The story of Sheenlac Paints is the story of a company that has climbed the ladder of India’s paint and finishes space from the very bottom rung to the top. Founded in 1962 by John Peter, the company began by selling thinners and polish.
“We started at a very small level, with three or four products,” says John’s son and current Managing Director Sudhir Peter, who has been a part of the company’s journey since 1993. Today it is the sixth-largest paint company in India.
Within two decades, Sheenlac had expanded across all south Indian markets. Peter says this was possible because his father had set a very clear ethical benchmark for the business.
“From day one, he was very clear on ethics,” Peter says. “He declared the company should never compromise its ethics, and around that he built up the whole organization and took it to a new level.”
The initial handful of products has ballooned into a full range of paints: wood coatings, automotive coatings, decorative coatings, protective coatings, speciality coatings, industrial coatings, thinners, sealers and paint removers.
Aside from its native India, the company has branched into Sri Lanka and South Korea. Latest initiatives include a tie-up with an Italian company for decorative paints as well as an expansion into automotive coatings. For this, Sheenlac has teamed with South Korea’s largest paint company, NOROO Paint & Coatings, to get 20,000 colors to customers looking for a new coat for their car.
“When I began working for my father’s company in 1991, I would go to the market and find out exactly what was required,” Peter says. “I’d determine customer expectations. We’d always wanted to expand to a wider range of products, and that gave me a clear focus in my early years.”
One area Peter has tried hard to push in the fickle Indian market is water-based products. “We launched water-based wood polish into the market in 2010, but there’s a lot of resistance. People are mostly after solvent-based products, but many people in India are allergic to those products, so we had to offer an alternative,” he says.
“We’ve persisted, and prices have come down a long way. At first you’d be paying 2,000 rupees [US$24] per liter; today it’s down to around 200 [US$2].”
“Thanks to our strategy, there’s been that drastic rise in the number of dealers looking to work with paint.”
The move was one of Sheenlac’s baby steps into what has become a wide range of verticals. “We started with an automotive vertical,” Peter says. “Then wood coatings and decorative products.”
That led to an overhaul of the company’s R&D faculties. “We now have a separate R&D team exclusive to each vertical,” he says. “Today, that’s a team of around 40 people working on product innovation, price monitoring and how to tailor products and solutions on a per-customer basis.”
With the expansion came possibilities – and eventually a wider audience. “When I joined the company, we had around 400–500 dealers in our network,” Peter says. “Today, we have around 13,000 active dealers.”
Flexibility for Success
To handle the gradual influx of orders, Peter dramatically enhanced Sheenlac’s distribution model. “I realized that to go toe-to-toe with the big guys, you have to be flexible,” he says. “That means a better delivery rate compared to the competition; you have to be able to deliver within a day. So we started working towards a nationwide distribution network.”
Today, Sheenlac’s coverage spans the entirety of India, but Peter admits there are areas still on the rise. “We’re very strong in the south and east of India, but we’re still building in the north,” he says. “But having started in only 2006, this distribution model has been quite successful for us, and other companies are now trying to copy us.”
“I realized that to go toe-to-toe with the big guys, you have to be flexible.”
One unexpected side effect of the model was a boost in the number of dealers across India. “In all regions, we see so many more dealers starting electrical and paint shops, hardware and paint, plywood and paint; a lot of combinations,” Peter says. “Thanks to our strategy, there’s been that drastic rise in the number of dealers looking to work with paint.”
The construction of a manufacturing plant at Chennai in 2010 was one of the biggest outward expressions of Sheenlac’s success. “These plants have huge capacities, and scalable too,” Peter says. “Currently we’re doing 5,000 metric tons per month, but we can easily scale up to around 10,000 metric tons without much additional cost.”
The plant handles much of Sheenlac’s volumes in the nation’s north and south, but an additional network of manufacturing sites handle the more distant locations. “We can manufacture, that’s not a problem, so our core areas of focus are definitely the expansion of our distribution channel and our sales network.”
This has been done so far through acquisitions, such as Sheenlac’s purchase of the popular-in-the-north Jenson & Nicholson Paints brand – the second oldest paint company in India. “We’re leveraging that brand up north and keeping Sheenlac out front in the south,” he says.
“If you call Sheenlac for any paint requirement, we’ll be able to resolve it.”
Meanwhile, Sheenlac’s in-house innovation continues, particularly to suit India’s specific weather conditions. “We’re working with Japanese company, ecotio2, on a photocatalytic product which absorbs energy from the sun; a UK company, Solar Sharc, on another kind of solar coating; and a Norwegian company, TermoRens, on limescale and rust remover,” Peter says.
“When we lack the technical capabilities, it makes perfect sense to partner with other companies doing great work in this space. Customers are always looking for innovative products, and we have to deliver.”
Peter’s vision for Sheenlac is a company that acts as a one-stop shop for its customers. “What we want to be is a single point of contact,” he says. “They don’t need to go anywhere else; anything in paints, we have. That increases buying capacity and our customer retention becomes stronger.”
To do so has taken time and hard work, but Peter says it’s all coalesced to take the company to its strongest ever position. “We’re in a very good place,” he says. “If you call Sheenlac for any paint requirement, we’ll be able to resolve it.”