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Bearing up in India

Marc Smith is deputy editor of Families in Business.

NRB Bearings is gearing up to go global. The Indian manufacturer sees Europe as a big opportunity – and China as its main competitor. Marc Smith talks to Harshbeena Sahney Zaveri, an Indian woman making it in a man's world, and finds out how one of the new superpowers is going to take flight

India's struggle for independence from the British in 1947 was marked by non-violent struggle as a means of social protest. Sixty years later, India has another fight on its hands to woo the British and the rest of the West back to invest, spend and trade in the world's second most populous country. And India is in a hurry.

Harshbeena Sahney Zaveri (pictured, right), president of her family's business, NRB Bearings, speaks as quickly as a Bengal tiger in the middle of a chase. She rattles through her background, throwing out the language of her founder father's era – "nation building" and "socialism". But Zaveri is very much a woman with her finger on the pulse of today's issues – she can't stop talking about China.
 
While many Indian companies are making the headlines for their abilities in the IT sector, NRB manufactures a wide range of bearings, rollers, bushes and cages for the automobile industry. These essential items reduce friction between moving parts in scooters, cars and tractors, and NRB can count Renault, Volvo, Honda and Yamaha among its customer list.

India versus the world
Zaveri believes the battle with China will be fought on quality and engineering capabilities, and is certain that her country has what it takes to succeed. "India has a quality-driven workforce," she says. "For whatever reason, Indians like things to last, which usually translates into quality products." This, coupled with "an inherent respect for intellectual property", will help the Indian auto component industry because, Zaveri believes, growth is often driven by a combination of these particular factors.

And she may be right. The latest China Automobile Customer satisfaction Index revealed that the number of faults per 100 cars made in China has risen by almost 10%, while 80% of cars experience a problem in the first six months of ownership. China's ever-growing number of multinational companies and superior macroeconomic indicators may have helped it to supply its domestic market with huge numbers of affordable cars in next to no time, but Zaveri believes India can corner the market in providing quality parts to manufacturers in Europe, Japan and the US. "India will be the fourth- largest market in the field by 2020," she says confidently.

To aid it in this quest, NRB is investing heavily in R&D. In particular, it is looking to leverage Indian capabilities in IT to stay ahead of the competition. NRB aims to develop, design and manufacture new products faster and less expensively than China and Europe. "This is going to be our long-term sustainable advantage," believes Zaveri.

In the short term, however, Europe is squarely in NRB's sights. But, in keeping with someone brought up on stories of the peace-loving Mahatma Gandhi, Zaveri's language is non-confrontational. She talks of listening and learning from Europe, although the endgame is clear: "If we can satisfy [our current customers] then everybody else will surely follow." NRB has doubled in size over the last five years, but Zaveri believes it can double in size again in only three years once it better understands the European market.

But NRB may also be able to teach the West a thing or two about business. Where Europeans see threats, for example, Zaveri sees opportunities. While many European manufacturers are worried about the possible repercussions of carbon emission reductions, NRB looks on it as an opening for new products and designs to come onto the market. "I think a change in the emission law is an opportunity for us to prove ourselves and to show our capabilities to the customer," says Zaveri.

Late starter
Seizing opportunities is certainly behaviour that Zaveri can relate to. Her father had lofty ambitions of starting a company that would "help to cast India into a higher league". However, this vision didn't initially involve any family members working in the company – although they were present as shareholders – and the firm started out life as a joint venture with a French manufacturer, Nadella. "My father didn't want NRB to be a place where family members could come in as and when they pleased," remembers Zaveri.
 
While the business was starting up, Zaveri went to the US, where she studied at Wellesley College, Massachusetts. Graduating summa cum laude with an Honors Thesis, and following in the footsteps of luminaries such as Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright, she then returned to India to teach English, Social Studies and Geography to high-school students at one of Mumbai's most prestigious schools, the J B Petit High School.

It was only after having children that she entered the family business as a management trainee where, initially, as the first family member among professionals, everyone gave her a really hard time. Nevertheless, she didn't fail to make an impression on both the business and her father. "He was really surprised at my contribution, because instead of getting involved in the way they were doing things, I looked at what they weren't doing," she recalls. For example, as head of purchasing – a job that "no one else wanted to do" – she chose Japanese materials as opposed to French and German, which caused quite a stir given that very few Indian companies had experience of working with Japan at that time. A course in corporate planning led her to look into all facets of NRB's business, from HR to quality control. "One of the lessons that I learned was that if you bring in something new and it helps people to do their jobs better, they appreciate it. But it has to be proven and accepted."

A woman's world?
On a personal level, Zaveri has proved that being a woman and the founder's daughter is no barrier to success in an emerging economy. "I believe that when you are starting to do something as a woman, you need to be very good at what you are doing. When I came into NRB the assumption was that I was here for the short term, and I therefore had to make very concrete contributions. Just like any minority, you have to prove yourself more," she says.
 
The fact that she chose to take her husband's name has also helped her. "I think it's a great advantage. Some people did not know for years that I was part of the family, and they would actually bump into my father and talk about "that professional lady who works with you"! It could also lead to embarrassing situations, but overall I can decide to be looked at on a purely professional basis, and I've always enjoyed that."

Today, as president of a company that employs 1,200 staff and has a turnover of $57 million, she perhaps symbolises what India is all about in the 21st century – a growing worldwide presence whose biggest attribute is its workforce. "Our advantage is how passionate and flexible we are in terms of wanting to satisfy the customer," concludes Zaveri, which could well turn out to be a lesson that both China and the West should ignore at their peril.

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