Building Saint-Gobain’s empire of glass

Vinay Kamath | Updated on: Feb 13, 2022

B Santhanam, Asia-Pacific CEO of Saint-Gobain, on how the French building materials major cracked the India market, sustainable construction and more

I can hear the car tyres scrunching as I swing into the long, fabulously green driveway to B Santhanam’s sprawling home. The drive along the picturesque East Coast Road, once you’re past the hurly-burly of the suburbs, is pleasant on a Saturday morning. Santhanam, the CEO of Asia-Pacific and India region, for Saint-Gobain, the 357-year-old French building materials conglomerate, has suggested we meet for lunch at his home, where he mostly operates from now, surrounded by a verdant green with lots of light, and a view of the shimmering Bay in the distance from his terrace garden. 

 You would expect the home of the CEO of India’s largest flat glass maker to have a lot of glass, right, and one is not disappointed. The comfortable living room is all glass on four sides, the walls stretching almost 24 feet up with the brightness of the day seeping in through the home’s open corridors. The 6 ft tall, 65-year-old Santhanam, casually clad for the weekend, in a black Boss T-shirt and shorts, gestures to the ceiling, saying that the acoustic panels are also a Saint-Gobain product, apart from all that glass, solar control films and water proofing chemicals. 

 It’s cool, so we choose to sit outside, beside a small swimming pool. With a gentle breeze blowing on my back and a steaming cup of coffee at hand, I ask Santhanam, a marathoner in his younger days, if, when he took over in 1996 at the age of 39, as Saint-Gobain India’s founding MD, perhaps one of the youngest professional non-family CEO then, did he envisage the French group to grow to be over ₹10,000 crore in sales and in a variety of construction and building products. “Definitely not, but we had ambitions, aspirations and a desire to prove that India is a good manufacturing base and could make affordable world class products,” he says. 

Memorable ad campaigns

 It’s a far cry from the time the brand was launched in the early 2000s and most in the upcountry markets pronounced it as Sant Gobind, he recalls with a chuckle. It took several memorable ad campaigns to create awareness of the brand. “Saint-Gobain has evolved beautifully; we’ve shaped the eco system and we are much more than glass. We make ceilings; acoustic panels which have almost  zero echo; construction chemicals which reduce the use of cement; mosquito/insect  meshes and so on. From a glass company we are now focused on sustainability and performance and energy efficiency and our vision is to be a leader in lean and sustainable construction,” he explains. 

“India has to build a lot of homes; can we ensure it’s lean, sustainable and aesthetic as well. We want to create an eco-system while fusing digital with it,” he says. The company has taken a strategic stake in LivSpace for home design. “People are going to spend more time in homes; they have to be multi-functional, as a home, office and a place to entertain,” he adds. 

Direct-to-Home solutions is a completely Indian business which is the first in the world for Saint-Gobain. “We will have 150 MyHome stores by end of this year. We want to do ‘phygital’, show customers what is possible physically and then provide a potential configuration digitally. We will have solar control facades and windows, shower enclosures, aesthetic and acoustic ceilings, dry wall partitions, glass for wardrobes and modular kitchen, construction chemicals for water proofing, tiling. That’s the kind of deep digital work we are doing. It’s mass customisation, that’s the Holy Grail, but which can create huge problems at the back-end in manufacturing as well as during installation. That’s where digital can step in and we believe that’s possible but it’s a journey. In the next five years we will crack it.” 

Our talk turns to the pandemic and how Saint-Gobain coped the past two years. The first wave was quite detrimental for the company as with everything closed during the lockdown, demand slumped but the glass maker had to keep its continuous furnace running all the time. The company was burning cash at the rate of ₹135 crore every month. However, growth bounced back. “Clearly, we have grown tremendously despite the Covid both in terms of innovation and digital transformation. While we paused our investments during the peak period of Covid briefly, we are now accelerating and will be investing over Rs 1,500 crore in 2022. We will have a plasterboard ceilings plant coming up in Vizag in the next three months. In Chennai we just expanded the first float line; in construction chemicals we are building a major factory in Gujarat. We are building our sixth flat glass plant in Bhiwadi and talking about a seventh. In plasterboards, we have 60 per cent and in flat glass we have 50 per cent of India’s capacity,” elaborates Santhanam. 

 In glass, Saint-Gobain’s capacity will be 1.2 million tonnes and the market is roughly 2.5 million tonnes a year. The company, he says, is an exporter of advanced products from India. “In construction chemicals, we are investing heavily in waterproofing, admixtures, additives, mortars; we will invest heavily in lean and sustainable construction products,” he adds. 

Pandemic disruption

Despite the pandemic disruption, Saint-Gobain acquired Rockwell Insulation as well as stakes in two small construction chemical companies. It plans to invest in glass for solar panels as well. “The group’s current run rate is  ₹11,000 crore per annum in revenues. Despite the Indian economy being below 2019 levels, we have grown top line by 16 per cent and bottomline by 20 per cent, across businesses. Some businesses have done extremely well. Covid has helped us to become stronger, leaner and fitter in terms of efficiency, productivity and asset turnover as well. The current revenues; if by 2030 does not become  ₹30,000 crore it would not keep in pace with our aspirations. We have huge ambitions on homes.” 

