Archana Bhatnagar believes the best catalyst for growth is a never-say-die attitude
When Archana Bhatnagar started out, with her first venture Bromide Chemicals, she remembers how rudimentary her workspace was. This first-generation entrepreneur had set out to make an X-ray developer and fixer in 1979. She literally mixed the chemicals in tubs, sealed the openings with plastic held tight with clothes pegs and shook them. “The packaging was professionally done, there was no compromise on that,” she says. Today, she is the managing director and co-founder of Haylide Chemicals.
Born into an army family, in Deolali in Nashik, Bhatnagar was always encouraged by her father to do what she likes, just as her two brothers were. Therefore she danced, sang and played sports. “I did everything one could do to build their personality,” she says. After living in and schooling from different parts of the country, she went to a college in Mumbai. She did a short stint with the entertainment and media industry, doing film journalism and modelling.
“Business was the last thing on my mind. I despised it,” she says. She even told her father that she would never marry a businessman, or a doctor, or anyone who has to stay in one city for their work. Bhatnagar loved to travel. “Now, after 41 years of living and running a business in Jabalpur, it’s funny!” she says. Eventually, she did marry an entrepreneur Arun Bhatnagar.
Her husband was working in the offset printing press industry, and had worked for Du Pont and Kodak. He encouraged her to start a business in chemicals. He would be the formulator. “My expertise lay in getting the maximum output from minimum investment,” she says. When her husband suggested that she apply for a loan, she responded with shock; her army-man father had drilled “never borrow” into her head. Finally, after much coaxing, she marched into a bank confidently. “The bank threw me out,” she says, adding, “I knew very little about business. Not the A of accounting, B of business or C of costing.” Eventually she did manage to get a loan of Rs.15,000, after mortgaging a property worth Rs.1.5 million. There too, the bank manager didn’t accept cheques signed by her, but her husband. “The first challenges hit me hard,” she recalls.
She remembers going to the sales tax office to get a sales tax number. The inspector, a friend of her father-in-law, sent her home saying, “Acche ghar ki auratein yahan nahi aati hain.” Nothing put her off her goal though, also thanks to the support she got from her in-laws and her husband. Soon came Bromide Chemicals, her makeshift workspace and the tubs. Starting out, Bhatnagar had one assistant to help, but this assistant would also double as a babysitter.
Bhatnagar’s first client, a medical college in Jabalpur, was bagged unexpectedly. She had given them samples, and a few days later, the neighbour’s phone rang and she was summoned. The couple didn’t own a phone then. “My heart was pounding. I was worried that they might say I ruined their machine with my chemical! But to my joy, they placed a large order,” she recollects. It gave her confidence to crisscross the country to find buyers, with Nitin, her toddler. She took trains and stayed in cheap lodges, but she enjoyed the hustle.
Then a terrible thing happened. She was thrown out of the very company she built, by her partner. “Personal differences,” she says. “I felt defeated.” But her fighting spirit got her out of that pit, and she started Haylide Chemicals in 1992. This time she was selling photographic chemicals. Bhatnagar realised that she was doing better without the business partner. “I was not being constrained,” she says. That said, Arun is still a partner in Bromide Chemicals, not wanting the business to go out of the family’s control.
In the photographic chemicals business, the competition was brutal. The likes of Kodak, Konica Minolta, Fujifilm had the film and the equipment. “These MNCs had the market under their grip. People used their machines, paper and film, and they gave away the chemicals for free to keep the studios incentivised,” she says. Bhatnagar decided to learn every aspect of the business and take control. She invested in her team as well, so even when her venture suffered from her bad decisions, her staff didn’t leave her. She remembers having allowed her women employees to bring their young children to work. “If I could bring my son, so could they… we were running a small crèche in the front office,” she says, laughing. Bhatnagar takes pride in saying that out of the seven employees who joined her 40 years ago, at least four are still with her.
She did make a success of it in time and diversified into hygiene chemicals. Her son too has joined her business, which now also manufactures cleaning chemicals. Her USP is that it is environmentally friendly. “In 2005-06, green chemicals didn’t really exist, so it was not easy. We had to create a global product and we invested a fair bit in R&D,” she says. To develop a certification of green products in India, she worked as a knowledge partner with the Indian Green Building Council and the CII Sustainability Initiative. This led to the formulation of GreenPro standards which today are used for green cement, glass, chemicals and so on, and Haylide Chemicals became the first and only chemical company to get the certification.
In 2000, Bhatnagar started the Madhya Pradesh Association of Women Entrepreneurs (MAWE) to support women businesswomen. MAWE organised trade fairs, helped in networking, taught branding and computer classes and even made business cards. “We fought with the banks… There was a time when banks in Jabalpur used to dread a call from Archana Bhatnagar!” she says. She does not intend to back down.