the Driver's Seat
UNSUNG HEROES OF INDIAN
By Naresh Kumar
On a typical monsoon
day in Mumbai, which is reminiscent of the Great Deluge,
there is a car that bears no resemblance to an ark.
And a driver who has never felt less like Noah. Quite
simply, his car has stalled in the heavy downpour, and
now he is stranded in the middle of the road. The driver
cannot go out and call for help, since the rain is too
heavy for that. There seems to be no option but to wait
out the rain, or desert his car – neither of which
are very pleasant prospects.
And then the situation takes
on a dream like quality. Out of the blue, there is a
tow truck standing next to his car. Five minutes later,
the tow truck has lugged his car into a Bharat Petroleum
petrol pump. Another five minutes later, the driver
is sitting in the office of the manager, sipping a hot
cup of tea, while his car is being serviced in the petrol
pump. During this time he learns that the owner of the
pump had seen the stranded car way down the road where
his pump was situated, and sent his tow truck to get
the car in. The pump owner then gives him valuable tips
on how to prevent water from entering his petrol during
the monsoons, then gives him his serviced and now functional
car back, and bids him godspeed. Oh! And he hasn’t
charged him a penny for the whole thing. Not surprisingly,
the driver of the car becomes a lifetime loyalist of
Utopian fantasy? No –
true story. It is only one of many such instances of
this particular pump owner going out of his way to help
customers / prospective customers. It is also one of
the many reasons why this particular petrol pump, Dayaram
Santdas, in Mumbai, has a loyal base of customers that
swears by it, in spite of many ostensibly more attractive
Ajit Kamlani, the owner of
this pump was born in Hyderabad (now in Pakistan). His
father was the owner of a bus service, plying between
Hyderabad and Sind. In 1952, his father set up a filling
station to cater to his own needs- a Shell petrol pump.
Young Ajit got his first exposure to the fuel retailing
business, and to vehicles at this pump.
In the wake of the Partition,
the Kamlanis had to shift base to India. The Shell management,
as a token of appreciation for the dedication and the
work ethic of the senior Kamlani, helped them to shift,
and rehabilitated them in Mumbai. They also gave them
a Shell dealership in Mumbai. Dayaram Santdas opened
on Pedder Road, Mumbai in 1963, managed by Ajit Kamlani.
It couldn’t have been long before Ajit Kamlani
reached the first major crossroads of his life. The
petrol pump business can tempt a person to adopt dishonest
means like no other business can. To illustrate –
as little as 5% of the petrol, if replaced by and adulterated
with naphtha, can increase profitability by more than
5 times! A slight tampering of the meter in the pump
can also add substantially to the profit margins, by
indicating more fuel than has actually been dispensed.
The allure of easy lucre for any new entrant in the
field can be overpowering indeed. This possibly explains
why more than 80% of the dealers in this business are
infamous for adopting such means.
Ajit saw all this – and chose to walk in the opposite
direction. Perhaps it was because his knowledge of vehicles,
gained at the Shell pump in Hyderabad, made him wince
at the thought of feeding slow poison like naphtha to
a car’s engine. Quite likely, it was his innate
sense of decency that forbade him from adopting underhand
means. But one thing is sure- it made damn good long-term
Consider this – petrol
is as highly commoditised a product as one can get.
(In fact, recent research that we conducted indicates
that many consumers would probably not even notice if
the pump’s name were to be changed from, say,
IBP to Indianoil). The fallout of this is that it becomes
very difficult to gauge quality problems in the product
before actual use. In other words, you get to know that
you have bought bad petrol only when your engine begins
to protest. The tendency among consumers is therefore
to avoid “bad” pumps, and continue going
to only those pumps where they have not faced any overt
problem. But there is still a catch – naphtha,
one of the most common adulterants, works insidiously.
You get to know that your engine is damaged only when
it is far gone.
Under these circumstances,
consumers are generally cynical and suspicious of petrol
pumps (unless they are COCOs- Company Owned, Company
Operated pumps) and therefore the few dealers who acquire
a reputation for honesty quickly get a base of loyal
customers. In a commodity market, that is a major advantage
Furthermore, Ajit also realised
that in selling a commodity product, which is not perceived
(in its pure form) to be different between different
companies selling them, the service element becomes
crucial – in fact, it is the major differentiator.
Ajit Kamlani instructed his staff to greet all customers
pleasantly, and be courteous and efficient to them –
no surly, insolent, paan chewing boors in his pump.
He also made it a practice to himself stand out on the
forecourt, and greet his customers as they came in.
He started making small booklets / mailers and sent
them to his customers, where he advised tem how best
to handle the monsoon problem. He would also give them
useful tips on how to maintain their cars better. An
example – “Car manufacturers normally tell
their customers to change the engine oil after 10,000
km. But here in Mumbai, there is so much traffic congestion,
and driving in lower gears, that 10,000 km on the gauge
is actually equivalent to around 25,000 to 30,000 km.
