What’s keeping time in India? From the maharajas’ love of pocket watches to the domestic watch firms that are trying to take on the Swiss; it’s only fitting that a man with 57 years of illustrious experience in the profession tells this account. Having been associated with HMT up to 1989, opting for a risky proposition on the word of a UK-based entrepreneur and leaving a gold chip company- what is the history behind Indian watchmaking and the SONA Group?
Before we dive into the intriguing insights and tales of the industry, allow me to introduce Mr. Yajnanarayana Kammaje, MD, at Sona Group of Industries. His experiences and professional journey boast of having studied at prestigious colleges like NITK and being the first electronic quartz engineer in India, to name a few.
We were lucky enough to engage in conversation with this pioneer in the Indian watchmaking industry. If I were to tell you to run a family while earning a salary of Rs. 5700 only, the obvious reaction would be: THAT’S IMPOSSIBLE! Having a long vision, Mr. Kammaje pondered on what he would be in the next 15-20 years. And this lingering thought, the right connection at the right time, and an inspiration to do something in life with the resources available solidified his decision to leave a gold chip company and set up his own unit in Bangalore- now The Sona Group
One of India’s top contract manufacturers of watch straps and watch bands is the Sona Group, which was founded in 1987 as a plating services firm. In addition to leather watch bands, Sona also offers steel and ion-plated watch bands to the world’s most prestigious watchmaking brands.
Brand promotions, corporate gifts, and lifestyle items have become increasingly popular, and so has Sona Group’s reputation as a reliable manufacturer of fashionable, high-quality, and cost-effective watches for these purposes. Sona’s reputation is built on efficient service, reliable distribution, and on-time delivery, all of which contribute to an exceptional client experience.
While working at HMT, Mr Yajna had made a resolution to recruit people before retirement. The number standing at 12,000 then, he can say with pride that the number stood at 20,000 upon his retirement.
Taking this story forward, being in business for 35 years, he started with gold-plating and later started a vertical of stainless steel straps for about 4-5 years. His business motto is, “I want to be the umbrella watch manufacturer—a one-stop place for wearables: leather, steel, metal, etc; for which we have set up several units. Recently, we are experimenting on silicon straps too.”
But that is not it. After seeing the opaqueness and strong work ethic, Titan gave them the opportunity to make full watches. Today, they are the second largest watch manufacturer in India; making about 2.5 million watches. His company is constantly innovating and keeping up with changing trends. When asked about his favorite watch strap, he said, “I’m an experimenter. In a generation of smartwatches, I want to be able to make a smartwatch for the Indian markets. I wear watches based on the utility they provide. I constantly shift between Titan watches, a Rolex, or experimental Swiss watches. However, I prefer wearing a metal strap.”
Keeping up with the fast-changing watchmaking industry is no easy feat. But the Sona Group has held the reins, having the prime mover advantage of starting early. But, how does it manage to upkeep brand quality and customer expectations at affordable prices? Mr. Yajna explains, “I’m one of those entrepreneurs who’s working with the Tatas and blessed by Titan. For us, we lay extreme importance on customer satisfaction and manufacturing quality products. I have a magical slogan built on 5Ms, 4Ps, and 1Q. The five M’s stand for Man, Material, Machine, Management and Market; the 4Ps stand for product, placement, price, and passion. And the Q is not just the quality of the product but an embodiment of the quality of self, systems, and people. With 51 years of expertise, I feel great to run a passionate business.”
I lay a lot of trust in my people and that has helped me meet expectations. Coming to the costs, you can make Rs. 20 watches and manufacture 1 million of them. If you lay emphasis on design, the same strap will cost you Rs. 100, requiring more labor. We’ve made the shift from lower-end straps to high-end ones with an average price range of Rs. 60 to Rs. 100. Our strategy remains the same, where we produce 3.6 million straps per year at a price of Rs. 100. To enter this niche market is very difficult, but strategy helped us sail through. Today, we are the only manufacturers who can provide 3 lakh leather straps per month at an affordable rate, the peak capacity being 6 lakh straps.”
51 years of being in this industry- he’s seen the highs and lows, the evolution, and what’s missed today. During the HMT times, it was a monopoly business where the waiting period went up to 6 months for a single watch, long queues, and more. In 1980, quartz watches came to India. They collaborated with the Citizen Watch Company and started manufacturing the same.
In 1986, Tata ventured into this business. However, the government companies were complacent about the change to a unique style, quality, designs, and look. Slowly, this industry grew into gold-plating, fashionable women’s wearables and unique elements of watches giving the rise to the audience’s aspirations. “A monopolistic-driven product has become a common-man’s product. Earlier, the head of the family would have a single Janta watch. Today, each family member has 5 to 6 watches to keep up with changing fashions”, he further added.
The Indian watchmaking industry has also seen changes in PPP affordability. Today, buying a Janta watch at Rs. 2000 is easy as compared to buying it back then at Rs. 160. In the 1980s, the watch requirement stood at 16 million watches and Rajkot made them. Today, also the watch requirement stands at 20-25 million. But Titan and a few others control the major players in the organized sector. “A gray market still exists”, he says.
Sharing his views on “Made In India” watches, Mr. Yajna believes everyone is doing well for themselves. Sharing the gamut of his business, he says, “My business extends to 10-15 thousand crores in India, of which Titan makes 4-5 thousand crores and the rest 4-5 thousand crores by Rajkot and others. Though this business is small, it’s heart-warming.”
It started with quartz watches, then onto mechanical watches, and now smartwatches. In his opinion, “Watches are here to stay. In the next 10 years, all watches will have a smartness element in them owing to technological advancements. We may even see a Rolex smartwatch. We’ve lost the feel-good element of a watch, but it will come back with luxury brands growing and adding the beautification element.”
Breaking down the impact of watch manufacturing on the economy, Mr. Yajna said, “For SMEs to thrive in the market, creativity, innovation, and productivity is key. When the world looks for world-class manufacturing facilities, the only place after China is India. If the export of software stands at $600 billion, with the right manufacturing help, it will be an enormous boost.
India stands at the third position as compared to China and the USA. With a population of 130 crores in India, and an average age of 29, China’s population has an average age of 45 years and Japan has an average age of 65 years, and the dependence of its economy on them, only India will be able to survive in this fast-paced world.
Apart from being an inspiration to the youth today, Mr. Yajna’s book “Business as Yajna” has received a lot of praise. It talks about his life, experiences, and the different aspects of an entrepreneurial journey. Sharing the top 5 key takeaways, he says, “Indulge in a SWOT analysis of your business and self. Next, do a market survey of your product and understand the gap analysis. Lastly, do business with people who pay for your services. Having the right resources is the key to your success.”
Today, India stands at a $2000 per capita economy. To progress to a $4000 per capita economy as predicted- business, entrepreneurship, and manufacturing are crucial! To end this, sharing a dream of Mr. Yajna’s- to export watches made by them to the world! With his determination and passion for the watchmaking world, we’re sure it won’t be a dream for too long!