In 2014, the launch preparations of an important product from a South India-based two-wheeler major ran into an unexpected wall. The paint job on the vehicles - done by robots - was deemed subpar. It needed to be fixed. Urgently. Over the next few days, service engineers from Fanuc India, the subsidiary of the Japanese robotics major that supplied the robots, worked frantically to resolve the issue, including working night shifts. The hectic - and, eventually, successful - shop floor efforts were led by, um, a lady in a sari. "I don't know why much is being made of that (incident). For Fanuc, customer needs override everything," says Sonali Kulkarni when reminded about it. The President and CEO of Fanuc India speaks in even, soft tones, but there is no mistaking the steel behind them.
It is this steel that has played no small role in ensuring that Fanuc punches above its considerable global weight in the Indian machine tools and robotics market. Globally, the industrial automation market is dominated by behemoths such as ABB, Siemens, Mitsubishi, Panasonic and GE. Still, the two key players in the machine tools and industrial robots market are less-known names: Kuka of Germany and Fanuc of Japan. And in India, Fanuc is the runaway leader. Globally, Fanuc has 65-70 per cent market share in machine tools segment (CNC); in India, it has 81 per cent. In industrial robots, it has 35 per cent market share globally: in India, it is 55 per cent. "We have worked very hard to win our share," emphasises Kulkarni.
The previous year was tough for the manufacturing industry in India and Fanuc was not left unscathed - revenues were flat. To make things happen, Fanuc tried to expand its customer base. From 65-70 customers three years ago, today it serves more than 330, a large chunk of which was added in the past 12 months. Kulkarni's hands-on attitude played its part. A small-time supplier to Ikea in Mumbai was stunned to see her land up in his three-lathe cramped workshop to see how Fanuc could work with them. Small companies at IMTEX, an industry event of the metal-cutting tool segment, were surprised to see her visit their stalls and make pitches as well as take feedback. Hitendra Patel, Founder and MD of Global CNC Automation, a Rajkot-based small machine tool manufacturer, was "overwhelmed" to have her visit his small factory to check on growth avenues. The India operation has been pioneering newer segments, too. Fanuc globally does not operate in surface wheel lathes, but when an opportunity arose in India, the company decided to grab it. Similarly, the Indian arm was able to convince its parent to customise offerings for the local market, which Fanuc never does globally.
What makes Kulkarni stand out, of course, is more than just a hands-on attitude. "The best part is that she knows not just the commercial side, but the technical side of the business inside out," says Sanjay Javarathanvelu, MD of Coimbatore-based Lakshmi Machine Works, India's biggest textile machinery manufacturer. Despite the struggle last year, Kulkarni is bullish. "India is the fastest-growing, most promising manufacturing location in the world," she says. "In July, all geographies of Fanuc, except the US, saw de-growth (in sales) of robots. The only other exception was India, where we far exceeded our sales projection." A trained chartered accountant, Kulkarni points out that across Fanuc's 22 offices in India, it carries inventory of spare parts worth more than Rs 220 crore, so that customers never face any hassle in service.
Kulkarni says her team of 260-odd employees is fully empowered to take decisions, "which is why we win in the marketplace". The only non-negotiable, she avers, is Fanuc's code of ethics. Not a surprise from the great granddaughter of Mahatma Gandhi - her mother is the daughter of the Mahatma's third son Ramdas Gandhi - but that is something she strives to underplay. Quite like her, too.