That is why I ask my customers to change their oil after
3500 to 4000 km only – it helps to improve the
life of the engine.”
All this soon led him to realise
that there was a potential area of big business –
the car servicing area. He observed that in Mumbai,
most car owners either got their cars serviced at Authorised
Service Stations, or by roadside mechanics. However,
Authorised Service Stations were very few and far in
between, making it really inconvenient for the owner
to go there. Additionally, they often took 2-3 days
to return the car, leaving the owner stranded during
that time. In any case, most owners feel that the Authorised
Service Stations were expensive. As for mechanics, they
were certainly cheaper and quicker. But some owners
of big expensive cars felt a trifle uneasy leaving them
with roadside mechanics. There was a question mark regarding
the genuineness of the parts that these mechanics used.
Sensing the opportunity, Ajit
Kamlani lost no time in opening a service station at
his petrol pump. His knowledge and experience gained
at the Shell pump in Pakistan helped him immensely here.
He trained all his mechanics himself, and made sure
they were up to the mark. Ajit periodically took trips
himself, as well as sent his son, abroad in order to
learn the latest that was happening in the fuel and
Ajit attaches great importance
to the servicing aspect of his business. “ If
I don’t have servicing, I will lose half my customers.”
he says. “Because I have servicing, they remain
loyal to me.” This inevitably focussed his attention
on another crucial area of his business- his staff.
In any service business, the staff is by far the most
important communication medium regarding the business.
Ajit had realised that early on- it was the reason why
he had asked his staff to be courteous and polite to
his customers. But what he had also realised was a basic
human characteristic – it is difficult to be nice
and polite to people if there is a basic discontent
fermenting within. In other words, “Only happy
employees make for happy customers.”
Ajit therefore set about to
ensure the well being of his employees, to an extent
that had no precedent in the petroleum industry. He
first of all ensured them better wages then anyone else
was getting in the industry. He also offered them benefits
like Employee State Insurance (for medical purposes),
and Provident Fund. In some cases, he has borne the
entire cost of medical treatment for his staff’s
family members, sometime running into lakhs. He has
a scheme whereby the dependents of his staff could also
be eligible for jobs at his pump. Any employee who retires
while still in his service gets a handsome bonus and
pension facilities. He undertakes their training at
the service station himself, and passes on all the knowledge
that he had acquired over the years to them. The result?
The lowest turnover ratio in the business. Some of his
employees have been with him for over 20 years now.
This kind of job security automatically translates into
a zeal and dedication towards the pump, which does more
for the pump’s image than any heavy duty advertising
What makes Ajit Kamlani different
from the other petroleum retailers? Simply, a holistic
perspective, which changed the way he defined his business.
Ajit Kamlani does not consider himself to be merely
a petroleum retailer- he considers himself to be in
the larger business of servicing a customer’s
vehicle needs. He literally and figuratively put himself
behind the steering wheels of his clients. From here
on, everything else that he did followed logically.
It made his business primarily a service business, which
a) Relationship with customers
became very important – so he proactively gave
them advice and tips. He computerised his outlet in
1995, and maintained detailed records of all his customers,
their vehicular problems, any pattern emerging thereon,
and so on. He himself was on the forecourt most of the
time to inspire trust, and his staff was told to be
polite and helpful.
b) Staff- became the key communication medium, but for
them to be able to perform this role effectively, they
had to be motivated and zealous. So he put in all those
staff welfare measures in place.
c) Value addition became a key differentiator –
so he took steps to proactively deliver to consumers
over and beyond their expectations. Booklets on car
maintenance during monsoons, list of frequently faced
problems and their solutions, car servicing facilities,
observation of a car’s maintenance problem patterns
over a period of time etc. were just a few of the steps
he undertook to deliver more value addition.
d) All this would never have
been so effective without an inherent passion and commitment.
He constantly tries to update his knowledge of the latest
trends and technology. His service centre is computerised,
and has the latest software for servicing all the modern
cars. His foreign trips, at his own expense, are a part
of his constant efforts to be the best that he could.
“Al this is fine”, one may argue, “but
what is the bottom lime?”. The answer- Dayaram
Santdas sells 300 kilolitres per day – very good
business by any standards, but by no means a very high
volume. But his true success, to our mind, lies in the
diehard loyalty exhibited by his customer base. In 1988,
two more pumps opened on the same road – an Indianoil
pump, and an HP pump. Both were bigger and more modern
pumps, with add-on facilities like a convenience stores
etc. But they did not succeed in affecting his business,
or luring away his customers. In fact, a few customers
who did try the other pumps, soon came back to him.
Any average retailer
can get some customers to spend some money at his outlet
for things they need. A good retailer can succeed in
making many customers want to spend some money at his
outlet. But a great retailer is one who succeeds in
making most of his customers feel that they do not want
to spend their money anywhere else, except at his outlet.
And that, in one sentence, is why Ajit Kamlani is one
of the unsung heroes of Indian retailing.