We’ve been conversing for a couple of hours, and Santhanam says we need to break for lunch and carry on talking. We are joined by his gracious wife, Rajani, who has ensured a great spread for us. There’s  mooli paratha, from home-grown  moolimutter paneer; sautéed potatoes, a veg biryani with a  boondi pachadi; and, of course, a delectable curd rice. As we dig in, I ask Santhanam about his early life. He’s been to the bluest of blue-chip schools: a civil engineer from IIT Madras and an MBA from IIMA, before joining Grindwell Norton.

Santhanam spent his early years in the coastal town of Cuddalore, where his father was a doctor. And so was his great grandfather. Santhanam went to St Joseph’s, a Jesuit school, the school building of which was Robert Clive’s stable yard when he was stationed in Cuddalore. Life was good till he was 10 years old till his father died in an accident and the family shifted to his grandfather’s house. 

Growing up, he recalls, was a combination of a conservative Iyengar home with a lot of liberal inputs. “We talk about today’s connected world, but at that time, we had magazines such as LIFE, Time, Reader’s Digest at home that gave us all the exposure. I remember going to a hairdresser and asking for a Beatle’s cut in 1965, even before they became a global phenomenon,” he recalls with a guffaw. But, as it is with most Indian homes, his family was comfortable in both worlds, without being messed up by either world. “We learnt to live in a world of paradoxes,” he adds. 

Immense impact

IITM was hugely transformational for the young Santhanam. 1973 was the first year IIT M had 20 per cent reservations but as all the seats were not filled, they had a small batch size of just 210 students. “IITM was a huge liberation and had an immense impact on me. You meet extraordinary talent; there was a wide repertoire of skills and knowledge. Our debates on world and national issues were fierce,” he recalls. There were debates on the Vietnam war, bank nationalisation, privy purses, Emergency, Watergate scandal and then there was also Mardi Gras, IITM’s famous student festival. 

Bhaskar Bhat, Titan Co’s former MD, two years senior at IITM, has been a role model, and Santhanam followed him into IIMA. “The natural progression was to go the US, but around 1978, IIMA was seen as something unique; it had an aura. I had this opportunity to go to the US, but then had calls from IIMA,B and C and XLRI. It was less transformational than IITM for me; while IIT M was quantitative, we were exposed to the qualitative skills one didn’t have,” he says. 

There was a lot of economics to read and it also piqued Santhanam’s other interests in operations research. There were elective courses on psychology and a lot of organisational behaviour courses, which, he recalls, were taught in a dry manner. “Little did I know that 40 years later, the one work I do most is understanding motivations of people, which is what I did in psychology, and every decision is on organisation structure, design, change management, based on the foundational principles we had learnt,” he explains. With lunch over, we move back by the pool and are presented with a dessert of a sugar-free fig sweet, with almond and pistachio slivers. I help myself liberally. 

From IIMA, Santhanam got picked up by abrasives manufacturer Grindwell Norton in 1980. Life was a steady progression till 1996 when Santhanam was a general manager and Saint-Gobain became the majority stakeholder by virtue of buying Norton in the US. In 1996, Santhanam’ s life, in his own words, took a serendipitous turn. Saint-Gobain wanted to expand its operations in India and asked the Grindwell Norton team to hire a consultant to come up with a market survey for its products. Apart from glass, Saint-Gobain also owned 30 per cent stake in the spectacles brand, Essilor, which it sold later. 

As events unfolded, Santhanam eschewed a consultant as they were too expensive and his team came up not only with a survey but a business plan as well. “We not only did a strategic blueprint but we also gave a go-to-market strategy. We said float glass was a tough market as all the players in the market were making losses, but the opportunity was fantastic,” he recalls. Four months from that presentation, Saint-Gobain designated Santhanam as the MD, with $125 million in investment. As Saint-Gobain was not going with a JV partner, it had to get an FIPB approval. Murasoli Maran was the Commerce Minister and cleared the project in record time.

A glass academy

While parallely looking at sites in various states, Santhanam zeroed in on TN, on a site a proactive TN government identified on the Chennai-Bengaluru highway. “We were the sixth flat glass maker to come in but we felt the others did not understand India; India needed solar control glass; we had advanced products in our portfolio and we knew we had to shape the eco system. We talked about green buildings and energy coats for buildings very early. We anticipated and advanced the trends. We also established a glass academy in 2005 and trained over 2,000 diploma holders who are now supervising large and complex installations. We also created awareness with architects on the usage of glass, which can reduce costs and weight of a building,” he explains. 

I ask Santhanam how long he intends to keep up the tempo as his portfolio has grown increasingly wider. Apart from managing Asia-Pacific for Saint-Gobain (all out of Chennai, he points out), he has also taken over as the MD for Grindwell Norton. “The day my motivation flags; ideas don’t flow; performance drops; if two of these three conditions are met, you should walk into the sunset. We live in a constantly evolving and dynamic world; you need motivation to go through the grind of work.” Tongue firmly-in-cheek, I quip, “So, that’s why it’s called Grindwell Norton!” He guffaws loudly, “We have a slogan in the company for that: Grit, Grind and Glory.” On that note, I get back to my grind. 

Published on February 13, 2022
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