-Bhai was face-to-face with him and Pranav Parikh of TechNova in 2014. During those three hours of guftagu, Parikh traced his own journey from Printwell to TechNova to CTP plates. What emerged was how he had done all this in a simple and down-to-earth manner. When we asked him who his role model was, Parikh had replied, Sanat Shah of Manugraph. 

And after a pause, Parikh wondered, why many more Indian manufacturers have not emulated his business model or tried to match his success.

He invented swag before the word was born. My favourite Sanat-Bhai story is about when he signed the first deal in Stuttgart (in Germany), he was very happy to have signed a huge contract for an order. Sanat-Bhai did not care when he was dared; and he jumped into a very very cold swimming pool, stepped out nonchalantly, and inked the deal.

A genuine industry legend. 

Alvida Sanat-Bhai.