Thirty-one years after joining Huhtamaki-PPL (formerly Paper Products Limited or PPL), Suresh Gupta retired as its Executive Chairman. He joined the company in 1987 at a difficult time for the company, as business had slowed down since 1980 and they had to sell off their paper mill. When Suresh became a part of PPL the turnover of the company was just Rs.24 Crore and with a large workforce of 700 employees. He led the company until his retirement with sales reaching almost 100 times to Rupees 2300 Crores and the number of people working rose to 3500! Huhtamaki-PPL is now the largest producer of printed and finished flexible packaging materials in India. Under his leadership, the company, led not only PPL’s but also India’s foray into diverse label technologies as well. They were the very first entrant into shrink sleeve labels in association with Fuji Seal of Japan. Today Huhtamaki-PPL is the largest player in label manufacturing segment in India with their label sales touching 400 Crores which includes Pressure sensitive labels, Shrink Sleeves, Wrap arounds, In-moulds and other label forms. They are vendors to the virtual “who is who” in the Indian branded consumer goods and pharmaceutical industries. In pressure sensitive adhesive labels alone also, they are the largest at 200 Crores after taking over Webtech Labels, Ajanta Packaging and Positive Packaging.
Being an army man’s son Suresh’s childhood was spent at various locations within India. His father who is now 92 years of age, was a paratrooper with artillery from the well-known 17 parafeild regiment of Indian army and retired as Director of Military intelligence. After retirement he was assigned as Director SSB (Special Security Bureau) by the cabinet secretariat. Retiring from SSB he was taken by the Himachal Government to be the chairman of Himachal State Electricity Board. Suresh has a brother who is 9 years younger than him and followed his father’s footsteps to join the army, has primarily headed combat formations, served in the UN Peace Corps and is currently a Major General. Typical of army families, Suresh’s schooling took place at various schools across the country, the last two being St. Georges School, Agra, and St Xavier’s School Delhi where he was in the boarding and finished in 1967 with excellent marks. Being underage, he could not apply for admission into the IIT or Delhi University colleges, so at the age of 15 years he did a year of pre-engineering at Government college for Men Chandigarh, where the youth in him got the better of him in not attending any classes other than chemistry. He did poorly, much to the disappointment of his father who was posted in Ambala at that time. His mother gave him 200 Rupees and sent him to Delhi to his grandmother. Admissions had closed for most good courses but a good school marksheet helped him get admission for BA economics honours in the prestigious Hindu College Delhi University. He studied hard and in the very first year he got a first division and ranked in the University to win back his father’s confidence. After graduating from Delhi University Suresh went to the Jamnalal Bajaj Institute of Management studies Bombay, which then was considered amongst the best two in the country.
Finishing his MBA, he was motivated and impressed upon by the head of HR department of Jamnalal Bajaj Institute who was also the vice president of Corning Borosil to join Corning Borosil, which he eventually did as a management trainee in 1974.
The following year in 1975 he got promoted and got married to Kum Kum Talwar fondly called Kumi. Kumi graduated from the prestigious Lady Shriram College in Psychology honours and did her Masters in Social Work when she topped her class in Delhi University, and has been Suresh’s close confidante. At a young age of 23 he was posted in Madras as Regional Manager South for Corning Borosil who manufactured custom designed glass reactors for specialised industrial chemical processes, laboratory glassware and consumer ware under brand names Corning, Borosil and Pyrex. Surprisingly his immediate colleague working under him, the Head of Sales and Service was 52 years old.
|Suresh and wife Kumi
He enjoyed his stint in Madras as it was great learning time there and in 1979 his elder daughter Ratna was born. Post Emergency when the Janta government came to power the then minister George Fernandes came down heavily on US companies. While Coca Cola left the country, Corning was asked to dilute their equity to less than 40%. Suresh Gupta was at this time transferred to Delhi as Regional Manager North with additional responsibility of interacting with government and convincing them to excuse Corning from this equity reduction as a special case. Being a high technology company also supplying critical materials to defence, they were not allowed by USA government to setup ventures where they did not have full control. It was tremendous experience for Suresh, one side interacting with government and other side selling to large industries, government laboratories and finally setting up channel sales for their consumer products. Once it was clear that government of India would not relent regarding equity dilution, the company stopped further capital investment into the country. Now that it was evident that there would be no growth in the company, Suresh decided it was time to move on in life.
