“Traditions are losing importance”
Home is where the heart is, that’s what you get to learn from Umesh Chowdhary, the Vice Chairman and Managing Director of Titagarh Wagons Ltd. Humble by nature, Chowdhary believes that nothing is impossible if you put your mind to it. Inspired by his father, J P Chowdhary, this 42-year-old business tycoon has achieved success at a very young age by banking on honesty and hard work during trying times. Besides his association with Titagarh Wagons, he is also the Deputy Chairman of the Confederation of Indian Industry (Eastern Region). On the international front, Chowdhary has been knighted by the French President and is the Honorary Consul of Switzerland.
Titagarh Wagons is one of the leading private sector wagon manufacturers of India. It is also an industry partner to the Defence Research and Development Organisation(DRDO), Ministry of Defence, for which it manufactures special wagons, shelters and other engineering equipment. The company also makes Metro coaches. Chowdhary is in conversation with Shayani Mukherjee:
Q.Have you always been a South Calcutta resident?
A.I was born in Jamir lane and grew up in Loudon Street. I have changed a lot of houses before finally settling in Alipore.
Q.Do you have siblings? What was your childhood like?
A. Yes, I have two elder sisters and both of them reside in Calcutta. I grew up seeing my dad working and it was like any other normal childhood.
Q. Tell us about your fondest childhood memory.
A. There are many of them but one of the fondest remains my journey way back from school. I used to tell my mother to not walk back home and insisted on taking a rickshaw. Although the distance from Birla High to my place was not too far, I remember repeatedly telling her to take a rickshaw ride till home.
Q.Who are you inspired by?
A. I have been inspired by a number of people, especially my father who did everything by himself. I have always drawn strength from people like him, who have worked hard and struggled from the beginning. Persistence, perseverance and sincerity are the three things that inspired me.
Q. Which factors do you think are imperative to gaining success?
A.As I said, there are three aspects that should drive your life. First is hard work, second is discipline and sincerity of approach and third is discipline. In fact last night, while talking to my son, who is fifteen years old and pursuing his studies in Switzerland, I told him that if these three things are there in you, sooner or later, you are going to achieve what you want to.
Q. Apart from your work, are you interested in other activities like singing or painting or playing an instrument ?
A. I’m exceedingly fond of music but if I start singing, people might just run away or might even commit suicide. For me, it is as important as food.
Q. What kind of music do you listen to?
A. I listen to all types of music except for the modern rock and roll. That is definitely not my genre.
Q. Has Calcutta changed?
A. Calcutta has changed in a lot of ways. It has improved with time, especially in terms of infrastructure. However, culturally, what Calcutta used to be in the past is not there anymore. Somewhere down the line, traditions are losing importance.
Q. What is it about the city that you like the most?
A.Actually I don’t know what I don’t like. I love the people, the culture and warmth of the people. It’s home. Although I stay out Calcutta about half a month, I look forward to coming back all the time.
Q.Do you plan to settle somewhere else in future?
A. No but if I did, I’ll be thrown out of the house. Calcutta is home, so I would not avail any such option.
Q.How do you think this city needs to develop?
A.The city has suffered from a huge legacy of perception and I’m a firm believer that sometimes perception becomes greater than reality. Although the perception is now changing, it takes a lot of time to change the mindset. People don’t believe something new very easily and to go to the next level of development, economically or socially, perception needs to change. That being the case, I believe this transformation is taking place now. Working in multiple jurisdictions, I have realized how known Bengal today is better than what it used to be.
Q.Last year TWL announced its first contract in the Metro market and it is coming up with a factory in West Bengal. Can you give us some details about this venture?
A.Sure, production of Metro and Passenger coaches is something that I have been very keen on for a long time now. While we now have a capacity of producing 10,000 wagons a year, we started with just a capacity of 150 wagons a year. The business has grown in the span of 15-16 years. In 2007, on the order of Railways, we started making local passengers trains and last year, we took the first contract for rehabilitating the Metro coaches. It is currently engaged in the refurbishment of 8-10 Kolkata metro trains which will be completed in due time.
Although this contract was not very viable commercially, I wanted to do this for two reasons. First and foremost, I wanted to do something that’s going to leave a mark on Kolkata and second it was like an entry point into the Metro business. We have acquired “Firema,” which is the second largest train manufacturer of Italy, from the Government. They have done a series of Metro trains and together we have participated in the first major Metro project earlier this month. We will be making Metro coaches in our passenger coach factory in Uttarpara as it’s been expanded.
Q.Titagarh Wagons has joined hands with French firm 'Matiere' to take up manufacturing and sale of metallic and modular bridges. How has it benefited your company? How will it benefit India on a broader level?
This is under formation now. We are manufacturer of Bailey bridges and currently we have partnered with Matiere, which is into making of advanced modular bridges. This will enable us to make Bugatti range of bridges while also concentrating on the production of Bailey bridges. It’s definitely going to benefit India as the construction time of bridges would come down rapidly and reliability of the bridges will be much higher.
Q.TWL, in a partnership with Hitachi Rail, has bagged an order in Italy to supply double decker trains. How fast is the work going? Are we hoping to see them ready by 2017?
A. It is already in progress and we have started delivering in accordance with the earlier contract. From November, we will start delivering under a new contract. We are completing the order by April, 2017 for Italy.
Q.Tell us about some of your upcoming projects…
A. We are concentrating on things that we are already involved in. We have created huge amount of infrastructure. One of the most important things that we are planning to do in the coming years is to start manufacturing Metro coaches in India once we start getting orders. This is going to be the first of its kinds of a project not only in the Eastern India but in the entire India.
Q. How well is the state government working?
A. I have been a supporter of the State government and I believe that the three qualities that I have talked about earlier are present in our Chief Minister. I can refer her as the epitome of these qualities. The direction needs to be perfect while the pace of the journey can remain debatable. I have always remained completely non-political and I don’t support one particular party. Yes, obviously there are more things that can be done and hindsight makes everyone wiser.
Q.What are some of the problems that are faced by wagons-making industries?
A.The problem is that there is no work load. Wagon manufacturing capacity in India is close to about 30,000 wagons a year and the average procurement of wagons in the last five years have been 4,500 wagons.
Q.Despite wagon procurement programmes, railways face shortage of wagons daily.Why do you think this is happening?
A. It is a great irony and this is something I have not been able to fathom because on one side there is market and on the other, there are no wagon procurements. While, the railways say they have wagons, customers report shortage and we sit here without any workload. Now if I put my optimistic cap on, I think that the railways is first concentrating on developing infrastructure, building more capacity and then they would probably think of utilising those capacity. Ideally, both should go hand in hand.
Q. Do you think the government should go for complete or partial privatization of railways?
A.Yes, the government could go for partial privatisation of Railways because it should not be at all into manufacturing.
Q. What message do you want to leave for young entrepreneurs?
A. Life is full of challenges and one should not give up hope. I started working when I was 15 years old and it’s been 27 years of hard work. Life has its ups and downs but both ups and downs teach you a lot. Some of the best lessons have happened during difficult periods. Hence, every experience has something to teach you, so you must learn from it.