BKT treads a path from bike to big tyres

Arvind Poddar, chairman of tyre company BKT, helped celebrate ten years of its Earthmax tyre. He spoke to Patrick Smith about the past, present and future – in our sister title Aggregates Business

The Greek island of Crete is steeped in history.

It is home to the remains of Knossos Palace, the largest archaeological site on the island and Europe’s oldest city, and it was also once the centre of the earliest known civilisation, the Minoan, which lasted for nearly 1,300 years having started some 4,700 years ago.

And it was on this sun-drenched island, the largest and most populous of the Greek islands, that Balkrishna Industries, the Mumbai, India-based multi-national tyre manufacturer, better known as BKT, decided to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the introduction of a “milestone tyre.”

For a week, the Out of the Blue, Capsis Elite Resort on a private peninsula, and its meeting facilities, provided the venue for the conferences, and it has now gained some sizeable BKT-branded sea inflatables.

Arvind Poddar is chairman and managing director of BKT, a position he held when the company introduced its Earthmax tyre line-up, the company’s specific off-the-road (OTR) range for quarries and mines in 2008.

So, with his son Rajiv, joint managing director of BKT, and Dilip Vaidya, president and director of technology of BKT, and their families, it was time to celebrate the birthday in style. And they did, along with another member of the management team, Lucia Salmaso, the company’s European managing director.

Hundreds of dealers, guests and media representatives from all over the world flew into the airport at Heraklion, Crete’s capital, to attend the conferences, and hear from the team about BKT’s past, present and its future.

They are excited about the company’s objective to achieve a larger market share in the all-steel radial segment of the global OTR market by 2025, and of developments that will see the introduction of giant  tyres; the removal of latex rubber from the manufacturing process, and its involvement with carbon black, a product used as a reinforcing filler in tyres and other rubber products.

“Why Crete?”, asked one of the guests who had been at the opening of the company’s US$500 million showpiece “game- changer” plant in Bhuj, state of Gujarat, western India, in December 2015.

Sitting by a beach at sunset, along with other guests, it was hard not to reply, ‘why not?’

However, the choice came about after a series of discussions, and it was no accident that banners marking BKT’s presence in Agia Pelagia, west of Heraklion, had ancient Greek symbols as the centrepiece.

Talking with Poddar, who holds a bachelor’s degree in Commerce, he is clear about his hobbies.

“Business is my hobby,” he says, a point proved as he turns the conversation to BKT, its products and what the future holds.

“Ten years of success for our Earthmax range: safety, performance and quality, which have been continuously further developed, acquiring step-by-step an enormous meaning for our corporate history.

“Our past, present and future are concentrated in this tyre line-up. For this reason, celebrating this anniversary today, means to highlight the values of innovation and progress, which have led our company ever since.

“Building and constructing the Palace of Knossos was a great achievement and advancement in ancient times: today we would call it a milestone. Similarly, engineering and building our first Earthmax tyre has been a great achievement and progress in modern times, a milestone in BKT’s history.”

Poddar has always been involved with the family business, which was founded by his late father and former chairman, Mahabirprasad Poddar, and is now managed by a third generation of the family.

“BKT started way back in 1987. It started with two-wheelers, three-wheelers and then four-wheelers, mainly for the Indian market.

“There was competition with low-quality producers and so on, and at that time it was only price, price, price.

“So, we decided to move out and wanted to shift and we moved into off-highway tyres in 1994.

“In 1994 we started with agriculture, mainly based on exports, and gradually we developed the agricultural, mining, industrial, earthmoving: all the entire range.”

The group had its beginnings in 1963- 64 when Poddar’s father started a textiles business in Mumbai, a side of the family business that is now run separately.

“At that time there was also a shortage of bicycle tyres. So, we started processing bicycle tyres and after perfecting these we wanted to go for a high-speed two-wheeler tyre.

“Then we added auto rickshaw and car tyres, and in the early 1990s we decided to move in a big way into the off-the-road tyre business,” says Poddar, whose company now employs some 7,500 people across five plants at Aurangabad and Dombivli; Bhiwadi and Chopanki (Rajasthan state), and the largest state-of-the-art plant at Bhuj, the development of which was overseen by Rajiv Poddar.

“Because we moved our entire OTR all-steel radial manufacturing line to  Bhuj, the development and production of OTR giant tyres has been possible.”

He points out that the Bhuj production plant is part of BKT’s strategy to become a sizeable player in the global OTR tyre market and to achieving a sales volume of 40,000tonnes/year in the all-steel radial segment by 2020, with a strategic objective to reach a 4% market share in OTR by 2025, when the Bhuj site will run at full capacity.

