Started with Rs 2 lakh, this engineer’s PPE business now protects India’s healthcare workers from COVID-19
Rajesh Nigam, cofounder and president, Karam
After graduating from IIT Kanpur with a degree in metallurgical engineering, Rajesh Nigam joined his family’s chemicals trading business in 1992. The engineer worked there for two years, until he met safety equipment supplier Hemant Sapra.
Hemant used to provide construction companies with safety and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). He told Rajesh that large engineering and construction companies such as L&T were looking for good quality safety equipment.
However, the equipment was expensive since it was being imported from North and South American countries. This opened up a Make in India opportunity to manufacture economical safety equipment that was on par with international standards.
“At that time, both Hemant and I were involved in our fields of trading safety tools and chemicals, respectively. I recognised Hemant’s marketing skills and he recognised my technical skills. We both had a strong entrepreneurial spirit, and so, we were motivated to come together and start a protective equipment business,” Rajesh tells SMBStory.
This led to the genesis of Karam in 1994. The Noida-based manufacturing enterprise makes PPE such as safety helmets, safety eyewear, hearing protection, face protection, hand protection, protective workwear, safety shoes, and a range of fall protection equipment.
Today, it has grown into a Rs 520 crore revenue, 3,300-member strong firm. After the emergence of COVID-19, it has expanded its product portfolio and has been manufacturing chemical splash goggles and medical face shields for doctors, healthcare workers, and police forces.
Hemant Sapra, cofounder and president, Karam
In an exclusive interview with SMBStory, Rajesh recounts the early days of his business and explains how it grew into one of India’s leading PPE manufacturers.
Edited excerpts from the interview:
SMBStory [SMBS]: After Hemant and you identified the business opportunity, how did you gather the resources to start Karam?
Rajesh Nigam [RN]: At the time of inception, I was around 29 years old. My initial capital was just Rs 2 lakh. We wanted to set the ball rolling and reinvest everything we earned into building the business. My family sustained its daily needs through the contribution of my father's firm, and so I did not have to worry about any other requirements and responsibilities.
I borrowed small amounts of Rs 10,000 and Rs 20,000, from friends and well-wishers to put into the business, and returned the amount to each one of them with interest once our business began to show some returns.
SMBS: What were your initial challenges? How did you overcome them?
RN: The products we were making were niche. They were also technically-demanding. Hence, our prime focus was on quality at each step of the production, which was necessary yet challenging to maintain.
These products were also difficult to sell. Our first marketing team used to demonstrate the use of our products by wearing our safety harnesses and jumping off from tall buildings to show how the product arrested a fall.
SMBS: What is the business model?
RN: Our business plan was to make PPEs that conformed to international standards. We started with manufacturing safety belts used by labourers who worked on high rises in the construction industry. We were the first ones in India to manufacture ISI-certified, full-body harnesses conforming to the EN standard.
Simultaneously, we planned to educate safety officers in the Indian industry to use good quality products that would save their workers' lives.
The Karam factory in Lucknow
SMBS: How did Karam diversify into different product/brand categories?
RN: We started Karam as a fall protection safety equipment company which provided technologically advanced products that could also control shock absorption. We started with this and made all our products in-house.
Then, we got into understanding the larger industry of safety equipment. We diversified into a full-fledged safety equipment manufacturer and started making all types of PPE, ranging from safety helmets, face shields, safety shoes to eyewear, and more.
Now, with the ongoing pandemic, we are looking at further diversifying our portfolio and entering the medical safety stream in the near future.
SMBS: Where does manufacturing happen?
RN: Karam has a strong manufacturing setup equipped with modern, technology-driven machinery. All systems and processes are assessed by SGS UK, and are registered to ISO 9001-2015.
Our export manufacturing unit is located in the outskirts of Lucknow. The factory is spread over 23 acres, and is entirely vertically-integrated. All the products are manufactured completely in-house, which means the components of our fall protection range are manufactured within one large campus. Yarn and steel are the only external raw materials needed for making these products.
The idea is to have complete control over the finest details of production to give us high levels of quality standards.
Our domestic products manufacturing unit is located in the foothills of the Himalayan range, in the small township of Sitarganj, Uttarakhand. Spanning over 20 acres, it is equipped with technology in injection moulding, shoe moulding, and harness manufacturing.
SMBS: Who is your target audience? What is your strategy to reach them?
RN: We are primarily a B2B business and our target audience includes fire and safety officers, labour associations, and companies in the industrial manufacturing sectors. We have been spreading awareness about industrial safety for workers through our mobile demo vans initiative across the country.
Our complete, 150-product range of PPE is covered in the demo vans, accompanied with product displays, demos, testing, and training. As far as retail is concerned, we have gone online and Karam products are available on our ecommerce platform as well as on Amazon and Flipkart.
The Karam factory in Sitarganj
SMBS: What were the toughest moments the company faced?
RN: The global recession of 2008 was one of the toughest challenges for us. This adversely impacted our exports and profits went down significantly. We took this as an opportunity and worked on a new product line, which was in keeping with the American standards of safety equipment. This allowed us to be prepared and enter new American markets with over 80 new products once the recession was over.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also been tough. We have yet again taken this as an opportunity to work on a new product line in medical safety equipment. We have intensely focused on R&D and are aggressively looking at launching the range in the market.
SMBS: How did the COVID-19 pandemic impact your business? Has it made you rethink your product strategy?
RN: The pandemic has been an opportunity that has brought the PPE industry to the fore. So far, for us, it has been a challenging journey. There has been a substantial loss in the volume of international orders due to the series of lockdowns after the COVID-19 outbreak.
But there has been a sudden rise in domestic requirements for PPE. To meet the growing demand, we began manufacturing splash-resistant goggles and face shields. We partnered with the Centre to provide chemical splash goggles for doctors and the police workforce across the country in the first phase of expansion during the outbreak.
In the second phase, we started manufacturing medical face shields to offer protection to healthcare workers treating COVID-19 patients. We invested in our in-house manufacturing capabilities to ensure we were able to deliver the promised number of products. Our direct contact with the Ministry of Health ensured that product deliveries were happening on a timely basis.
Simultaneously, we tried to support the government with our existing product portfolio, acting as safety solutions for doctors and other healthcare workers.
Inside Karam's Lucknow factory
SMBS: What are the future plans for the company in the post-pandemic era?
RN: Our focus will continue to be on providing PPE for healthcare workers who are risking their lives for the country, as India is facing a shortage of quality safety equipment. We will continue meeting global quality standards and lending support in every way possible to help overcome the current crisis.
In the long run, we have a vision of expanding the Karam brand’s global presence by entering new markets worldwide.