"It’s a business which combines art and science," says Munish Gupta as he gets evangelical on the subject of crockery. It’s also a business where new ideas are vital, where tastes change rapidly, and where quality underlines every move. The managing director of Tata Ceramics knows all of this only too well.
"The critical success factor in this industry is innovation," he says. "Since this is a fashion-oriented business you have to constantly bring in new materials, production techniques and designs. Also, you have to create distinct products for each market."
That’s because the crockery requirements of different cultures are as varied as their cuisine. For instance, in Saudi Arabia, where families are large and people eat together, a typical dinner will involve about 90 pieces of crockery. In the United States it will take just 20 pieces to serve the typical four-member household. Italy, like the rest of the Mediterranean region, has a fondness for soup — and soup bowls. And the Chinese need a plethora of small bowls for their sauces.
"It’s a very fragmented market and each demands its own configuration in terms of number of pieces, design, size and shape," says Mr Gupta. Tata Ceramics tried initially to cater to this unwieldy spread in its entirety — with little success. "[Your products] may work in one country but flop in another. So, if you are selling to 10 countries you should have 10 different offerings. That’s an expensive proposition."
The crockery on display at the Tata Ceramics factory in Kakkanad, near Kochi — plates, teacups, saucers and tureens in a cornucopia of shapes, sizes, colours and designs — have been crafted mostly for the export market, but they don’t carry the company’s tag. Instead, the exquisite bone china and porcelain coming out of Kakkanad bear the mark of celebrated names such as Wedgewood, Royal Doulton and Churchill.
Truth is, some of the world’s finest tableware is created by Tata Ceramics. Which is why it finds prime space on the most exclusive tables in the gastronomic universe, like the Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi. The crockery gracing the presidential dining room has been crafted by Tata Ceramics and the motifs use 22-carat gold and pure platinum.
While the company sells its products to select institutions and the hospitality sector in India, its focus is on exports. The upsurge in the demand for lifestyle products and accessories has elevated Indian ceramic designers and craftsman to international prominence. Tata Ceramics is cashing in on this demand by banking on its crockery craftsmanship and designing skills.
Every piece of crockery that rolls out of the Tata Ceramics factory has what is called a setter, which is made of a special refractory material called cordierite. In an eight-hour shift 2,000 pieces of a particular size and shape are manufactured. Only if volumes are large can a shift be fully utilised, or the costs become prohibitive.
"The major players in this field, Royal Worcester, American Waterford and Lennox, have a history of over 200 years," says Mr Gupta. "We have been around for just seven years." That is one reason why Tata Ceramics has to piggyback its offerings through, among others, Wedgewood, Churchill and Royal Doulton, retail chains with an annual turnovers of more than $1 billion each and distribution channels in 60-70 countries.
These chains conduct regular market surveys, based on which they provide Tata Ceramics with contracts to manufacture and handcraft specific sets of products. "We make the product and they sell it under their brand name," says Mr Gupta. "We need brand equity support, hence we have tied up with these names. This way we cut down our risk."
Wedgewood, one of the company’s prized clients, buys crockery from India, Thailand and China, the dominant force in the world crockery market with a 40 per cent share.
Tata Ceramics has to notch up excellent quality-price ratios to compete successfully on the global stage. That’s where processes come into play. The company has adopted the ‘acceptable quality level’ system, a statistical method with several parameters. Besides China and Thailand, the competition includes South Korea, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.
Keeping ahead of this lot, never an easy task, depends on continuously delivering superior quality at attractive prices. Another crucial factor is quick and dependable delivery.
Tata Ceramics clocked revenues of Rs22.47 crore in 2002-03, with a 30 per cent share of the Indian crockery export market, valued at Rs75 crore for the year. The company sold products worth Rs47 lakh in the domestic market to clients in the hospitality sector, such as the Taj Group, ITC and the Leela chain and retail outlets like Trent. It is now trying to expand its national reach by selling seconds and giftware at affordable prices, directly and through the showrooms of Tanishq.
Research and development is a significant endeavour for Tata Ceramics. Out of this have emerged two new materials: fine china, which is about 40 per cent lower in cost than fine bone china, and superfine china. The latter has a superior resistance to chipping and is targeted at the hotel industry. Tata Ceramics is the first manufacturer in India to develop this material.
Crockery in the hotel trade has to be robust, a trait that is absent in fragile bone china. According to Mr Gupta, the company’s superfine china has the potential to be a sturdy alternate to bone china for the hospitality industry across the world. As for fine china, Tata Ceramics hopes to address the affordable end of the middle-class market with this material.
Tata Ceramics currently has three product categories and it is aiming to touch full capacity utilisation in three to four years. The company has a total capacity of 10 million pieces a year, but employs only 40 per cent of it today. To reach full tilt it will have to make a success of its fine china and superfine china products under the Tata Ceramics brand.
"Everyone in India makes bone china, but you will not be able to discern the quality," says Mr Gupta, drawing attention to a point that is largely ignored in the country. "The Indian consumer needs to be educated about the technicalities and materials that go into the making of good crockery, but that requires a lot of money."
Indians also have a lot to learn about crockery that can kill. For example, the colour red on crockery comes by adding cadmium, a toxic element; the more cadmium you use, the greater the lustre of the crockery. Consumers run the risk of contracting cancer through extended use of cadmium-treated tableware. The dangers go beyond red. Even a white-coloured plate poses a threat if the surface has a lot of lead, which comes on account of the micro-fine glass that is sprayed on crockery to give it that glaze.
Tata Ceramics has refused to cut corners on the safety front. "We operate in an international market where there are stringent requirements on heavy-metal release," says Mr Gupta. The company’s products conform to international norms on lead and cadmium release. It has recently switched to lead-free glazing. That it imports 70 per cent of the raw material used in its ‘safety-first’ processes means that the products cost more.
Be it from a health perspective or the aesthetics of elegant eating, Tata Ceramics deserves a place at the head of dining tables across the world.