1996, Italy. A father and son were eagerly awaiting their first world contract. The duo were about to meet the CEO of an Italian helmet major, who entered into a technology partnership with the Kapurs two years ago and were eager to source from the Indian partner. “They would be pleasantly surprised to see the quality,” Subhash Kapur thought to himself. It was a big moment for Kapur, whose father came to India after partition. After being one of Pakistan’s wealthiest families with a chain of gold shops and acres of land under their belt, the Kapurs started from scratch in India. Over the next few years, they tried a few small businesses that couldn’t be scaled, like making bags for salt players.
In 1964, Kapur started Steelbird Group manufacturing automotive components, then moved into the helmet business over the next few years. His son Rajeev joined him right after graduating from high school in 1989. The reason was not a lack of interest in studies. “I was too impatient,” recalls the managing director of Steelbird, one of India’s leading helmet manufacturers. He justifies his haste. “Three years of study, then a few years of MBA… I didn’t want to wait that long,” says the second-generation entrepreneur who joined the company at age 20.
Back then, in 1989, Steelbird was making about 100 helmets a day. Branded headphones were a hyper-niche market in India, and the Kapurs weren’t playing the price warrior. “Hamari helmet pehen ke koi marna nahin chahiye (nobody should die with our helmet on),” was Kapur’s advice to his son, who was frustrated to see a flourishing sea of fake helmets across the country. The patriarch’s message was clear: don’t cut corners. “The helmet may be a business, but it’s a safety device,” he pointed out.
The youngster soaked up the message and started working on a bigger game plan. In 1994, he succeeded in forging a technical collaboration with Bieffe, which was then the world’s leading manufacturer of helmets. The idea was not to sell Italian helmets in India but to supply them with helmets. For two years, Steelbird worked on making a helmet that could meet world standards on all parameters.
Meanwhile, in Italy in 1996, father and son sat at the desk, with “Made in India” headphones parked securely in their laps. The CEO came in, liked the quality, but was more interested in one small component of the helmet: the buckle. ” You succeeded ? How much did it cost you? He asked. The Kapurs looked at each other. They didn’t do the loop. They had bought it from a contract manufacturer and it had come for peanuts. “Yes, we did and it’s for 30 cents,” Rajeev said. “Okay, give us a million pieces a year,” the CEO ordered and signed the contract. The Kapurs had hit a jackpot.
Once back in India, the Kapurs realized that their pot of gold would remain empty. Their buckle supplier expressed their inability to fulfill such a large order. “I don’t have the infrastructure to do it,” he lamented. Other buckle manufacturers lacked the technical know-how to produce high quality products. The duo panicked and contacted every manufacturer of automotive components. That didn’t work either. “Imagine, we had a huge order, we could make tons of money, and in reality we were looking at zero work and zero money,” says Rajeev.
For the Kapurs, the execution of the contract was essential. Steelbird had been struggling with a series of failed ventures – starting with safety kit for motorcyclists in 1984 and making satellite dishes in 1992 – over the past few years. The helmet trade had not taken off in India due to a wide prevalence of counterfeits, and the group was now banking on exports and vertical automotive components to keep the family afloat. The Italian major’s loop control was the only lifeline father and son could see.
In an act of desperation, Rajeev decided to manufacture the buckle at his helmet factory. After weeks of testing and tweaking, it managed to replicate the quality. But there was another problem. The buckle needed a powder coating, and the Kapurs didn’t know how. They got hold of a contract manufacturer, but all the supplies were rejected due to poor quality. The second-generation contractor decided to set up a powder coating unit, and the Kapurs eventually shipped their contract. For the next three years, everything went according to plan. The domestic helmet market remained silent, but the export business flourished.
Then came the crisis in 2000. The Italian owner died, his business ran into financial difficulties and the Kapurs sat with huge stock and no takers. Signing an exclusive contract meant living an isolated life without contact with other global players. Export activity came to a screeching halt and Rajeev embarked on a 45-day trip to Europe. “It was an awareness tour,” he says. More than a dozen buckle buyers refused to do business with an Indian entity. Despite the fact that Steelbird supplied an old European major, people still suspected the quality of an Indian company. “I was even prepared to sell the loop for 20 cents, but there were no buyers,” he says.
A miracle happened the last week of the tour. An Italian company placed an order for half a million loops. Things have gradually got back on track for the Kapurs who have also managed to land a whopping 7 lakh helmet supply order every year. Rajeev took out a bank loan of ₹23 crore, boosted existing production and set up new factories to produce more helmets. In 2002, the factory shipped the first export order, but misfortune struck again. There was a huge fire and the factory was gutted. Over the next year, Rajeev managed to secure more loans and build new manufacturing centers. Things went well for two years.
In 2005, the Kapurs again hit a bump. The Italian company, which bought helmets, went bankrupt. Rajeev was discouraged, he decided to quit the helmet business, and the Kapurs sold a few factories to clear debts. Rajeev, meanwhile, has gone back to the old loop business. The business flourished until 2012, then history was about to repeat itself. Rajeev could sense a shift in preference from European countries to China which had become a center of cheap manufacturing. Another problem appeared. A group of buckle buyers across Europe and other countries were getting into other businesses. The curls quickly became blurred.
Thus, Rajeev decided to return to the helmet business. In 2012, Steelbird was manufacturing 5,000 parts per month. The market for branded headphones was recovering, the percentage of counterfeits in the segment was decreasing, and consumers were willing to pay extra for good quality. The Kapurs have decided to double the marketing of helmets.
Fast forward to 2022. Steelbird Group, which deals in helmets, bike gear, panniers, visors, accessories such as crash protectors and seat covers, retail products at the retail, skincare and haircare, recorded revenue of ₹418.5 crore in FY22. Of this, two-thirds came from the headphone business. The Kapurs now export to over 50 countries and have six manufacturing plants across India. The third generation, Rajeev’s son, Kashish, joined the company in 2016 and is involved in new verticals of sports helmets and manufacturing of other components for export. The patriarch is happy with the progress. “I risked a lot and gained a lot,” he says. However, what is most satisfying, he points out, is seeing that the next generation is always willing to experiment, fail and learn. “They are still hungry for more. That’s what matters most. »
Rajeev shares the biggest takeaway for a helmet entrepreneur. “You can never give in under pressure. You always have to stay attached,” he smiles, adding that it is not easy to be a helmet entrepreneur in India, which is still awash with counterfeits. “The percentage could have dropped to 50 from 90 ten years ago. But counterfeits still reign”, he laments. Consumers, he says, are still not serious about protecting their lives, and enforcement mechanisms need to do a lot to ensure that quality rules are not flouted. Emphasizing that a family business is like the components of a helmet, Rajeev believes that each part must act in sync for it to work. “There is no business without family and no family without business,” he says.
What Kapurs, however, need to be careful of is the extent of diversification. They used to experiment too much. “Why would a helmet and accessories brand make skin and hair care products?” asks Ashita Aggarwal, professor of marketing at the SP Jain Institute of Management and Research. “Doing too much will hurt concentration.” When you strap on a helmet, she hints, your eyes are firmly on the road. “The Kapurs must not forget the thumb rule of the helmet industry, which is concentration,” she adds.
Rajeev thinks a wider game helps him keep his retailers happy. “They can sell more of the same brand,” he says. “Even if I ride fast, I wear a safety helmet,” he smiles.
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(This story appears in the August 12, 2022 issue of Forbes India. To visit our archive, click here.)