PARAG KULKARNI, Managing Director, A.O. Smith India, talks of the company’s focus on customer-centricity, introducing new products to address need gaps and emphasis on health and hygiene, while iterating his belief in reinventing oneself to maximise potential
Tell us some stories from your nearly three decades of experience in the consumer durables industry. What would you call the notable on-ground learning experiences?
I have thrived and grown by taking on challenging roles and assignments throughout my career. I spent over two decades at Wipro Consumer Care and Lighting, where I built businesses from scratch on many fronts. I initiated Wipro Lighting’s foray into the LED space, as well as the acquisition and building of the Clean Ray brand. I also successfully led Wipro’s venture into the furniture business. I joined A.O. Smith India as Managing Director in 2015. During my tenure at A.O. Smith India, I have been focused on consolidating the company’s position as a premium, innovative and consumer-focused brand. I have always believed that in order for businesses to be successful, they have to be lean, agile and adaptive with consumer-centricity at the core. As for my learning experiences, I find that doing what you do best, developing capabilities to ‘do the new’ and always providing a distinct and relevant value proposition to prospects and customers is essential to growth for any organization.
How has Brand A.O. Smith fared in the India market? Give us an idea of the company’s growth and profitability over the last five years and how it has negotiated the COVID-19 crisis.
A.O. Smith has been driving the category growth, growing at a greater pace than the market in both the categories we are in - the water heater industry and water purification. A.O. Smith is one of the fastest growing brands and leader in the premium segment. Our products have a wide distribution reach, catering to customers across metros, Tier I, Tier II and Tier III cities through general trade, modern retail and e-commerce channels. In addition to our widespread distribution channels, we offer efficient service delivery throughout India.
Throughout the pandemic, we have witnessed a significant shift to online purchasing, and as a brand, we have focused on strengthening our e-commerce capabilities and using digital channels to reach out to our customers and provide them with the best buying experience. Our communication efforts have been focused on being contextual and relevant, to relate with the trying times and demonstrate how our products provide solutions for issues our consumers are facing. During the height of the pandemic, we launched multiple and relevant products in both water heating and water purification.
The water heater and water purifier categories have intense competition in today’s scenario. How do you make your products stand out vis a vis competition?
As mentioned earlier, consumer-centricity is the key focus of A.O. Smith India and our products are always in sync with the consumer through a well-defined value proposition and our product innovation is based on the needs of our customers. We strive to obtain relevant consumer insights through multiple feedbacks and surveys and couple it with intense research and development inputs to provide what is best suited to our customers. Some of the innovations that have set industry benchmarks are our unique Blue Diamond Glass line technology in our water heater tanks, instant hot water dispensing water purifiers, premium and stylish instant water heaters, and under-the-counter water purifiers. Another differentiator is our impeccable service delivery; we’ve raised the bar by offering Power of One, which features a one-hour response, one day resolution and one-time fix.
You just launched the inline UV water purifier that can be placed under the kitchen counter. What have been the other product introductions in the past months?
We have always believed in introducing products that are energy efficient, environmentally friendly and sustainable. In the last few months, during the pandemic, A.O. Smith has been one of the very few companies to launch multiple, innovative products in both water heaters and water purifiers. We recently introduced ProPlanet series, India’s first 5-star-rated water purifiers in terms of water savings that has a 60% recovery rate, which is one of the highest in the industry. A.O. Smith also launched MiniBot, a premium and instant water heater that won the CII design award and FastOn, the most compact instant water heater, besides INVI-U1, the first inline-UV water purifier.
What are the major changes that you observe today with regard to consumer behaviour? What sort of a shift do you foresee in the consumer durables industry in the near future?
The pandemic, which had insufferable consequences for many, has also opened doors for opportunities and innovation for the consumer durables industry. Consumers are adjusting to the new normal where safety and hygiene have taken precedence. Hence, people are now investing in value-based and meaningful products that make a difference in health to their lives. Such products will continue to be in demand well after the pandemic subsides. While there is stiff competition in both water heaters and purifiers segments, our focus on service, research and development and top-of-the-line technology will help us stand apart and drive our growth in the sector. We feel that product innovations, product upgradations and service excellence will be the key to our success. We have seen a clear shift in demand in the use of digital platforms to make purchases and our focus has been to engage with customers on these platforms to open up a dialogue and assist them with their decision-making process.
What are your short-term and long-term priorities for the brand in India? What will be your top three focus areas now?
Clearly, our objective is to create a sustainable and an everlasting bond with our customers. We plan to achieve this through customer-centricity at every touch-point. We will continue to introduce new products in the near future to address the need gaps and strengthen those product segments that aren’t as strong or lack ability to provide efficient service. Our communication focus right now is to be relevant and contextual, emphasizing health and hygiene.
“I have always believed in reinventing myself, exploring facets that bring the much-required passion and vigour in our lives. This exploration process helps me find new ways of thinking or doing things and helps me to maximize my potential. This sense of adventure is important to me in my business and personal life. From being a marathon runner to wildlife photographer to an avid nature lover, I have explored various facets that define my personality at various stages of my life. My golden rule is simple and straight - it’s never too late to start. The key is to persevere, enjoy each stage of the journey, and set small, achievable milestones that encourage you to continue to improve,” says Parag Kulkarni.
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