|With daughters Ratna(L) and Shivani(R)
He shared his thoughts with a friend at Usha International, who instantly arranged for Suresh to meet Lala Charat Ram of Shriram group. He was taken on board and became Divisional Manager of the Lucknow Division of Usha International, stationed at Lucknow when he was 28 years old with almost 200 people working under him. Usha was selling sewing machines, electric fans and agricultural pumps. This was a challenging job as the market was extremely competitive and majority of the employees i.e. the mechanics, belonged to a militant union and were unionised. The area of operation for him was interesting as criminals and bad elements roamed free there. There are interesting and scary stories of his time spent in those areas. Due to his frequent tours his family at home had to be provided armed security guards due to threats.
During this period there was pressure from his wife Kumi’s family to join Paper Products Ltd. the company founded by her father Sardari Lal Talwar.
|Sardari Lal Talwar Founder Paper Products
In the meantime, a close friend of Suresh Gupta from Middle East came visiting him in Lucknow out
of the blue with a first-class open ticket and a proposal to join the Doha headquartered Almana Group whose Chairman wanted an executive director who he could trust to join his Board as there seemed many issues with his existing team. Suresh took the trip to evaluate what was being offered, finding it very exciting he accepted the offer and joined them in late 1982. In due course, various businesses were put under him some of which he started, and seven companies including an IBM agency reported to him. He then was designated as Executive Director-International, he started businesses or had oversight of investments in Saudi, Dubai, Turkey, UK and US. After joining he recruited 16 Indian Managers in his team and parted company with four other Managers already in the company. He spent the next five years in Doha and reminisces of them as fascinating years, as a time of immense learning, travelling all over the world for 15-20 days each month. His younger daughter Shivani was born there. In the beginning of 1987 Suresh and Kumi were reviewing their career and lifestyle. Their eight-year-old elder daughter who was going to British school could not speak a word of Hindi, their mother tongue. They wondered if they should continue to live in the Middle East. The Almana Chairman understanding their dilemma offered to station Suresh in another country of his choice. At this time Suresh was also toying with the idea of taking up an assignment with United Nations but Kumi’s family was persistent and he decided to return to India and join Paper Products.
In October 1987 Suresh Gupta and family returned to India to join Paper Products as a promoter and he acquired a minority shareholding. As mentioned earlier even though being a legendary company it had problems, the paper mill they had in Roha was sold. Kumi was the youngest child of Sardari Lal Talwar her two brothers were ageing and not keeping well and have since passed away.
|Rare picture of Suresh Gupta and father in law Sardari Talwar
Paper Products Limited was founded by Sardari Lal Talwar in 1935 in Lahore, that time in undivided India. Sardari Lal was running one of the four largest departmental stores of India of that time called Moolchand of Lahore with a customer base of Indian royal families and Britishers. The store stocked goods like a modern-day multi product retail and was founded by his Grandfather Moolchand and Uncle Khairati Ram who were also very charitable persons. They were running Hospitals, Schools, Temples and Dharamshalas (subsidised dwelling for travellers). Moolchand Dharamshala in Lahore was just opposite the Lahore Railway Station. The founders passed away at an early age and leaving the business to a young 15-year-old Sardari Lal. Moolchand store was importing milk bottle caps made of paperboard and paper crimped cups for the army till one day a British army officer in charge of the Dairy came to him and suggested that he import the paper and make the caps and pastry crimp cups in India. It would save the army some amounts enabling them to extend their budget. Sardari on advice of his international friends got the hand presses developed in India, imported some dies and punches and started to make the caps and cups in Lahore in 1935.
To start this maiden manufacturing venture, he emptied one of the Moolchand store warehouses and commenced production with the signboard outside reading, “PAPER PRODUCTS”. He later imported machinery from Windmoller and Holscher Germany in 1939 to start manufacturing paper bags. This was the inception of what is today Huhtamaki-PPL.
