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Putting people first: Uppiliappan Gopalan

From humble beginnings as a chain of retail stores selling arrack, KALS Group has grown to become one of Tamil Nadu’s leading manufacturers of alcoholic beverages. KALS Distilleries and KALS Breweries were founded in 2009 and 2011 respectively, but the story behind the company goes back much further.


“The KALS Group is run by a family of entrepreneurs. Three decades ago, they started their business in a small hamlet, a place called Karaikal, where they used to sell arrack,” Group COO Dr Uppiliappan Gopalan says.

Although the business began in retailing, KALS Group Chairman and Managing Director Vasudevan Sivaprakasam had what Uppiliappan describes as a “powerful vision”. He was determined to venture into alcohol manufacturing and distribution and, eventually, expand into other areas of India, and even other countries.

Ten years ago, KALS Group was granted a licence for manufacturing Indian-made foreign liquor in Tamil Nadu. “From that time onwards, there was no looking back,” Uppiliappan says.

The business grew quickly and now boasts five manufacturing facilities with a capacity of producing nearly 37 million cases per annum. “We want to put our footprint across India, but also export our products globally,” Uppiliappan adds.

“We have three distillery manufacturing facilities that are bottling Indian-made foreign liquor, and one state-of-the-art brewery that manufactures beer in line with the German purity law. In fact, there is only one company in India that is able to do this, and that is the KALS Group.”

Uppiliappan is an astute strategist with 19 years of experience in the FMCG, retail, automobile and manufacturing sectors. He is a graduate engineer with an MBA from IIM Bangalore and he also holds an executive management degree from LBS.

Last year, Uppiliappan was awarded Asia’s Most Admired Leaders of 2019 by BARC Asia. Further, he was a proud recipient of the Peter Drucker Award in 2016 and 2019.


Uppiliappan had been working abroad for more than 15 years and was keen to return home to India when a mutual friend put him in touch with Vasudevan in 2018.

“I will never forget that day, as he encapsulated his vision and unveiled what he had planned for his company. The thought process that I had in my mind and thought process that he had in his mind were completely gelling with one another. The chemistry was so strong from day one. I decided, ‘This is a company that I would like to work for until I’m ready to retire’,” Uppiliappan recalls.

“I want our supply chain to be sustainable as well as green in terms of our raw materials and packaging materials.”

“Mr Vasudevan is a strong motivator and he inspires people. He has a very down-to-earth approach, and he always puts his people first. In fact, I have always worked for companies that put people first and don’t compromise on moral values and ethics. At the end of the day, people are everything. It’s our people who are going to bring in the business. It’s our people who are going to bring cost reduction and improve profitability.”

Looking ahead to the future, Uppiliappan says KALS Group will focus on building a sustainable and green supply chain as the business expands. “We’re looking at optimising the supply chain and making it more robust. I want our supply chain to be sustainable as well as green in terms of our raw materials and packaging materials,” he says.

Pointing out that “this business is all about suppliers”, Uppiliappan believes it’s important to maintain close and trusted relationships with business partners. “One of the biggest strengths of KALS Group is that we consider all our vendors and suppliers to be part of the ecosystem. We have strong partnerships with them.”

“It’s our people who are going to bring cost reduction and improve profitability.”

KALS Group plans to have 10 factories by the end of 2020, including two international facilities to assist in building the brand.

“We would like to have an authentic cognac manufacturing facility in France and an authentic Scotch manufacturing facility in Scotland, so that we can have proper backward integration. That way, we would be able to tell the consumer with pride that we have company traceability of the product from farm to folk.”

As Uppiliappan reflects on his time with KALS Group, he says his biggest achievement has been opening the corridors for expanding both within India and globally.

The company now exports its products to Singapore, Malaysia, Dubai and Africa. One particular highlight came last year, when Sterren Beer was named the Prestigious Rising Brand of Asia 2019-20 in the Alcoholic Beverages category at the BARC Asia Awards in Malaysia. On the same evening, Uppiliappan was recognised with his Most Admired Leaders award.

“This all happened because of the opportunity that Mr Vasudevan gave me,” Uppiliappan smiles. “I love the challenges associated with my job. It is extremely multifaceted, which enables me to learn, experience, contribute and grow organically and inorganically.”

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