Born to Malayali parents in the south Indian state of Kerala, Hari Nair CEO of Digital Labels in Toronto does not sound like a Malayali, on the contrary he sounds like a typical Mumbaikar (Local longtime residents of Mumbai). The Malayali people are a Dravidian ethnolinguistic group originating from the present-day state of Kerala in India, occupying its southwestern Malabar coast.
They are predominantly native speakers of the Malayalam language. They constitute the majority of the population of Kerala. It is pertinent to mention here that Hari is proud of his Indian heritage and firmly believes in the oneness of being an Indian rather than be recognized as a part of separate religious or caste-based segment of the society. Long years ago, Hari’s parents had moved residence to Mumbai, where he grew up. They lived in Santa Cruz, close to airport. He did his schooling from Kalina Education Society and college in Parle college. He followed this with Masters in Organic Chemistry from Bombay University. Finally, he completed his MMS (Master of Management Studies) from Sydenham Institute of Management Studies, Mumbai. Post education in 1989 he along with a few others were hired by Suresh Gupta former Chairman Huhtamaki-PPL, which at that time was Paper Products Limited (PPL) promoted by the late Sardari Lal Talwar and his family. Paper Products Limited or PPL was later acquired by multinational Huhtamaki. Sardari Lal Talwar’s son in law, Suresh Gupta had joined PPL when it was facing tough times. Suresh Gupta fondly called SG, was in the process of transforming the company from purely owner driven to professionally managed one. An elaborate program of in-house training was put in place. The program was designed by SG and his colleagues to suit their specific needs, may they be technology, sales, customer or people handling. They were transforming the company to project their acumen in offering the latest in packaging. So, he hired these youngsters and trained them. He would not let them to take it easy. They were initially trained in flexible packaging, learning every part of the process including slitting. Hari mentions, “SG had long term vision.” He achieved success by implementing his ideas. These new incumbents included 6 or 7 persons to be groomed as his core management team. Hari Nair was one of them and who considers Suresh as his mentor and remains in awe of his capabilities to transform a company that was just Rupees 35 Crores when Hari joined and under SG’s leadership PPL had crossed Rupees 2300 Crores when SG retired.
Hari started his career at Thane (Mumbai) plant of PPL in flexible packaging division. When SG introduced Shrink Sleeves 1993-94, Hari was sent to Fuji seal Japan for training him and taking other persons from the company along with him, for training. In 1997 he was moved as General Manager to Hyderabad plant of PPL. Hari came to Canada in 2001 from his last posting in India at PPL Hyderabad. When asked why he moved to Canada, he is not sure, but then says, ”I always thought it will be good for his daughter plus I was fascinated by the west.” Each time he visited these countries on his business trips, he was in awe of the infrastructure, the roads and facilities.
Comparatively, he felt India was always “work in progress” and in his lifetime, it will never be like this in India. He yearned to live in these countries and drive on these roads, though today he says, these were stupid reasons. He feels as one matures and looks back; the realization comes that they were not the right reasons however his vison for his daughter Mythili getting better education has worked well. Since so many children are coming to Canada to study, she would also have had to do that but now that she is here, it is working out for her, she is a doctor and moving on well with her life. When they shifted to Canada his family had no clue what they were going to be up against, on arriving in Toronto they were all holed up in one room of a town house in which four families were living, sharing kitchen. It was an extremely challenging situation from the life they had been leading back in India.
On landing in Toronto, he tried looking for jobs in the field that he was experienced in and approached companies in similar fields. Sandeep Lal the then owner of Metro Labels called him for an interview and in response felt Hari was overqualified and he did not have a position for him at that time. For a full year thereafter, Hari did not get a break and he was so distressed that he even sent a message to his mentor SG that he might want to come back to PPL. The experienced mentor and a professional management leader that he was, SG advised him that while he was welcome to return, yet he did not want Hari to regret later and feel he did not try hard enough. SG asked him to wait for some more time and try some more, things will work out. That was the motivation coming from a mentor that made him hang on, it was the encouragement that changed his mind. A year later while he was contemplating moving out of the packaging industry, he saw many youngsters joining banks as the jobs were there on offer. On a suggestion from a friend, he did a course in financial securities hoping to get a bank job. He was then living at Kingston Ontario and met almost all the bank manager there, looking for a job.