Then came the partition of India, all was lost and left behind in Lahore when the family migrated to Delhi. For all the charitable work that the family did in what was left behind in Pakistan, Sardari Lal was given land in Lajpat Nagar as compensation. He had an emotional need to carry the philanthropic ideals of his parents, so before doing anything else he established the “Moolchand Kharaitiram Hospital” in Lajpat Nagar, South Delhi. He also started making packaging products that he was already doing before. Immediately after world war II in 1948 the Germans were holding the first Drupa, Sardari Lal, travelled by ship to attend where he met and struck friendship with some of the leading packaging people in Europe. Owing to his good reputation, Windmoller and Holscher gave him five Bag making machines with printing, on open credit. He returned to start a factory in Faridabad in 1949 followed by one in Ghatkopar Mumbai. Paper Products started to grow steadily and Sardari Talwar took his company public in 1951 retaining 51% with himself. Paper Products started to grow steadily and Sardari Talwar took his company public in 1951 retaining 51% with himself.
|Moolchand Hospital Lajpat Nagar, New Delhi
Billy Heller owner of Milprint (now a part of Bemis Company, Inc.), then the world’s leading flexible packaging company based in Milwaukee, USA became a dear friend of Sardari Lal. Billy was also a philanthropist wanting to share his knowledge with the world, had set up an organisation called Milprint International Club with global leaders including Paper Products as members. With Milprint’s technical help he built the Thana factory in 1960 to the then world class standards. At this time his elder son Dr. K K Talwar who had done his doctorate in USA at the institute of Paper Chemistry returned to India. A little later his younger son Suresh Talwar completing his master’s in economics from USA, also returned to India.
Dr KK Talwar was amongst India’s foremost scientists in chemical technology and paper making, he drove the company’s technology leadership. Suresh Talwar was the dynamic operational business head of the company. Business grew after Thana factory was commissioned, and many small factories were constructed across the country at Madras, Calcutta, Nagpur, Hyderabad and a paper mill in Roha.
Around 1980 things slowed down due to various reasons, the paper mill in Roha got sold, it was a difficult period. In 1987 the family had convinced their son-in-law Suresh Gupta to return to India and join the company. Suresh joined in October 1987 and spent a whole year working hard, travelled extensively in India and around the world to learn the technology and business as also meeting all the major customers and suppliers of PPL to understand the intricacies of their business. By 1989 Suresh was ready with his business plan that included induction of new latest technologies, while very slowly shutting down all factories except Thane. Due to the humane angle they did not abruptly sack people but informed transparently that in 10 years’ time this would happen. This with intention to let ageing employees retire and not add any new ones. However, expansion in Thane factory was kept going on, old machines were phased out and replaced by new ones and the staff from shop floor workers to upwards were given in-house training in latest technologies. Meantime a new cadre of craftsmen trainees, diploma trainees, graduate engineer trainees and management trainees was started with inductions of freshers from ITIs, diploma schools, engineering colleges and management institutes. An elaborate program of in-house training was put in place. The program was designed by Suresh and his colleagues to suit their specific needs may they be technology, customer or people handling. They were transforming the company to project their acumen in offering the latest in packaging. They went digital way ahead of time in 1989 when they started digital scanning and digital engraving of cylinders. They also started to computerise the company ahead of time. A start up consultancy company was recruited to put-in a modern computer hardware and software system (one of the first ERP’s) to replace the old card punch system. While modernising operations in Thana factory he shut down the old printing and wax coating converting lines and installed modern gravure printing and lamination lines making Thana a state of art unit once again. The first metalliser capable of producing certified barrier coatings was commissioned in 1994. There were many things done for the first time in India.
Suresh continued to add new products and expand his footprints into the world of packaging and in one of his frequent travels in 1990 he saw shrink labels in Japan. He established contact with the Fuji Seal Chairman Masaki Fujio, the global inventor of shrink sleeve and became the only licensee of Fuji Seal for shrink sleeve manufacturing in 1991. At around the same time he was discussing Therimage label technology with Dennison, later merged with Avery to become Avery Dennison. This technology enabled labels to be printed on a coated film and transfer the images on to the bottles eliminating the need for release liners. PPL installed the Therimage label production facility in Thana. Therimage was a challenge for Avery’s core business of pressure Sensitive adhesive products, so they bought Dennison and killed the Therimage business. Suresh saw the future of Therimage with Avery was not bright, so he shifted focus to pressure sensitive labels where the growth looked inevitable. PPL invested in an Aquaflex Label press and they were into manufacturing PSA labels at the Thana factory in 1994. In later years wanting to grow in labels business, since he was not finding enough of the right people and expertise to expand, he decided to buy expertise. For this reason, he bought Amar Chhajed led Webtech Labels, the leader in pharma labels in India. Then, Suresh extended his reach in fmcg by buying Chandan Khanna led Ajanta Packaging as well. In between he had acquired Positive Packaging which though large in flexibles had also taken over the labels business of SGRE in Bangalore. Therefore, now they have pressure sensitive label production in Mahape, Baddi, Rudrapur, Thana, Daman, Hyderabad and Bangalore.