“However, for BKT Earthmax it has been a great challenge, if we consider how it came into being in 2008.

“It happened in a critical moment and behind a backdrop, when the entire world did not assist a period of change, but a completely changing era.

“Indeed, the global crisis touched all markets and had a strong impact on operators in the mining, earthmoving and construction industries, and led to company reorganisation, downsizing and even closing in many cases. Our entire sector and all processes had to be newly defined.

“In spite of the crisis, we firmly believed and were fully aware that there was a space within the vast tyre market, where we could bring in our knowledge and expertise, and could find the right positioning and value which has today found recognition worldwide.

“We grasped the opportunity, and now, in the light of the first signs of a recovery, our visionary force and capacity to firmly believe in changing our pathway seems to be rewarded.

“Of course, our choice to enter the earthmoving segment in 2006 was not reckless, but the result of careful market analysis in a complex and, at that time, under-estimated segment with a few premium players on the one hand, and smaller entities on the other hand, mostly of Asian origin with definitely poor product quality.

“As its name says, Earthmax has a close link to the terrain it operates on: the earth.  A tough environment that every productout of the range is ready to face and to master. Earthmax is a tool but also your mate in the most challenging operations, that ensures safety, performance and quality, as well as time and cost savings.”

The 25-model range, which is available in several sizes and versions, is said to be designed to favour enhanced load distribution on the ground for dumpers, wheeled loaders, dozers, graders and some other multi-purpose vehicles.

Indeed, Poddar likens some of the premium features of the tyre to BKT, the company.

One of Earthmax’s distinguishing marks is its large footprint. Leaving a footprint or a footmark, in other words, an impression, has always been BKT´s aim towards our market, leaving a sign to followers, being a reference point and guide, without fearing the barriers, but being certainly one step ahead.

“Talking of resistance, in the literal sense, means the capacity of withstanding impacts such as forces, cuts, wear, heat or any other adverse conditions. Applied to our company, it is the ability of facing and overcoming any situation or obstacle.

“Another attribute is robustness. For a tyre, this means being strong and powerful to support the vehicle and its movements. In a similar way, we can see BKT’s market approach. Being robust means staying upright and being ready for any change.

“Traction, as well, is another key feature that needs no explanation for a tyre. In our corporate reality, the metaphor shows the ability and concepts of BKT’s leadership, being a forerunner, always going and thinking ahead.

“The next plus is versatility. This is the expression of BKT’s ability to adapt to all environments, to all industries. In the distant past, our company had started successful operations in the textile business. Being versatile means being flexible, cooperative, tolerant, and easy-going.”

He says that stability is a must for the entire Earthmax line-up, and the same goes for a manager who must do his daily job in such a way that he guarantees stability to those who trust and rely on him.

“Closely linked to stability, is road holding.

And in business, it is the trait of keeping promises, sticking to beliefs and values, in order to remain both trustworthy and consistent.

“Durability seems to be an obvious tyre feature. The outcome of know-how, skills, expertise and research in advanced technologies. Similarly, a healthy company requires faith and courage and strong passion stemming from our work, aiming at operating for a long time and for our users’ benefit.

“Finally comfort, a great benefit, which obviously relates to the driver’s well-being. In terms of our corporate philosophy, it refers to the attention we pay to our co-workers, to their quality of life, their well-being and the common good.”

It is to this end that the company introduced its BKT Foundation, which has been committed for a long time to support charitable activities for the benefit of people, sustaining nutrition programmes as well
as child education projects with particular focus on girls, or sponsoring humanitarian activities across the world.

Poddar says the entire team and employees at BKT are focused  on innovation and new technologies, and one  of these has been the recent joint research agreement with US biotechnology company Kultevat to develop tyres made from Russian dandelion.

“Within the context of this cooperation, new compounds will be developed based on TKS rubber [Taraxacum kok-saghyz or Russian dandelion], which will gradually replace natural rubber,” says Poddar, who turns to Dilip Vaidya, president and director of technology BKT, for further innovations.

“We are developing high-performance compounds by using nano-materials, which ensure improved thermal and mechanical stability,” Vaidya says.

“Examples for this experimental research are graphene, nano-clay and carbon black. For the latter material, BKT has recently set up a plant stretching over eight hectares at Bhuj.”

The company has also geared up to produce giant tyres, using knowledge gained in development of the Earthmax for designing optimised tread patterns for 51” and 57”  sizes, which are expected to be  released  in Q2 2019 and the Q2 2020, respectively.

“This is thanks to significant investments into new tyre-building machinery that is suitable for the sophisticated and complex processes of building giants,” says Poddar.

“To carry out such works we would always like to put back some of our profits into the company, and a major investment is in R&D.”

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