The company began as a trading operation in Karachi, dealing in a few aromatic and perfumery compounds that were used as manufacturing inputs in various industries. It was started by a maternal uncle who shifted his base to Delhi soon after the partition. Its name – the Azad Bharat Chemical Company – was apt, given the historic events playing out at the time. The general outlook for businesses was bleak in the midst of all this upheaval. It was hard to survive, let alone grow in this environment. The company was low on funds and it was all we could do to stay afloat in those early years. However, the company managed to survive and achieve a level of stability over the decade that followed. My father and his brother took over the business in 1958 and began some consolidation efforts. They also set out to actively widen the customer base across industries and regions within the country.

The story of how one small but hardy business uses solid relationships – rather than digital technology and connections – to weather its ups and downs.

The company began as a trading operation in Karachi, dealing in a few aromatic and perfumery compounds that were used as manufacturing inputs in various industries. It was started by a maternal uncle who shifted his base to Delhi soon after the partition. Its name – the Azad Bharat Chemical Company – was apt, given the historic events playing out at the time. The general outlook for businesses was bleak in the midst of all this upheaval. It was hard to survive, let alone grow in this environment. The company was low on funds and it was all we could do to stay afloat in those early years.

However, the company managed to survive and achieve a level of stability over the decade that followed. My father and his brother took over the business in 1958 and began some consolidation efforts. They also set out to actively widen the customer base across industries and regions within the country. Their strategy paid off, in large part because they were willing to tolerate low margins while keeping their product quality and delivery standards very high.

Simultaneously, they worked on building a network of suppliers who could meet these standards. Through such concerted relationship building, the company slowly began to be recognized as a small but quality- focused player in the industry. I joined the company in 1976 and eventually took over as the acting proprietor in 1980. The License Raj held sway over the business landscape at the time and red tape was accepted as an unavoidable part of doing business.

Still, as the third owner of a family-run enterprise, I was fortunate to assume charge at a point when all necessary permits had been granted and the company was running like a well-oiled machine. However, employee welfare had not been a priority until that point. And it was beginning to show. Our workforce was largely unskilled and most members did not have too many years of schooling. Attrition was high within the group as they left in search of greener pastures in larger companies.

I realized that they needed reasons to stay and worked on ways to reduce attrition and improve loyalty. We introduced incentives, initiated salary hikes and provided gym access and medical coverage as we sought to build a reputation as an employer that takes care of its people. Today, we have employees who have been with us for more than thirty years.

As economic liberalization took hold in the nineties, we encountered both challenges and opportunities. The market was expanding but many international players were entering to stake their claims to it. It had already evolved into a buyer’s market in the eighties and as the government loosened its controls, competition further intensified.

We took stock and made some changes. This included streamlining our structure and ramping up our sales and marketing efforts. We also reached out to international players to explore agreements or partnerships.

We went back to the drawing board to evaluate our quality and customer satisfaction levels. Industry norms were changing and we had to update our offerings in order to address these and meet market demand.

Since the inputs we supply are used to create widely used and consumed products in cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and bakeries, the quality of these inputs becomes critical.

Quality is one of the two things my father taught me never to compromise on. The other one is integrity. Holding on to these principles may have cost us some business over the years but we would not have had it any other way. Through all the goodwill built over time, we have been able to hold our own in a buyer’s market. We are still a small operation – with about eight full-time employees and fifteen to twenty workers in the manufacturing facility we opened in 2009. However, our customer base is large and diverse. Interestingly, just as I am the third member of the family to run the business, we have many customers who are three generations into their association with us.

In retrospect, it boils down to the relationships you cultivate – with your employees, your customers and your suppliers. We talk to our customers often – daily with some, and at least two to three times a week with most of them. Sometimes, this involves picking up a phone but, more often than not, we go in to meet them to find out how our inputs can be customized to improve their end products.

The Azad Bharat Chemical Company doesn’t have a website or a substantial online presence apart from a static directory page. That may possibly change now that my nephew (the fourth generation) has also joined the business. But there is a number for prospects to call me directly. I am always happy to talk and discuss what we can do for them.

Kanwaljit Singh is the proprietor of the Azad Bharat Chemical...