|With Amar Chhajed
Being a first-time entrant into some of the evolving technologies he had to develop global suppliers and was instrumental in their eventually coming India. By 1994 Suresh was wanting to build another world class factory, despite resistance coming from the family which still held 51%, he went ahead with his plans for building it in Silvasa. PPL made a rights issue to raise the money to build the factory and enhance the working capital for growth. Construction began in the 12 acres property in 1995 and in one year the unit was in production for mainly flexible packaging including shrink sleeves. They made profit in the first year itself. Paper Products Ltd was growing at breakneck speed ranging between 20-30% per annum.
In 1998 Suresh bought the Hyderabad unit of Gautam Thapar, Ballarpur Industries which had been
setup as a joint venture with A and R, a leading European flexibles company. The unit was completely refurbished and new capacity was added. Hyderabad became the centre for wrap around labels. Meanwhile the company had made another rights issue to fund growth and the family’s holdings reduced to 32% as some members did not exercise their options. To fund the continued growth and expansion Suresh wanted to do yet another rights issue and wanted the family to increase their holding. But the younger generation were pursuing other professions, so it was decided to bring in an outside investor in synergy with PPL’s business. Van Leer and Huhtamaki combination which eventually merged to be one entity became the major investor chosen from amongst many options. Rather than the family selling its shares, PPL’s share base was doubled and the foreign partner directly invested into the company through preferential allotment of shares equivalent to 51% of the enhanced equity on 16 July 1999.
The company now with Huhtamaki as the new majority shareholder continued to aggressively pursue growth. Huhtamaki worldwide as a Euro 3 billion consumer packaging major had almost 100 companies across the globe. In 2001 and again in 2005, the Huhtamaki Board awarded PPL with the most exclusive and prestigious award of “Best Company of the Year”. PPL also received the “Most Innovative Company of the Year” award. Meanwhile Suresh was awarded the globally best “Manager of the Year” award, a unique honour.
Consequent to new fiscal incentives being announced by Government for Uttarakhand, a huge factory was built yet again on a 12-acre plot and commissioned at Rudrapur which again made a profit in the first year of production, and PPL continued with growth.
Huhtamaki wanted Suresh Gupta to head Huhtamaki’s global flexible business which he was hesitant to accept as he had no interest in moving out of Mumbai. However, he accepted to take the responsibility for Asia Oceania, operating from his base in Mumbai for three years. Finally, Huhtamaki removed his objection to running the group’s global flexible packaging business by telling him he could run it from his Bombay office. He had to accept the responsibility and ran the global business as an EVP and member of the Executive Board for Huhtamaki for six years. Thereafter he reverted to be the Executive Chairman for PPL but stepped down from his role as a promoter and simultaneously as per Huhtamaki’s desire he sold his shareholding to Huhtamaki.
Meantime industry peers honoured him with a Lifetime Achievement Award and Print Week, based on a readership vote. ranked him number 1 in the top 100 ranking of individuals in the industry. In Feb 2018, Suresh handed over day to day running of HPPL to the new Managing Director while he focused on tying up Board issues.
On 31st December 2018, Suresh Gupta retired and left the company that he so fondly nurtured.
In recent years, as a hobby, Suresh has been a supporter of socially beneficial enterprises from start-up stage and of businesses with purpose. He is also deeply interested in Art. He plans to intensify his work here and run a packaging industry advisory from his new office in Bandra. He would be happy to be of help to industry colleagues. He also plans to continue his active role in the “Indian Flexibles and Folding Cartons Association of India (IFCA)”. He leaves behind for his successors in HPPL his philosophy for success: “Sound fundamentals are enshrined in Good values; being Good compassionate people, knowing knowledge is power to be used with integrity, ever improving quality and service and continuous innovation makes for happy customers. Be the flag bearer of standard in your industry”.
Suresh Gupta can be reached at his email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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Written by Harveer Sahni Chairman Weldon Celloplast Ltd. January 2019