Tulsi Tanti's Success Story: The Rise of Indian Wind Power
Indian businessman Tulsi Tanti has built one of the world's largest wind turbine companies in an incredibly short amount of time. Now that he has bought a German company, however, his popularity may be on the wane.
The water buffalo stands, like a statue, in the middle of the path, staring at the SUV bearing down on it at an alarming speed. The driver honks his horn and revs the engine, but the animal doesn't budge a centimeter. It's accustomed to giant machines -- much, much bigger than the one coming at it.
Long convoys of heavy, oversized trucks are a regular spectacle as they pass through the farming communities near the Indian city of Dhule. The flatbed vehicles carry steel pipes, heavy generators and 40-meter (131-foot) blades. The materials stand in stark contrast to the rural surroundings, where the India of the future is taking shape not far from the local farmers' teams of oxen. Dhule is the home of India's largest wind farm.
Hundreds of white towers already protrude from the barren landscape of the Maharashtra Plateau. The wind farm now produces 640 megawatts of electricity, and it will produce 1,100 once construction is complete -- the equivalent of one nuclear power plant. It is the fullfillment of Tulsi Tanti's dream, a dream he has turned into reality in the short space of 13 years. As dreams go, Tanti's is a big one. Suzlon Energy, the company he founded in 1995, is already the world's fifth-largest wind turbine manufacturer, and Tanti himself, who is worth $3 billion (1.9 billion), is one of India's richest men.
His more established competitors in Europe realized long ago how much of a threat this short man, with his carefully combed hair and thin moustache, posed. Despite his serious demeanor and modest appearance, Tanti is known for his cunning and aggressive takeover tactics.
Interest in his Solution
His name is already mentioned in the same breath as that of steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal and Ratan Tata, president of the Tata Group, which acquired British carmaker Jaguar in 2008. And Tanti is still a long way from reaching his goal, even though his rise to prominence began with a great deal of aggravation.
At the time he was managing the family textile business in Surat, a city in western India. The business was languishing, mainly because electricity was extremely expensive for businesses and the power grid was plagued with outages. It was a source of great annoyance for Tanti. In 1994, he ordered two wind turbines from Danish manufacturer Vestas, essentially taking his factory off the power grid.
There was only one problem. None of the four brothers, all engineers, knew anything about wind energy. But as customers, they were all too familiar with the inadequacies of the industry. The turbines were supplied by the manufacturer, installed by another company and maintained by a third. By the time a turbine was up and running, the customer was often at his wits' end.
Tanti, realizing that a change was sorely needed, came up with the idea of offering a complete package of wind energy services. Suzlon would simply handle everything. Customers would not even have to install wind turbines on their own premises -- instead, a customer could buy a turbine at a faraway wind farm and would then own that turbine's output.
Without a Fight
The innovative aspect of Tanti's idea had more to do with the service he was providing than with any feat of engineering. But it was a concept that would revolutionize the wind energy business.
The brothers planned to purchase the sophisticated technology abroad, eventually producing the turbines in India, where low production costs would give them an unbeatable competitive edge. But there was only one problem: The leading European manufacturers were not about to give up their engineering achievements without a fight.
Suzlon was forced, grudgingly, to enter into joint venture agreements without gaining access to the technology. Tanti began his operations as a distributor of wind turbines manufactured by the German company Südwind. Despite his initial reluctance, the arrangement would prove to be a stroke of luck for Tanti's business.
Although Südwind, a small company founded by students at the Technical University of Berlin, built exceptional turbines, its engineer-owners knew very little about running a business. Südwind went into bankruptcy in the late 1990s and Tanti seized the opportunity, acquiring parts of the Germany company's R&D division. But instead of simply moving the technology to India, Tanti hired the former Südwind employees and set up an R&D laboratory in the northern German city of Rostock. Existing designs were fine-tuned at the laboratory, which also served as a training ground for young Indian technicians, who would later return to India to build turbines with their newly acquired expertise.
Similarly, Tanti managed to acquire a Dutch blade manufacturer. In 1999, when the Indian state of Maharashtra, where his business was located, passed a law that allowed companies to claim the costs of installing wind turbines as a tax deduction, Tanti had it made. By 2002 sales at Suzlon quadrupled to $131 million (85 million).
One of the World's Top Wind Companies
Four years ago, investors urged him to sell the company. Tanti begged off, telling them: "In a few years, Suzlon will be buying up the leading European companies." As it turned out, he was right.
A trip to Pondicherry reveals that the Indians were already closing in on the Europeans at the time. The plant that Suzlon opened in this former French colony on India's east coast in 2004 can easily hold its own with Western competitors. The plant's enormous production buildings are well lit and almost clinically clean. Many of the men who assemble the turbines and sand the rotors there learned their trade at Tanti's German laboratories.
There are more than 1,200 workers at the Pondicherry plant, many with German expertise -- but being paid Indian salaries. It is these local production conditions that enable Suzlon to boast a 14 percent profit margin. The standard in the industry is 8 percent.
Three years ago, in 2005, Tanti converted his advantages over the competition into cash when he orchestrated a brilliant initial public offering. Suzlon raised $340 million (219 million) and, from one day to the next, catapulted its founder and his family in the realm of the subcontinent's ultrarich. Tanti himself currently owns 16 percent of Suzlon, while the family owns 66 percent.
The down-to-earth Tantis have yet to succumb to megalomania. The company's Pune headquarters occupies a modest fifth floor of an office building. The 50-year-old CEO lives with his wife in a rented apartment next door to his brothers. Their two children attend university. The large clan gets together for meals as often as possible.
Tanti spends 300 days a year traveling, and yet he hasn't splurged on a private jet. Instead of acquiring these playthings of the nouveau riche, Tanti is far more interested in pursuing his plan: He is determined that Suzlon become one of the world's top three wind companies.
Acquisitions have helped the company reach fifth place on the list, helped along by perhaps its greatest coup of all: In 2007, Tanti suddenly entered the bidding for Repower, a major German wind turbine producer, and ended up outbidding the French nuclear energy giant Areva.
- Part 1: The Rise of Indian Wind Power
- Part 2: A Bump in the Road Ahead?
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