While he was searching for a job in banks, Hari stayed connected and following up with Sandeep Lal at Metro Labels. A year had elapsed and one fine day he got two calls, one from a bank offering him a teller’s job for 10 dollars an hour and that too for just 10 hours each week which was not enough to feed a family, and the second job offer came from Sandeep Lal which Hari accepted and joined Metro Labels as an estimator. The job was entirely different from what it was in India, the workload was heavy. One of the first lessons he learnt was that in India if you are dealing with large customers the price for a particular customer remains same for all quantities of same label but in Canada, each job is estimated and quoted separately. In 6 to 8 months, he became the plant manager for Metro Labels. A year down the line he felt the discomfort as the environment was a lot different from the time, he worked in Paper Products in Mumbai. After having spent over two years there he quit Metro Labels and joined another label company Labelad. He joined as a supervisor and gradually moved up and stayed there for the next 7 years. While in PPL he had worked a General Manager and had handled from production to selling more like as an entrepreneur but in Canada the work system was entirely different and here Hari worked completely in production.
During his tenure at Labelad, while he was attending a Fasson seminar, the speaker mentioned that there were two big opportunities in North America and those were flexible packaging and digital printing. Sitting at a round table along with his colleague Chris Henderson from sales in Labelad, referring to digital printing, Hari said to Chris, “this is the future.” They parted on that note and forgot about the incident. Six months later Chris was at Hari’s office asking him if he remembered his comments on digital and whether he wished to start something. With an affirmative reply, both indulged, and Digital labels was born. Chris had spent 14 years in Labelad and it was an ideal combination with Hari as the production person and Chris as the Sales expert. From experience Hari felt that the HP Indigo 4000 series could not sustain a business expense but when the 6000 series came it became a different story and once it was two years of launch of that model, they felt comfortable to buy the press. Within six months they came in contact with Charlie Maclean President from ASL Printfx and decided to get into an association with ASL investing in Digital Labels, taking a small part of the ownership. Since they also had interest in digital. It was a win-win situation as ASL could use the digital capabilities of Digital Labels who could in turn have access to ASL’s sales network. ASL has grown and is very focused in high-end jobs like wine and spirits and for short runs and personalized variable print jobs, Digital Label’s capabilities are an important resource.
Digital labels are into manufacturing of all segments of labels, shrink labels and decals, but mostly concentrating on short and specialized runs. To start they had huge challenges as both partners were into service before and had no business background, so banks were reluctant to fund them. Working capital dried up soon. Once they got over the initial hiccups and proved their capabilities it became smooth sailing. The first 6 months were tough as buyers did not trust them since they were new in labels business but then a Godsent opportunity came to them when a scented candle manufacturer who was having trouble with current vendors of labels, approached them. That business came to them as a big saviour. Once orders from that customer came in, they were operating better and later when ASL came into the picture, things changed for good.
Chris and Hari have worked tirelessly, and their efforts have been fruitful as Digital Labels has been growing in the last few years at around 25% each year. Their business is now around 7 million Dollars, and they plan and make efforts to reach 10 million in the next 3-4 years from organic growth alone. They presently operate from a premises admeasuring 8000 square feet and the space it is fully utilized. Due to shortages faced following the pandemic, they had to increase their inventory. They rented a lot of space around their present premises so that they could maintain enough stocks to service their customers well. They operate with 25 employees, presently working 8-10 hours basis. They are a slim trim enterprise who are very careful with expenses and very focused to grow their business. Commercial real estate in Toronto is expensive so they feel that for any expansion that becomes imperative, they will try to rework their present setup and increase the working shift for the time being.
His wife Surekha with whom Hari got married in 1994, is from Goa. She is a social worker by training and now since 2007, she is working for the social services division of the city of Toronto. Their daughter Mythili was born in 1995. Hari remains connected with all his friends in India. But has no business with India. He still remains in awe of Suresh Gupta whom he looks at as a mentor and feels he has yet to meet anyone as smart, knowledgeable and professional as him.
Nostalgically and pensive in thoughts he says, “Whatever I learnt in my journey in profession so far, it has been from him”!
Written by Harveer Sahni Chairman Weldon Celloplast Limited, New Delhi December 2022