This Sahnewal entrepreneur shows what happens when ‘dil mein ho josh’
Tuesday January 01, 2019,
7 min Read
Started in 2016, Darshan Singh Panesar’s Josh Tractors is gearing to race the giants of tractor manufacturers in the field.
Fifteen kilometers from Ludhiana in Punjab is a hamlet called Sahnewal. Nothing spectacular about it, except for the fact (if you are into such things) it is where Bollywood’s original ‘He-Man’ Dharmendra grew up.
This was revealed to me when we (my colleague and I) reluctantly agreed to squeeze in another interview -- having already visited five SME manufacturing facilities -- at the end of a long day in Ludhiana.
This piece of trivia was enough to re-energise me and I looked out of the Ola rental window at the dusty village road with new interest. The small dhabas selling naans and kulchas, the flat-roofed brick houses with a single window, the trundling tractors returning from a day in the fields -- all suddenly appeared celebratory.
Besides travelling on the grand-old Grand Trunk Road, here was one more reason (the bragging rights apart) to feel part of something special.
But what blew my mind completely was meeting Darshan Singh Panesar and listening to his story. “He manufactures tractors,” our contact in Ludhiana had told us when he was sharing names of SMEs we should meet. There was some talk about how he was struggling to manage this capital-intensive manufacturing business. After all, he was up against biggies like Mahindra, Eicher, Escorts, and Sonalikas of India.
By the time we arrived at his factory in Sahnewal, situated on the outskirts amidst the fields, it was 8.30 in the evening. We were shown into his chamber, outside which stood a tractor produced in his factory.
Long used to looking at apps (read products) on high-end smartphones, it was good to look at a ‘real’ product, if you know what I mean.
Darshan Singh looked at us with skepticism, wondering why someone would come all the way from Bangalore just to hear his story. By the time we were done talking, he had switched to Punjabi.
“I run a startup, you see,” he told us. And he was right in a way. Of course, he did not have venture funding. He had invested his own money (Rs 50 crores) to set up a manufacturing facility spread across 3,00,000 sq feet area. But when you compare his production of 200 tractors against the capacity of the tractor manufacturing giants, he sure looks like a startup. Mahindra alone has a capacity to produce 150,000 plus tractors a year.
But he claims, “If they compete with me, they will lose.”
“They have money power and brand power,” I counter. “I have willpower,” he is quick to retort.
And we all laugh.
It’s a bravado that speaks volumes for a startup attitude than one synonymous with the region he comes from.
Darshan Singh goes on to explain how he is at an advantage compared to his bigger competitors in the market. “By virtue of being an old player in the market, these companies have to pay bigger salaries to employees who have been in the system for a longer period. The older employees will be wary of technology and learning new things,” he says, adding, “Most of their tractors are the same as they were 20 years ago because people sitting there don't want to change.”
“I have flexibility,” he adds. And how is that? Darshan Singh reveals that he also owns a music company. He has given opportunities to as many as 40 singers making them local celebrities.
You may ask, what does a tractor company have to do with a music company? “There are two things that will never stop being popular,” Darshan Singh answers. “One is daaru (booze), the other is music. Banda kush ho tabh bhi daaru peeta hai aur gaane sunta hai, aur dukhi ho tabh bhi (whether people are happy or sad, they drink and listen to music),” he quips.
It’s not easy to sell a tractor. You don’t just go to a farmer and convince him to buy your tractor. “You have to build a relationship with the farmer and the farming community,” says Darshan Singh.
With his YouTube music videos, Darshan Singh is killing two birds with one stone. The music is his way of reaching his potential customers and at the same time giving upcoming singers a platform to showcase their talent. The only clause is that all the music videos should have the word ‘josh’ in its lyrics and should show the tractor in the background.
(View the video at the end of the story.)
“The advertisement cost on TV is huge,” he says. But in exchange for airing his music videos, he offers to advertise on local TV channels.
His videos on YouTube have more than 40 million views. Moreover, whenever the singers perform at live shows around towns and villages, they endorse the Josh brand. “This way, we advertise ourselves and build our brand name,” he adds.
He claims it is easy to build a brand in this segment as there are only around 13 to 14 tractor brands in India.
As part of his strategy to build an ecosystem around the tractor, Darshan Singh also started a facility for agriculture implements and a bio-fertiliser facility. Considering fertilisers cost less (in the range of Rs 50-500 per box/unit), there’s more likelihood of a farmer buying it.
“If the farmer likes it, it becomes easy to build a relationship with him and then he is more open to buying the implements which cost upwards of Rs 1 lakh. We then hope he will graduate to buying a Josh Tractor that typically costs Rs 5.5 lakhs. This is how you create a brand image,” he says.
A commerce graduate, Darshan Singh set up Josh Tractors in 2016 despite none of his brothers supporting him. “Tere mein josh aaya hua hai (this is just a passing passion), you will lose,” he was told.
His family was into manufacturing fasteners, nuts, and bolts. After the business was divided among the four brothers, Darshan Singh set up his facility with an investment of Rs 50 crores. “I sold some land when there was a property boom and managed to raise the amount,” he says.
Last year, Darshan Singh pre-launched 200 tractors which were all sold across the country, including in Punjab, Bihar, and even Nepal. “Next year, I am going into full-time production and plan to manufacture 20 tractors a day. We are also building a solid dealer network and will organise local events to market our brand,” he reveals his future plans.
His business recorded a turnover of Rs 60 crores, and he claims they are EBITDA positive. “I'm changing a few things in the plant and modernising it. We are looking for equity funding as I feel we can provide an exit option too.”
Josh Tractors come in the range of 14HP to 65HP and in different colors. According to Darshan Singh, it has many unique features, including a GPS system that tells a farmer how much land has been cultivated, whether the engine is heated up and other such information. The farmer receives these notifications on an app. Plus, there’s a power steering that helps keep the soil from the land getting into the engine.
Considering there was no knowhow that he could borrow from his earlier family business, Darshan Singh says he realised he had to be hands-on and learn from scratch.
“Ek gaane se kaam nahi chalega, puri picture dekhni zaroori hai,” he says, emphasising that there are no shortcuts if you have set out to follow your passion.
There’s a not-so-popular song from Dharmendra’s film ‘Mera Karam, Mera Dharam,’ that surprisingly seems fit for Darshan Singh and his Josh Tractors. It goes like this:
“Apne dil mein josh hai, apna khoon garm hai, karm hi dharm hai…” (you can watch it here for effect: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a6yuH__AHe4)