She’s eclectic, “electric,” and has the vision to be India’s Elon Musk: Meet Hemalatha Annamalai
Shifting from Singapore to India, she utilized all her life savings to start her fifth company. But this time, the electric entrepreneur says it’s different.
Her enthusiasm is infectious. She can sell ice to Eskimos. She doesn’t take no for an answer. There are no pauses between sentences when she talks, and before she’s done telling you about her dream of building ‘the Tesla Motors of India’, you are already rooting for her to succeed. What’s more, she already has the backing of two of the biggest Indian corporate honchos, Ratan Tata and Infosys co-founder, Kris Gopalakrishnan, who believed in her vision and have invested in her company. Meet Hemalatha Annamalai, CEO of Coimbatore-based Ampere Vehicles, who wants to lead the electric vehicles revolution in India. Her company manufactures electric cycles, scooters, three-wheelers and specially designed vehicles for the differently-abled.
The idea stirred up in 2007, when Annamalai attended a conference in Japan, along with her husband Bala Pachyappa. One of the speakers at the conference spoke about electric vehicles being the future. “It definitely got me thinking. I realised that we have a lot of technology acumen in India and yet we are happy entering into partnerships with MNCs and giving them market access or copying their technology. How long are we going to write codes? This has to change. So, I decided to pack my bags and come back to India to start my venture,” says Annamalai. She, along with her family, was in Singapore at that time. She was all set.
In 2008, when she came back to Coimbatore for good, her mother was not too happy. “She felt we were well-settled in Singapore with our daughters in good schools, having our own home and doing well in our business. Uprooting all of that and coming here to try my hand at something I didn’t really have any experience in, didn’t seem like the smartest idea to her. But, I was determined. I wanted to leave behind a legacy and I am going to do it through Ampere,” says Annamalai. She started the company as a means to provide affordable transportation solutions to people in rural and semi-urban areas. “I wanted individual people to see this as an upgrade from their existing cycles. In the case of farmers and traders, who used Ampere vehicles to transport their goods, it instantly helps improve their economic livelihoods since they can cover longer distances,” says Annamalai.
There were a couple of reasons why she chose Coimbatore. “We wanted to be close to our customers who are basically in tier II and tier III towns. Secondly, Coimbatore has a good auto-components industry, so our sourcing needs would be met easily and my college alumni network was all here; so it seemed to be a good place to start ground-up.”
While Annamalai did all her schooling in Chennai, she did her engineering from the Government College of Technology, Coimbatore. After having completed her engineering in 1989, she worked at Wipro for six years, after which she left for Singapore when one of the companies, working with Wipro Cayenne Software, offered her the opportunity to set up the regional distribution for South-East Asia. She worked there for three years. In 1998, at the age of 27, she set on her entrepreneurial journey, when she started her own HR consulting firm Uni Connect. Apart from this, she also worked with her husband in marketing his embedded systems software, used for testing and validation, to clients like HP. Her husband now leads the technology initiatives at Ampere. She even helped a friend build a travel and ticketing firm from the ground up. It was the success she had in setting up these firms, that gave her the confidence to do the same with Ampere. “We have had setbacks in our earlier businesses, we have failed; this gave me confidence, that despite having no experience in manufacturing, I can pull this off,” says Annamalai, who put in her entire life-savings to get the company started.
Challenging the status quo
She dispels the notion that the industry is capital-intensive. “Size does not matter. While the auto industry has been controlled by a few players with deep pockets, it does not require a whole lot of capital to get started. The larger players have been focusing on brand-building and marketing, rather than investing in R&D. It is actually technology-intensive. So, we started by focusing on R&D,” says Annamalai. She explains that it takes just four major components to make the electric vehicles — motor, charger, controller and battery. In the beginning, when they sourced all the components, they ran into problems with the imported chargers, which were not suited for Indian conditions and batteries. “In 2011, we faced a huge problem when our batteries started to fail. We discovered that our suppliers just imported and dumped the batteries in the market without testing them. It was a testing time for us since our credibility was at stake. That’s when we started to indigenise the parts rather than sourcing them completely,” says Annamalai. Today, Ampere makes its own motors, chargers and controllers. They still source their batteries from vendors, but have come up with an intelligent battery chip, which ensures that the battery doesn’t bulge and also has a longer life. The batteries need to be charged for eight hours and vehicles can run 60 kms on a full battery. While the electric cycles cost around Rs.20,000-Rs.30,000 depending on the model, the electric scooters can cost anywhere between Rs.20,000 and Rs.45,000.
Ampere has some marquee names backing the company and one could attribute it to her drive. When she heard Ratan Tata was coming to Coimbatore in November 2014, she wrote to him requesting for some time. “I wanted to meet him at any cost, so I wrote to him telling him about Ampere and the business potential that lies ahead. I pointed out to him that China was selling just 40,000 electric vehicles in 2000 and by 2015, they were selling 32 million vehicles. So, why can’t we do the same in India? I got a response from his office saying he would meet me during his visit,” recalls Annamalai with a smile. While he promised a 10-minute meeting, he spent a good 45 minutes understanding the business and the products, and by the end of the meeting told her that he would be investing in his personal capacity. The meeting happened in December 2014, and within three months of it, his office wrapped up the investment. What was the single most valuable advice he gave her? “He told me that the look and feel of the product is very important, and we should focus on that. He said, just because my customers are from rural and semi-urban areas, it doesn’t mean they won’t look for quality. Don’t make the same mistake we did with Nano, he said. It has been a truly humbling experience working with him,” she says. She met Infosys co-founder Kris Gopalakrishnan at an innovation summit where both of them were speakers. After listening to her speak on her vision for the company and the future of electric vehicles as she sees it, he too was sold on the idea. He, along with a few other investors, invested in Ampere in December 2015. “He just had one piece of advice for me. He told me that it is a marathon, not a sprint, and that it takes time to scale up businesses in India, especially in the manufacturing sector. So, I should focus on the business rather than managing stakeholders’ expectations,” says Annamalai. The company has raised about Rs.20 crore till now from investors and plans to use the funds to scale up operations. Apart from the Southern states where it has a presence, the company is working on entering Maharashtra, Gujarat and Rajasthan in the next one year. Her biggest challenge, today, remains managing cash flows since the order flows are still not predictable, given the nascence of the industry. Over the past 3-4 years, the company has sold over 20,000 vehicles and has the capacity to manufacture 30,000 vehicles annually. Dispelling the notion that there is no place for women in manufacturing, she wants Ampere to be a women-centric organisation. Already, one in four Ampere employees is a woman. “I want women to be in the forefront in whatever I do and that is going to be our differentiator,” says Annamalai.
Waiting to exhale
To manage all the chaos and the long hours, Annamalai relies heavily on yoga and meditation. She starts her day at 4.30 am with more than an hour and a half of yoga and meditation before her 16-hour workday starts. Annamalai is a disciple of Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, whom she considers her spiritual mentor. “Yoga makes a world of difference since it centres you. It helps you focus and make better decisions,” she explains. She also credits her husband and her daughters for her success so far. “My husband is the reason I got into entrepreneurship in the first place. He has been a tremendous support and I don’t know many men who are secure enough to let their wife take the leadership role,” she says with a smile. Apart from the supportive family, she counts the backing of her investors and family as her biggest blessing. “It is one thing to get their investments, but to have access to their vast knowledge and experience whenever I need is something I really can’t put a price on,” says a grateful Annamalai.