In 1990, Somany Ceramics Limited was the number one ceramics manufacturing company in India. However in the decade that followed, its position started to slip and it fell to sixth place. By 2006 business picked up again and its value increased. This trend continued and today the company comfortably sits in the country’s number two position. Managing Director Abhishek Somany says it has expanded its product range and geographic reach considerably, thus setting itself up for a highly prosperous future.

Abhishek is the third generation family member to run Somany. He recalls his early memories of growing up with the business and learning all about the various divisions within its operations. “My professional career started when we were collaborating with a company called Pilkington Tiles in the UK,” he shares. “That was back in the 90s and the relationship dated back to the early 70s, around the time when our business first started. In 1995, Pilkington Tiles was bought out globally and we acquired their shares in India. Prior to that I had the opportunity to spend five months with them in Brighton learning about how to make tiles, how the machinery works, and what technology was involved.

“Then I returned to India, and in order to gain an overview of management, I did a stint with my grandfather’s chemical company, which was completely unrelated to the tile industry. I spent some time there and also some time with some other large Indian corporates before joining our family company, Somany, in a management trainee role in 1995. I was learning various facets of the business and then moved on to become part of the sales division.

“In 2000, I took over the sales and marketing operations and was later made the Executive Director. What that meant was, as well as marketing, I looked after other areas of the company such as finance and tile development. Finally, I became the joint Managing Director, and for the past year-and-a-half I have been the sole Managing Director,” Abhishek explains.

Over the years, Somany has established a strong presence as a leading, formidable force in the Indian tile sector. It spearheads industry innovation in ceramics and has a robust reputation for high-quality products. The company’s manufacturing plants are in Kadi, Gujarat, and Kassar, Haryana, and they generate a production capacity
of around 41 million square metres annually. In the past few years, Somany has expanded its product and service portfolio to include sanitary ware and bath fittings as well.

Abhishek says there have been many highlights along the company’s journey, but it hasn’t all been smooth sailing, and there have been plenty of challenges to contend with. “Between 2000 and now we’ve gone through some rough patches, especially with regard to cash flow. Coming through that without a major restructure with the banks was a big milestone for us — we took charge of the situation and came out on top,” he says proudly.

“There are some things that money can’t buy, and that’s good talent in your workforce.” – Abhishek Somany

There are some things money can’t buy

“Another significant milestone was when we had to decide whether we needed to change our team; to get rid of the older people and bring in new staff who we didn’t know. We changed a few things around, specifically in terms of human resources, which was a big move to make, because we didn’t know if it was going to pay off. Too often, new people come in and it leaves you worse off than you were in the first place. This challenge taught me that there are some things that money can’t buy, and one is good talent in your workforce. That continues to be a key area for us going forward — looking at how we can attract better talent to further delegate work to, and how we can create better professionals. This in turn creates a more professional organisation.”

The tile industry itself has also faced many challenges. Currently the biggest issues are concerning fuel, which is purchased from a single source — the government, as well as taxes, cheaper products entering the market from countries such as China, and the lag that is facing the construction sector at the moment.

Somany is first choice 99 per cent of the time

Despite the many obstacles, Somany is still standing out from its competitors as a valuable player. Its broad portfolio of products and services has turned it into a one-stop-shop with options for every consumer, having products at all price points. Its strong reputation as a brand has existed for decades and this also gives it a unique point of difference, as does its distribution model. “Today, if I was to walk into a plastering business in India, 99 per cent of the time they would pick Somany as the first choice for tiles,” Abhishek shares. “Not because of our company or because of me as a person, but because of the brand and the distribution. We are becoming much more than just a manufacturing business.”

“Fortunately, we have many products that won’t be made redundant due to advances in technology.” – Abhishek Somany

Mutually beneficial supplier relationships are crucial to Somany maintaining this stance in the marketplace. “We refer to our suppliers as family. We engage with them, and
we understand their issues. They are extremely important to our operations. We have three main suppliers — one is the bank, another the raw material supplier, and one is the vendor who supplies us with finished goods. They all have an equally important part to play.”

Workplace culture drives success

Somany’s workplace culture has also helped drive success. The business leans to the more conservative side, is upfront and fair in its dealings, and it has curated a talented team of
people who share the same values. Trust is at the top of Abhishek’s list when it comes to leading his staff. “You’re never going to have people that all think exactly like you. That’s impossible. You have to delegate and if you don’t trust, you can’t delegate. More than 50 per cent of my time goes into HR; developing our people and keeping the culture alive. Once you have trust and delegation, then decision making becomes quick. What I expect from
my team is that because I have given them a hand, they can make decisions quickly and efficiently to the best of their ability.”

Looking forward and Abhishek says there is no time to slow down. He will continue to lead Somany on a positive growth trajectory, running full speed ahead. India as a country is experiencing a great deal of urbanisation and this will be a nice boost for the tile industry and for Somany’s operations. “As far as tiles are concerned, I believe we are well insured for the next fifteen years,” Abhishek notes. “Fortunately, we have many products that won’t be made redundant due to advances in technology. For example, the likes of Kodak being replaced by the digital camera offering. That’s not going to be happening to us, which is good news.

“Sanitary ware and bath fittings are new sectors for us and we are heading towards making that at least 12-to-13 per cent of our revenue within the next three years. That will be a significant jump in terms of scale. When we hit that mark we will diversify and bring in some other new products. But in saying that we want to make sure those products still utilise the same supply chain and distribution model, because we know it works. That will  be our focus.”

At the start of this year Somany became completely debt-free and it is planning to expand into the eastern and southern parts of China with new plants. This, combined with its commitment to R&D and its CSR program, will no doubt stand it in good stead to achieve its overarching vision of having the most sought-after tile product in India.