Paper delivers high value in the digital age - The Noel D'Cunha Sunday Column

Raju Suneja has every reason to celebrate. Sona Papers, where he is the director is striding ahead and feeling secure. Sona has turned 50, and it has been robust five decades for the specialty and fine paper specialist.

Suneja says, we have become a generic name for specialty grade paper. “Our customers at times do call us when they get an absolute non-standard requirement, asking us to either source it or provide with a near substitute,” he says.

But there are challenges and

28 Oct 2017 | By Noel D'Cunha

Printers have been growing exponentially. What about paper companies?
It’s good to hear that printers have grown exponentially. What we hear is the converse. Print publishing has been pegged at a growth rate of 6.8% pa (based on secondary data). Packaging and digital have seen a double-digit growth rate – 17% pa and 15% pa respectively (based on secondary data). This is a trend that we see will drive this industry.

In that sense have the past 12 months been tough?
The past 12 months have been difficult or perceived to be difficult has a connection with demonetisation and GST. Personally, I believe these steps are good for the industry as that would put everything on a common pedestal. The apprehension we hear is about the non-clarity of the GST system.

How many customers does Sona boast of?
With our network spread across the country, we have a sufficiently large database.

We believe that we still have a long way to go.

Which areas in India do you serve?
Our coverage is Pan India.

Which areas are you seeing a boom? 
Geographically and historically, North (New Delhi) and West (Mumbai) have been the largest contributors.

New growth towns?
The advent of easy access to newer technologies, we see CATB towns garnering growth in the digital segment. In the premium print and packaging segment, CATA towns will rule the roost for some time to come.

Which market is seeing an upward movement?
Packaging, definitely yes; digital, and premium print publishing.

Our team was present for your calendar launch during the 50th-anniversary celebration. Can we broadcast print’s positive stories, better?
Definitely. In print and packaging, we are no more laggards in terms of technology. The latest technology and machines are now available in India. Earlier, we would have been a decade or two behind in terms of technology and infrastructure being available. Today, we are on the same platform as developed nations. 

The threat from China?
Quality enhancements in terms of end-product delivery have ensured that luxury brands have moved sourcing base from China to India.

What about the gen next in print?
Today we see more ‘technocrats’ in the industry and second-generation entrepreneurs entering the business.

How have you managed small quantities of paper and competing in the commercial print market?
Like all premium products in their category, we compliment the commercial print market. One of our key factors of success has been addressing the small yet premium print product markets. Our basket is comprehensive to address all segments of the semi-premium, premium, and luxury print and packaging segments.

What're your chats with a typical customer like, these days?
We are service providers for the segment, and our success depends on the industries’ success. Conversations revolve around how we could work together to plug-in efficiencies in the processes.

How frequently do you engage with the machine manufacturers, pulp and the ink companies?
Our interaction is limited to our principals. We give them market feedback and exchange notes on various developments across the globe.

Which markets do you serve? 
The Indian sub-continent, and the GCC.

Why is the typical SME business owner in India struggling in this day and age?
As a nation, we will succeed only if we are process oriented. Our biggest bane is the ‘jugaad’ attitude. On the flip side, ‘jugaad’ does bring in innovation … but since we are not process oriented … we fail to convert that ‘jugaad’ into an efficient system by bringing it into the mainstream.

You have visited many paper mills? What are the trends you discern?
Yes, we do regularly. Paper mills overseas have a long-term perspective. This is what separates them from us.

When will India start seeing the type of automated paper warehouses like we have in Europe? 
When efficiencies in processes will become critical to success, survival, and innovation – we will see continuous improvement.

Sir, all the mega companies have a dubious green campaign. Many major banks, telecoms and utility companies have been saying ‘switch to digital – it’s better for the environment, don’t use print anymore’. Time for India to have a strong pro-paper lobby group like Two Sides to counter this lie?
To draw a parallel, when e-commerce was christened as the new economy, experts opined that ‘brick and mortar’ will cease to exist. It was then, and even now, I am of the firm opinion that both will co-exist in absolute terms. Going green has been misconstrued to using less paper. Going green’ is a comprehensive concept involving a host of other entities in the business and everyday life process. That is, saving on energy, water, paper not only in our work environment but everyday life.

How do you define green?
My understanding of going green is – appropriate usage of the various entities and not abuse them. Once we understand this and every single individual adheres to this in her / his own near environment, we would not need to lobby.

What’s been your proudest achievement in the past few years? 
We have become a generic name for specialty grade paper. Our customers call us when they get an absolute non-standard requirement, asking us to either source it or provide with a near substitute. We still have a long way to go.  

What’s your team’s favourite paper?
It’s not about any one paper being a favourite. The end-result of the print and packaging product is what gives our team the high.

Fifty years of Sona, what was the cost of paper in 1967?
Fifty years ago, the prices of commodities varied across the board. And so did the purchasing value of the rupee. It would not be appropriate to benchmark prices five decades ago.

What do you hope to achieve in the next fifty years of Sona in 2067? 
Other than sitting here and talking to you again on an international platform, we aim to make the graphic communication industry of India a global leader.