All fired up about his next move

Written by C Jayanthi | Updated: Apr 5 2008, 03:38am hrs
Fire-proofing of buildings may not be everyones ball game. But then, one entrepreneur down south was attracted by the unusual nature of the business and the fact that in a developing economy with an infrastructure boom, where many buildings get built, fire-proofing is an absolute must. NS Narendra, chairman and managing director, founded Firepro Systems in 1992, with the intention of providing professional services in the fire safety market in Bangalore. An engineering graduate from Mysore University in the year 1990, who specialised in electronics, Narendra says, I started with just Rs 10,000 which were my savings. It was just less money and a lot of ambition.

He was keen to start his own company and had a discussion with his uncle D Naniah on business opportunities available for someone keen on a start-up like him. His uncle identified the fire and security industry as the one with a big future and high growth potential. He advised him to join Steel Age Industries to gain knowledge to start his own companyas those days there were hardly two or three companies that offered expertise in that particular field. I had nothing to loose then, I was just out of college. I come from a middle-class family. My father was an employee with the state government. We come from a small place called Coorg, in Karnataka. They used to stay in Coorg while I lived and studied in Bangalore.

He worked with Steel Age Industries for two years in the Minimax division, which was into fire protectionit is now a part of a global conglomerate called Bunevo. After he quit, he started his own company in December 1992. It was registered as just Firepro because at that point in time, it was a proprietorship company. Narendra says, I started with about three employeesa secretary, an office boy and a sales guy. The secretary happened to be a friend whom I knew for a long time. She stayed for six to seven months and later got married and left Firepro. The office boy who was my domestic servant at home agreed to help out at Firepro and the sales boy was fresh out off college and he was interested in working for me.

Narendra found the first year a bit of a struggle as it took three to four months to get the first project. He says, Our first job was with a medical college in Davangere, about 150 km from Bangalore. We did the fire alarm systems for the institute. The turnover from that business and a few other smaller jobs amounted to Rs 8 lakh in 1992-93 fiscal year. Those were the beginning days, we just had two or three jobs for the first two years, Narendra says.

Soon after that, the salesperson BJ Ramesh at Firepro landed a large contract, through sheer leg work, by working his way through all the new buildings in Bangalore. We got a contract for providing fire safety and electronic security systems in a housing society in Bangalore, says Ramesh. That project resulted in a turnover of Rs 45 lakh in the fiscal year 1993-94. Firepros first big break came when the company did a job for Embassy, one of the large builders in Bangalore. We did a large residential complex for them. It was a high-end luxury apartment, the first of its kind at that time. It resulted in a turnover of about Rs 1crore in 1994-95, fiscal year. After that, work slowly started pouring in.

The key challenges that Narendra faced in the beginning were: access to capital and banking facilities; building credibility took time as people expected to see sustained growth in capability and revenue; ability to attract talent was a challenge but, the policy of sharing success and rewarding his employees helped. Another problem was that the suppliers and vendors would not extend a high level of management support and focus in early days. But then, there was a silver lining in the cloud. Capital was an issue, but Narendra found that his company could get a decent amount of money as advance and manage to move from project to project, complete his tasks one by one. For about two years, we managed with the money we got from our customers in terms of advance towards the supply of materials. The payment terms were favourable so we could manage for the first two years.

When the number of job contracts started increasing, it started becoming more and more difficult to manage money-wisethat is when Canara bank stepped in and came to his rescue. We had a Canara Bank branch close to our office in Bangalore. The assistant general manager of that bank Krishna Murthy started noticing our transactions. He called up one day and asked me why was I not availing loan facilities from his bank. I told him I would love to but cannot give him any collateral because those days funding was difficult without collateral. He then said that he noticed our transactions and that at his risk, he would give me an overdraft of Rs 10 lakh without collateral. I used to bank with them. This happened in the end of 1994.

For Firepro, that was another turning point because the first time, the overdraft limit was Rs 10 lakh and the next year 1995-96, it went up to Rs 50 lakh. It was an overdraft facility from the bank, rather than a loan, Narendra stresses. The following year afterward, the facility went up to Rs 1.5 crore and thereafter, to Rs 4 crore. We still bank with them even today but although we bank with different banks, a lot of credit should go to Canara Bank for supporting us then. Today, the same facility limit has gone upto Rs 350 crore through letter of credit and bank guarantees. Firepro currently employs 1,200 people. His success mantra is commitment to the customerit has played a crucial role in scaling up his business.

When a customer asks you to jump, do not ask why, just how high, he adds with

a smile. Initially, the company grew due to word-of-mouth since it did not have a large sales team. It was purely with the kind of delivery deadlines that we kept up with the projects, we got recommended to other builders and people started appreciating our work, he says. But later on the companys growth came from strategising in terms of geographical expansion. We started operations in Delhi in 1998, then Chennai in 1999, so we went to different cities. Today we have operations in about 14 cities through out the country. Since 2000, Firepro is a private limited company not a proprietorship companyits Firepro Systems Pvt Ltd now. In fiscal 2006-07, the company turnover was Rs 230 crore. We also have international operations now in Australia, Middle East and Singapore. In 2007-08, the revenue is likely to touch Rs 450 crore, he says. The company has grown on an average at about 100% year on year in the past seven years. No wonder, then Narendra is all fired up about the future.