Print in Indore fears the pandemic aftermath - The Noel D'Cunha Sunday Column

Just as everyone thought the worst was behind us, a crippling second wave of Covid-19 has struck India.

In Indore most of the press owners and employees have contracted Covid-19. This has made things worse, says Swadesh Sharma of Atharva Packaging in Indore.

The vaccine drive maybe a light at the end of the tunnel, but in this Sunday Column, Sharma says, 2021 could be worse than 2020

25 Apr 2021 | By Noel D'Cunha

One more blow to print

PrintWeek (PW): How have the past 12 months been in Indore?
Swadesh Sharma (SS): Not different from the rest of India. Post the lockdown last year, except for the packaging units, all commercial and publishing units were shut for two to three months. Even after re-opening, most firms have been operating at one-third capacity as compared to before.

PW:  You shared a press statement with PrintWeek in which you say, “We, the printers, are facing an uncertain market behaviour regarding the pricing of raw materials. This started in October 2020. Today, not only the price but even the availability of paper and board is a huge challenge”. What was the response?
SS: The turmoil continues, if it hasn’t gone bad already. Recently the cost of UV varnishes got increased by 55-60 %. After a statement in PrintWeek, we hosted a press conference and released a presentation from the association regarding the price hikes to inform and spread awareness to our customers. This helped us to get approval for the price hike of our products.

PW: What is the situation now – due to the second wave of Covid-19?
 In Indore, most of the press owners and employees have contracted Covid-19. This has made things worse. The resurgence of print looks tough. Regarding the business scenario, 2021 is going to be more challenging due to the uncertain market behaviour and lockdown in various cities. The fear factor always works negatively in business as it affects the demand.

PW:  Under the circumstances, will firms in Indore invest more in technology – like workflow and finishing kit – and do away with dependence on people’s availability on their printing shop-floor?
The new generation joining the business is emphasising technology upgradation at all stages. However, at present, everyone is worried about the existence and survival of their businesses.

PW:  What was the financial impact of the pandemic on the Pithampur (SEZ) industrial city?
 Financial impact of the pandemic in Pithampur is negative in some sectors but better in other sectors like pharma and FMCG.

PW: Moving away from Indore, what are the trends you are picking up from fellow printers in other centres of Madhya Pradesh?
 Worse than the impact on Indore, as most of these centres have either publishing printers or commercial printers.

PW:  Grim.

PW:   A bigger question, then. Are we moving too slowly - as compared to the other industries? Is the B2B nature of the print business a challenge?
Not just B2B but it is the sheer nature of the printing and packaging business that poses a challenge. Although the print industry is among the top five sectors in terms of employment generation and cumulative turnover, it can’t grow beyond a certain limit. It has a straight-line growth.

PW:  Is this straight-line growth the reason why we don’t find many print companies listed on BSE/NSE?
 Yes. I get to see very few companies of our industry listed. Further, our industry doesn’t have any exit option because it can’t create a brand. It can only print for the brands and that’s the bitter truth.

PW:  Which print segments will see a boom in Indore? Where do you see growth?
Mainly flexible packaging will see growth here; then corrugation and finally printing and packaging. Indore is the second largest manufacturer in confectionery in India. In Pithampur (SEZ) packaging manufacturers catering to pharmaceutical companies had begun their production during the lockdown.

The ascendancy of Atharva Packaging

PW:  A word about your factory for our readers?
We manufacture mono cartons and three-ply printed boxes. We had started in November 2003 in a rented shed with an investment of Rs 35-lakh, of which Rs 25-lakh were from a bank under the credit guarantee fund scheme.

PW:  Later you shifted to Sanwer Road Industrial Area…
 Yes, in December 2006 and into our own premises. And then in 2008, we invested in a new four-colour Ryobi 754, a CTP machine, and new post-press machinery for perfect binding and folding which eventually led to a Bobst Ambition pasting machine in 2010-11.

PW:  That is when you suffered a setback…
 2011 to 2014 were tough years for us. We had a setback of Rs 1.14-cr due to the rupee depreciation against the Japanese Yen (JPY). It was only with the help and support of our suppliers, bank, customers, and the hard work and confidence of our team that we came back strongly and made another investment in a Heidelberg CD102 and Bobst automatic die-cutting machine in 2017.

PW:  A great comeback. And now, Atharva Packaging is producing labels as well…
 In January 2021 we diversified our portfolio and installed an eight-colour flexography machine Ultraflex 450 and entered into the label industry. Plus, my son Shravan joined this unit in 2020 after completing his CA.

PW:  You started off with one machine and five persons? Do you remember your early days?
Yes always, those were the challenging days, and I have learnt a lot, and I feel proud that all of the first five team members are still with me. In the beginning, we hardly had any work. One to two hours daily and that too job work of some mediators. Slowly and gradually we got orders and within six months we were able to operate 10-12 hours a day.

PW:  What was the Indore market like in those days? Any memories?
There were few of us in the market, having old machinery; mainly from Solna. It was preferred due to its lesser cost but after 2006 many units opened up with better machines and more investments.

PW:   Describe the team structure in the factory located at Sanwer Road Industrial Area?
 We are a team of hundred, from which we have a core team of 15 in supervising comprising of departmental head and executives while the rest are skilled operators and helpers.

PW:  Can you suggest a few initiatives taken by you in the past 25 years to serve your customer better …
SS: We have a dedicated marketing manager for each customer for their timely support. Also, we have adopted and implement good manufacturing practices (GMP) in our processes to give the desired quality jobs to our customers. We have also been quick to adopt new technology and ensure the required quality for the packaging needs of our customer’s export market.

PW:   What is wish list for Atharva in 2030? For example, operational efficiencies, fewer SKUs and less waste…
SS: Atharva in 2030 would be with the latest technology in machines, procedures and customer-related management (CRM), with a brand new state-of-the-art infrastructure to cater to various MNCs in the pharma as well as the FMCG sector. Atharva shall be known as the “one-point source” of all kinds of packaging needs.

PW:  One print job you love.
SS: It was the job we got when I was travelling from Mumbai to Ahmedabad by train and I got a call from a print buyer at 11pm who wanted the job to be delivered at Bhopal next day before 9 am. My team members, all of them including the CTP operator, who were at home came back to the factory, completed the job overnight and deliver the edit at 8.45 am.

PW:   Wonderful.
SS: Yes. It’s because of we built with such jobs that we are reaping the benefits, today.

10 questions with Swadesh Sharma

How do you unwind? Enjoy nature. Mostly, at my farm.

One activity you love? To accept challenges.

Favourite films? I simply loved Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year.

Once the pandemic is over, where will you vacation to? Valley of Flowers National Park near Hemkund Sahib gurudwara in Uttarakhand.

Favourite snack? Indori poha.

Favourite book? How to win friends and influence people by Dale Carnegie.

A city in MP (other than Indore) which is a must-see? I would say Kanha National Park. It is one of the tiger reserves of India.

One thing about Indore no one knows? People are very supportive.

One print factory in Indore other than Atharva that you love? Vijayshri Packaging.

And finally, who is on your speed dial? My better half, Mamta, always.

Sharma with wife Mamta Sharma and son Shravan Sharma