#b#Sunil Kumar#/b#, president and CEO of International Specialty Products, is upbeat about the ability of the United States to compete in industrial manufacturing. The $2 billion specialty and industrial chemical company he leads produces nearly all of its 400-plus chemicals here, but 60 percent of its sales are outside the United States.
“We are very much the exception to all these examples of U.S. manufacturing companies having great difficulty in competing around the world,” he says.
He acknowledges competition from the Chinese and Europeans, but thinks that progress in the U.S. continues to move along. “It’s not that we are unique,” he says. “It’s just that our types of companies are not talked about. The media love to harp on failures.
Everybody talks about what company failed, what company laid off people. We’ve been hiring people every year. We still have an eight-percent sales growth every year.”
Kumar will present “Maintaining Global Leadership in U.S.-based Industrial Manufacturing” at the New Jersey Chapter of the Association for Corporate Growth on Tuesday, March 16, at 7:15 a.m. at the Woodbridge Hilton. Cost: $75. Visit www.acg.org/newjersey.
How does International Specialty Products beat the international competition? Kumar shares some tactics:
#b#Meet the requirements of customers that foreign competitors can’t#/b#.
#b#Utilize good management practices#/b#. “American management practices are the best in the world,” says Kumar. “We hire 10 good people, we are able to motivate them, put square pegs in square holes and move fast. There is no management process or system quicker or faster than the American system. If we use it, we can beat foreign competition.”
#b#Choose battles carefully#/b#. “We choose those battles which we are very likely to win,” Kumar says. “There is no point in going into war and losing it.”
#b#Share success with employees#/b#. Offer a salary increase every year.
Offer incentives for productivity.
#b#Find the right niche#/b#. Kumar sees promise in products that are specialized. “The bulk of our economy is in that kind of a segment,” he says. “We have already departed the low end, making shoes or low-end textiles.”
#b#Let people do their thing#/b#. “It’s common sense, but it’s so true,” says Kumar. If you just keep the people involved in their jobs, stay out of their way, let them do their thing, give them the tools they need, things will go well.
Kumar was born in India and earned his bachelor’s in mechanical engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology. His father is a biologist and writer and his mother is a writer. He came to the United States as a student in 1971. “The first thing I declared to the immigration department was that I had to be a U.S. citizen the first chance I had,” he says. He was told that he’d have to register for the draft, which he did, though he was never called to war.
What caused Kumar to travel halfway across the world and ask for citizenship upon arrival? In addition to the high opinion his parents held of what America had done for the world, he says it started with an admiration for Harry Truman. “He had this get up and go attitude,” Kumar says. “The buck stops here. That kind of common sense.” Kumar’s admiration ran so deep that he even used to wear Harry Truman-like glasses.
He earned his MBA at the University of Louisiana, then went to work for Firestone, where he stayed for 23 years. “The last five years were under Japanese ownership,” he says. “That’s where I got firsthand experience of how ineffective the Japanese are. I went to Japan a hundred times. And every time I went there I learned how really incompetent the Japanese management system is. It still works, it still succeeds, because it’s relying on underpaying employees, working them 80 hours a week and only paying them for 40, with total militaristic discipline. Anyone who stepped out of line was shot.”
Kumar left Firestone 15 years ago to join GAF, a roofing products company that is under the same ownership as ISP. He ran GAF for five years, then moved to ISP, where he has been at the helm for the past decade.
He has high standards to follow. His 85-year-old father, who is now blind, recently wrote his 25th book, using a graduate student to help transcribe. “I told him I’d be happy if I’m even half as good as he is,” Kumar says.