21 Apr 2017 20:53 IST

Hindustan Pencils: Sharp as ever

Despite being the market leader, the company still strives to continuously improve its products

An enduring memory from my childhood is an advertisement in which different pencil brands race each other, with the Nataraj pencil emerging the winner and the tagline ‘Nataraj phir se champion’ ringingly proclaimed. No other pencil ad has come close to that one in my mind since then.

The ad captured the essence of the Nataraj brand — the pencil gave a better grip, it would not break and it would write for a longer period than all the rest, it wouldn’t smudge, the lead was blacker and clearer, and the flow, smoother. And because the lead used was ‘bonded lead’, one was assured of getting ‘pointy points’ after sharpening the pencils, as another of their ads proclaimed. It followed, naturally, that all children wanted to use only Nataraj pencils. The Nataraj 621 HB pencil was the most popular then — and continues to be in demand today.

The Nataraj brand of pencils, with its distinctive regal red-and-black stripes is a product of Hindustan Pencils Pvt. Ltd., a stationery company that was established in 1958 in Mumbai. The same company also has an Apsara brand of pencils. Hindustan Pencils has the reputation of being the first in India to produce pencils that used good quality graphite — special bonded lead — that lasted long.

Before Independence, pencils were manufactured in India, but the industry faced stiff competition from imports. The pre-World War II (1939-40) years saw pencils worth about 6.5 lakhs imported into India from countries such as the UK, Germany and Japan. The numbers fluctuated during the war years, finally dipping to 2.3 lakhs during 1944-45, and this gave the indigenous market a boost. Several pencil manufacturers sprang up across the country in places such as Calcutta, Bombay and Madras (now Kolkata, Mumbai and Chennai).

Government’s help

With the market was flooded with imported pencils again after the War, these manufacturers petitioned the Indian government for protection and state assistance. Imports fell and the indigenous industry slowly started thriving, but faced complaints from the public that not just was their product was inferior to imported pencils, but they were priced higher as well.

In the early 1950s, the per capita consumption of pencils is said to have been around one pencil per annum.

Today’s situation shows a quantum leap in all areas — demand, supply and quality. The Indian stationery market is said to be worth around ₹10,000 crores, supplying items such as pencils, pens, notebooks, geometry boxes , and the like to about 250 million students studying in around 1.5 million schools across the country.

Pencils form a very large part of this quota and are used not just by students but also architects, carpenters, artists and office-goers, who still use the pencil for various jobs such as writing, drawing, colouring, sketching and shading, thus making the stationery industry one that is still thriving despite the advent of tabs and laptops.

Industry leader

Reports indicate that though the domestic pencil industry has both organised and unorganised players, about 80 per cent of it is dominated by the branded sector. In this, the Nataraj and Apsara brands from Hindustan Pencils have a market share of about 60 to 65 per cent. (The company claims to produce 8 million pencils, 1.5 million sharpeners, 2.5 million erasers, 0.2 million rulers and 1 million pens every day.) These brands have come to stand for high quality at competitive prices: it is a matter of pride that they are in great demand even abroad — in about 50 countries — making Hindustan Pencils a global name.

The company’s dual brand strategy of having two independent brands offering almost the same range of products was an intelligent move — Nataraj is positioned as a brand that offers long-lasting quality at an affordable price while Apsara offers higher-priced pencils with more options (like professional and drawing pencils). Consumers from different backgrounds, professionals and others, are thus covered and any competition is pushed to second place.

It is no wonder that today, Hindustan Pencils is India’s largest pencil manufacturer and among Asia’s largest as well. It is also the largest primary school stationery manufacturing company in the country and promotes its products among children by conducting inter-school contests.

Manufacturing

Apart from the above-mentioned products, Hindustan Pencils has also diversified into manufacturing crayons, geometry sets, professional pencils, gel and ball pens, chalk, colouring sticks and chalk paints — almost the entire range of writing equipment, to be exact.

 

The company has its own manufacturing units; it has 10 factories at five locations, where the latest machinery and methods are used to produce writing materials. Strict quality control measures are taken to ensure that the raw materials used (graphite, ball clay, glue, lacquers, paint, pigments, binders, and the like.) are of the highest quality and are non-toxic.

Hindustan Pencils’ research and development department ensures that the products meet international norms, like European CE EN-71 (minimum product safety standards) and American ASTM D-4236 (clear labelling of potential hazardous components). Steps are being taken to make the products even safer by using eco-friendly, water-based lacquers and PVC-free formulations.

The company has gone in for backward integration to produce even the smallest components — such as sharpener blades, screws and pen tips — in-house, to keep to its own standard of delivering only the highest quality.

Going green

In an environment-friendly move, the wood used for the pencils is sourced from their own plantations. Unused, fallow land was converted into timberland; trees which would be suitable for making pencils were scientifically studied and planted in short rotation growth cycles of 7-10 years. The company follows the ‘sustained-yield’ method wherein the growth of the plantation/forest is more than the amount of wood taken from it, annually. This also provides support to local farmers by procuring the wood taken from trees grown on their land, farms or courtyards. All this ensures a steady supply of wood without environmental degradation. Recycled paper is used for packing.

Hindustan Pencils’ commitment to the society is seen both in its environmental concern and in its CSR drive. It has established several institutions to impart education and training to girls, thus empowering them for a better life. Apart from this, the company is also associated with institutions that provide education and medical care to children with special needs; conduct vaccination drives for young women, and organise corrective surgeries for polio-affected children in rural areas.

Even though Hindustan Pencils is the market leader in the pencil category, it has not become complacent; it continues to invest in infrastructure, value-added and environment-friendly product development and improvement in the existing products.