The journey began with a few steps he took as a youngster. After his schooling in St Columbus in Delhi, Neeraj was sent to the US for his class 12th. It was this early grooming that gave Neeraj the confidence that clearly filters through today. My father (Onkar S Kanwar) did his education in the US, so did my elder brother Raja. It was a hell of an experience. It gave a new environment, a new perspective and lots of confidence to me. Here people are overprotected. So, the first one year was a great grounding period for me.
The year did not include bunking classes and watching movies. The school was really strict. Besides studying, we had to work for two hours a day. And the work meant cleaning the bathroom in the dormitory or doing the dishes for a month. Id never done more than small dishes at home occasionally and suddenly I had to do all the dishes in the cafeteria. I did that for two semesters and had to clean the bathroom for one semester.
And thanks to the understanding of education system in the US, it made his life easier when he was doing his engineering at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, USA, where Amit Burman, who is now Dabur Indias vice-chairman became a close friend. I spent good four years doing industrial engineering, which was completely different from what I had thought I would do. I wanted to do business administration.
In 1991, Neeraj came back to India during the summer break and worked as a trainee at Apollo in Cochin in the factory started by his grandfather Raunaq Singh. I was on the shop floor for complete two months. I really learnt how to produce and manufacture tyres.
After his college, he had a training stint for eight months with American Express Bank in New York. After coming back to India in 1994, he had a three-month training in finance and accounts because he didnt know it as an engineer and his father wanted him to start a finance company. In those days NBFC was the in thing. The stock market was going up and it was really a different scenario. So, he asked me to start an NBFC company and start learning how to mange money because he always believes and says people management and money management are two things you need to know to run businesses and you will always be successful and that is the mantra Ive always followed.
In 1994, Neeraj, made, what he calls, some big, yet very important mistakes of his life. He started a finance company by the name of Global Finance Ltd. I lost about Rs 50 lakh, but I think the learning from that time is with me. It will stay with me for the rest of my life, he tells you. Also, it was the first time Neeraj hired and fired. I had to fire non-performers I had hired. We were eight people and I had to fire three. I called up my father who agreed that I should ask them to leave. When I asked him to come and talk to them. He said, You hired them, so you fire them. I was 24 and I had people who were 38-40. That I think was my fathers first test for me. That day I actually fired three people and since then Ive never looked back because it helps build confidence. Also, I think it helps you to understand what to look out for when hiring people and what mistakes not to make.
Those two years, says Neeraj, he learnt three very important lessons. Value for money, how to make money and how to manage people. For me everyday is an important day because you learn something new.
In 1995, by the time he joined Apollo in the marketing team, Neeraj was not just all geared up but also smarter after the first failure. For an engineer to get into marketing was not just something new but also challenging. When I joined the company, nobody was told who I was. I went in as Neeraj Singh. In fact my card also said Neeraj Singh. Nobody knew who I was except my father and the top people in the head office. In the field, only my boss knew.
Soon he was moved to the head office as product and strategic finance manager. I had to build a bridge between marketing and production because production was going on its own stream, tech guys were making what they wanted to make and sales/ marketing guys wanted something else. So, there was no direct communication, explains Neeraj. To deal with this, he built a cell called strategy and production learning cell. We did a lot of hard work, admits Neeraj, rather candidly.
After this, he went on to integrate all the manufacturing units, brought in a lot of emphasis on technology and slowly grew up the ladder. And its probably the way Neeraj handled his responsibilities and of how he led the company that made him climb the ladder. While he was named the chief operation officer in 2002, the year 2006 saw him being named as the joint managing director. Two years later, he was also given the position of vice-chairman. Ask him if things changed for him after he moved up and he admits candidly. Not really. I go with the flow. I live for today, I dont live for tomorrow. I believe whatever I do today should be done in the best possible way it can be done, without harming anyone, and taking the right decisions that take the company to the next milestone. Designations dont matter to me. Its what you make of them.
His friend Amit Burman feels he really has made a lot of his designations. He says, Neeraj is a very hard working guy and I think hes driven Apollo to where it is today. He is a caring family man and the best friend anyone can have.
Today technology, quality and people, says Neeraj, are what drive Apollo Tyres. Its little surprise then that from one of the players in the market, they are considered an important player. When Neeraj entered the business, the company had a turnover of Rs 1,400 crore and today they are upward of $1.2 billion. There is a sea change in the organisation and it hasnt happened because I came in or Mr Kanwar is there, but because there is a whole team behind it. There is the commitment and passion of the team to make it to a different level. The systems and processes are what are driving this company to the next level.
Another thing that is important for Neeraj is being dynamic with a touch of aggression, as he puts it. Its very important to do thing differently from you competitors and constantly evolve with the changing times, says Neeraj.
For Neeraj, it probably comes easy, given his age and drive. He loves coming up with innovative ideas to keep the employees feeling like one big family. Communication and transparency are very crucial. If what I am thinking is communicated to the person at the shop floor, my job is done. Because then he knows what needs to be done. We are a very close organisation. So, its important to make sure people bond. People are our assets. They are the ones who will help us realise our vision of $2-billion turnover by 2010. Its a very aggressive target. We are already at $ 1.2 billion. But I have the conviction in myself, my team, the board and our chairman that we will go to this level. I have no doubt in my mind. I always tell my team that we need to revisit our vision because $2 billion seems easy now.
Today, says Neeraj rather candidly, We have made brands that are the barometers for India. Indian customers and drivers swear by this barometer. So you have the pride that youve reached a certain level of success with the people of the company.
And if there is someone who has stood by him like a rock through the steep climb, its is his wife Simran. There are days when Ive to travel 20 days in a month and Simran is very supportive. She has been a great help in pushing me to get the job done. My mother has done the same.
And if there is something that keeps the young honcho going through the hectic travel schedule, its his fitness regimen. When you are flying from one country to another and yet another, constantly moving between different time zones, working out keeps you alive. It gives you energy and you feel more healthy.
In fact Neeraj has a personal gym at home. Its a place where he spends a lot of time. When he is not working or working out , Neeraj likes spending time with his wife and son Jai Karan and two-year-old daughter Sayra Taru.