B Santhanam was instrumental in setting up a World Glass Complex ,the largest of its kind worldwide, at an investment of $700 million in Chennai. When there was a flurry of investments in Tamil Nadu in the mid-nineties, the French multinational Saint-Gobain Group (Turnover in excess of € 42 billion) was one of the conglomerates which decided to come to the state. Saint Gobain is a world leader in glass industry. Santhanam has worked closely with the Saint-Gobain Group to develop strategic blueprint for Saint-Gobain’s investments in flat glass in India from 1996. He is the president of Flat Glass-South Asia, at St Gobain India. The group has expanded to Gujarat and Rajasthan as well. “We need investments in regional locations to optimise our market in the rest of the country,” he says.
Saint-Gobain India is making an additional investment of Rs 1,000 crore to expand its float glass and value-added glass production capacity at its factory near Chennai. “The first plant is ready. By next year first quarter we will be completing the second phase. This will make it the largest float glass plant in India. The 177-acre Chennai factory is unique as it is a fully integrated plant making value-added glass products, including advanced laminated glass such as bullet proof glass, starting from basic raw material sand. We have more than fulfilled our commitment to Tamil Nadu government,” says Santhanam who I am meeting for lunch at the Teppan, which is part of Benjarong Thai restaurant .
Santhanam is a few minutes late. He is coming from judging business ideas presented by women in the Southern Region for Confederation of Indian Industry. Santhanam is active in advocating diversity in work force and has been a champion of the “Indian Women Network” promoted by CII.
Two hard core vegetarians are in this place to eat Japanese food which is known for char-grilled meat and fish dishes. Contrary to popular belief Teppan has good vegetarian food which Santhanam likes a lot. We start with several varieties of vegetable sushi, yasai gyoza which is vegetables rolled into dumpling sheets, tempura crunch and sesame seeds and a very tasty tempura starter served with radish and ginger. It is a hot afternoon and we ask for fresh lime with ice.
In a matter of 16 years St Gobain has emerged as the market leader in the construction industry with 70% share in the organised sector. It has also won numerous awards in innovation, brand-building, water management, HR excellence among other things. “Our factories are much more advanced than other global factories which are 200 years old,” says Santhanam.
Saint Gobain has set up a new research centre, world-class R&D facility spread over 120,000 sq. ft with an investment of Rs 200 crore last year in Chennai. It will focus on developing innovative and sustainable solutions for Saint Gobain’s existing businesses. Santhanam talks about the many possibilities. “It will work on products for hot and humid conditions. It will look at what the customer wants. Glass is expected to provide security and privacy. The brief is to go beyond that. How can high performance glass be combined with skills and systems not available so far? Can I monitor the weather and connect that to the building systems? The biggest problem in making lacquered glass is the many steps it has to go through. Can we reduce these steps?”
As we are working through the tempuras Santhanam tells me that material science is being married to digital technology in the centre. “What does one want in a room? In an office room, you want to be protected from heat and dust. You want acoustic and thermal comfort. You want natural colour. We are working on providing physical and cognitive comfort. Human factor is a nuance we want to add.”
Santhanam asks for miso soup and assorted vegetables mushroom and tofu all grilled. I settle for burnt garlic and vegetables fried rice. We decide to share yaki nasu which is eggplant sliced grilled with sweet miso sauce. Drops of wasabi provide the much needed spice. “We are doing research programmes on relating human dimension to physics of building. We are no longer just making better material. We are linking that to human experience. There are unchartered areas like intelligent mirror. We take the consumer for granted. An average person spends 15 minutes in front of the mirror. So what can we do for her? There are lot group products which complement glass. We are looking at how to combine gypsum and glass and provide new solutions to the interiors of the home.” Construction products are an important part of the group’s business. Saint Gobain Cyproc India, the market leader has more than 60% of the false ceiling market in the country.
Santhanam tells me about combinational innovation. “We make various systems talk to each other. We collaborate with non related companies. We are working on low-cost solutions for pre-fabricated high rise buildings with IIT Madras. We cannot do it all by ourselves. We are an under constructed country. We see it as an opportunity. Now is the time for ideas and innovations to come together. I see architects, builders and the government too wanting better products. The sustainability movement is catching on in the country. As a late starter we can avoid many mistakes.”
In less than two decades Saint Gobain has captured the construction industry market for glass. Why has it not been able to repeat this success with automobile industry where the Japanese are way ahead in automobile glass. “We came late. We set up our first auto glass factory in 2005. The Japanese came in 1984. Our presence in Maruti cars is minuscule. We are doing alright with the others.” He points out those Indian automobiles at present do not have state of the art glazing. Advanced glazing will cost Rs 4-5 lakh more per vehicle.” In China they pay three to four times more than what we do here. Their automobiles have so many features. We have to catch up and it will happen. One of our tasks will be to look at how to introduce advanced glazed products at an affordable cost.
We finish our tea and decide not to have desert. “We are moving fast from deep material science to consumer experience,” he says as he is rushing back to his factory.
-By B Santhanam