‘Dilution in quality hurts trust in your product’

From making pre-laminated boards into a multi-crore-rupee business across India, to introducing the world’s first bagasse-based thin boards to the domestic manufacturing industry; from bringing in tubular boards, acoustics and fire cores for the door industry, Mr Nitin Vaze and his company, Sleek Boards LLP, have come a long way in these 25 years. The industry pioneer and his energetic heir-apparent, Mr Amit Vaze, continue to educate the industry on technologically advanced wood panels to upscale quality in the woodworking sector. Dhananjay Sardeshpande caught up with the duo recently. Excerpts:

Earning stripes: Nitin Vaze is felicitated by the management of Malaysia’s HeveaBoard Berhad for best performance.

Can you briefly explain the reason for establishing Sleek Boards, and the progression in its history as a business?

Sleek Boards is my first business venture as an entrepreneur. Prior to that I had been heading Novopan’s marketing team and was able to take it to the position of a brand leader in the pre-laminated boards business.

In 1997, I was part of a successful experiment between the private and cooperative sectors in Maharashtra, where a factory started to produce the world’s first thin boards from bagasse. I headed the all-India marketing assignment for the new product.

Sleek Boards was then formed to reflect the sleek (thin) boards we intended to market to the Indian furniture, interiors and door manufacturing industry. Sleek Boards is a family-owned company – my wife Leena looks after finance and accounting; and my son Amit joined me in 2018, after completing his CPA (US) to strengthen my marketing efforts.

We have had a good backend team to provide our customers with prompt and timely service throughout these 25 years.

The success in the journey added many other global players in the wood panels industry. These include HeveaBoard Berhad from Malaysia; Star Particle Boards Mills from Bangladesh; Sauerland Spanplatten from Germany; Kronospan factories from Romania, Hungary and Italy; SPB Panel from Thailand; and Athmer from Germany.

What are the three most important business milestones in the company’s history?

The first challenging assignment was the independent countrywide launch of a globally unknown product: bagasse-based thin particle board of 2.5 mm to 6 mm. Developing applications successfully for these boards, in order to generate mass consumption, was the first milestone.

During the journey I learnt that the door industry in India was using timber for filling flush doors. My opinion is that there are better uses of timber than as door infill!

We embarked on finding an eco-friendly solution and located a low-density jute particle board manufacturer in Bangladesh. This became a promising alternative product, and several door manufacturers embraced the eco-friendly option.

The increasing demand for better doors led to our tie-up with the world’s largest door component producer, Sauerland Spanplatten from Germany. The company gave us not only India, but another 12 countries in the Far East to market.

I am proud to start the revolution in changing the mindset of door manufacturers and end consumers to accept engineered door-sets. Surely I can consider this to be the second milestone.

The third milestone came very recently by facilitating India’s first break-bulk shipment of approximately 11,000 cubic metres of wood panels from Thailand. We were able to showcase to the Indian wood panel industry that high quality panels have a high volume market in India. The right partners sharing a similar belief – of not compromising on quality – made this possible for us.

What are the three most important learnings for the company so far?

We believe in high quality as a fundamental benchmark; we persevere in our belief; and we join with only such suppliers who have integrity.

In what three important ways has the panels sector changed?

We see an explosion of consumption of panels, but the use of plywood still dominates the trade. We could have seen a far wider acceptance of engineered panels if the quality produced by the domestic industry was at par with international standards.

Urgent change is required in the basic understanding that quality should never be compromised. The short-term gains are very few when compared to the long-term loss suffered by the industry as a whole.

In what three important ways has the doors sector changed?

The doors produced in India are principally door blanks and semi-finished doors with heavy dependence on wood batons – a wasteful drain of natural resources. Unfortunately, even today, the importance of doors in India is just a panel to close the hole in the wall.

Gradually, end-customers are looking at factory produced door sets and pre-hung doors. Yet, the basic function of the door – privacy of sight and privacy of sound – stays elusive to most users because they are driven by pricing. The vast majority of doors in India offer a thin curtain with locks, nothing more!

The lack of knowledge, understanding and exposure of the end consumers is exploited by the majority by pushing sub-par performance doors. Merely pasting an attractive design as overlay cannot be the sole consideration.

Performance of a door has to be given its due. The Indian doors industry has a long way to go; but we are crawling in the right direction.

What has been your experience in representing various brands since 1997?

We have enjoyed our partnerships with various suppliers; they have given us a free hand to develop markets and supported us in all our endeavours.

In the intervening years we also came across suppliers who thought Indians could be less mindful of quality. We stopped dealing with such suppliers in the larger interest of our customer base.

We never accept any dilution of quality from our suppliers. Our customers deserve high quality products and nothing short of that will pass the Sleek Boards’ benchmark.

How has Amit taken to the business? What is he bringing to the table?

Amit has merged in the business after extensive training in factories in Germany and Romania. He is quite seized with the vast expanse of the market opportunities which are available for quality discerning customers.

Post Covid, the challenges have risen manifold. It requires thinking out of box. I am happy and proud that Amit has successfully handled and brought India’s first break-bulk particle board and MDF shipment.

Has the government approach to furniture manufacturing helped in its growth? What else needs to be done?

A lot needs to be done to upgrade furniture manufacturing in India. The world over, healthy furniture has been the ongoing trend for more than a decade, with usage of low formaldehyde emission wood panels. In India, unfortunately, there is no control over VOC emissions by governments or from within the industry.

Most countries allow only E1 or even lower emission levels for production and use in furniture. Secondly, furniture needs to be made only by boards meant for furniture, such as the European P2 (EN 312) standard for particle boards.

What remains to be done to make Indian suppliers and manufacturers globally competitive?

India has a vast export potential in the panels and furniture business. Government needs to address the pre-shipment costs at the ports – which in some cases exceed even ocean freight!

Panel material is a low-cost commodity and its rates are influenced by global demand and supply. Indian manufacturers also have to incorporate systems in the manufacturing process for consistency in quality and emissions.

What would be your piece of advice to your clients and furniture manufacturers?

Stop infighting in the domestic industry; and stop cutting corners on quality to compete on price.

Think global and produce globally accepted quality. If you do so, the global markets will open up for you sooner than later.

Remember, there is no end to quality dilution; and each dilution attempt puts the confidence the consumer has in your product at risk.

 

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