29 August 2017 15:19:44 IST

Malathy Sriram writes poems and short stories for children and adults, as well as book reviews and articles of general interest. She is a post-graduate in English Literature from Ethiraj College for Women, Chennai. Her work has been published in Indian Express, Deccan Herald, Mirror and Femina. She has edited website content and is the editor of The Small Supplement, an online magazine for children with articles on history, science, arts and culture, sports, technology, companies and brands, mythology and short stories. Reading, teaching English, listening to music (all genres) and singing complete her oeuvre.

Muscling its way into the tyre segment

Here’s the story of Madras Rubber Factory, which started out making toy balloons!

The logo of the MRF muscle-man holding aloft a huge tyre with the tagline ‘MRF tyres. Tyres with muscle’ is one of the main reasons the brand name has instant recall value.

The story goes that a casual market survey was conducted by the employees of the company, focusing on the expectations that users have from a good tyre. A truck driver in a roadside dhaba in Western India, is said to have remarked, “A good tyre should have all the qualities of a pehelwan (wrestler).” This led to the birth of the MRF muscle-man, embodying strength, durability and reliability, and becoming the most recognised tyre brand logo in India.

Humble beginnings

However, the company did not begin as a tyre manufacturer. The Madras Rubber Factory began in 1946, set up by the youngest of nine children (eight sons and one daughter) of the Kandathil family (owners of the publication Malayala Manorama ). KM Mammen Mappillai and his wife Kunjamma started it by preparing toy balloons and selling them in Chennai (then Madras). Using an electric ball mill, the husband-wife team ground the chemicals for the balloons in their garage and transported it to their land at Tiruvottiyur, where they prepared balloons. Other products like dolls, toys, gloves and even contraceptives, followed.

The first office was opened in 1949 at Thambu Chetty street. The next step was taken in 1952, when Mammen began to manufacture tread rubber, a product that could extend the life of used tyres. The steady growth in this industry saw the firm becoming a market leader within just five years.

The growth

It was registered as a private limited company in 1959, and by 1961, it became a public company; the very next year, the decision to enter tyre manufacturing was taken, and a Rubber Research Centre was set up at Tiruvottiyur in 1963.

It was a bold decision, as the tyre industry in India was then dominated by multinationals like Dunlop and Goodyear. To compete with them and produce products that would be equally good if not better, MRF entered into a collaboration with the Mansfield Tire and Rubber Co.

Experts from Mansfield imparted training to the MRF staff; the tyres they manufactured were sold under MRF-Mansfield tyres. The unfamiliar brand name was promoted through exhibitions, first in Chennai and later in other cities.

International presence

By 1964, an overseas office had been set up at Beirut and by 1967, the company’s tyres were being exported to the US — a first for an Indian company. More manufacturing facilities followed, producing nylon tyres and tyres for heavy-duty trucks and two-wheelers.

In 1979, Mansfield Tire & Rubber Co. sold out its share and the company became MRF Ltd. Later, it also ventured into other fields like toys, paints and conveyor and elevator belting (in collaboration with US-based Hasbro, Australia’s Vapocure and Pirelli, respectively).

Being market leader

Through undeniable quality and planned expansion, MRF continues to remain the market leader in India in the tyres category. There are three market segments in this industry — the original equipment manufacturers (OEM), the replacement market, and exports.

MRF has a commanding presence in all three segments (In fact, it has a very high rating on customer satisfaction and also won the Most Ethical Company award in 1999).

It is the only tyre company in India manufacturing the complete range of tyres — Truck/ Bus Radial (TBR ), Truck Bus Bias (TBB), Light Truck Radial (LTR), Passenger Car Radial (PCR), Motorcycle and others. The Indian Air Force Sukhoi-30 range of aircraft is fitted with tyres of this company.

They are also the first choice in the replacement market, as its R&D policy is focused on developing tyres that can withstand Indian road conditions in all terrains and climates.

MRF’s overseas offices are present in Dubai, Vietnam and Australia, and it exports its products to about 65 countries around the world. It has also won the CAPEXIL Award.

MRF was the first tyre company in India to reach a turnover of ₹5,000 crores. The problem faced by tyre companies in general is volatility of raw material prices. The surge in the availability of cheap and inferior Chinese tyres has also affected the market to some extent. Despite this, MRF has done well. This year, in a first for an Indian company, MRF’s stock price almost touched ₹75,000 (₹10 paid up)! The total income for 2016-17 is claimed to be over ₹15,000 crore.

Listening to customers

The company follows a policy of listening to customers before designing new products or improving an existing one. This is how it excels in the marketing segment, through strategic restructuring.

This is supported by its belief that every product should create its own profit and not piggyback on the visibility of others. This is also one of the reasons it discourages discounts.

R&D labs

All R&D labs are centrally coordinated, with a lab for natural rubber at Kottayam. Quality of the material is constantly checked, even after the product release. Tyres are tested on different road surfaces and race tracks and at varying speeds before being released in the market. Recently, the company’s R&D team developed low Rolling Resistance (RR) tyres.

All nine MRF factories have the internationally recognised Quality Management System certification TS16949/ISO9001. The tyres conform to European Tyre and Rim Technical Organisation (ETRTO) standards, Japanese Industrial Standards (JIS) and Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS).

MRF has been voted as the Most Trusted Tyre Company in India by the TNS 2006 global CSR study. It has also won the Ford World Excellence silver award, and the JD Power tyre satisfaction survey across all four categories — appearance, durability, traction/ handling and ride — 12 times in 16 years!

Showrooms and advertising

MRF approaches advertising and promotion of its products in a systematic and well-planned manner. To a great extent, promotion is driven by developing personal, one-on-one contact with the people whose livelihood is linked with the product — like truck drivers.

This enables the firm to provide effective after-sales service and customer care. Apart from this, the print media, outdoor hoardings, the internet and mailers are utilised to keep the product in the public eye.

The Indian firm has its own exclusive showrooms and prefers to deal through its own authorised dealers (its 3,000-strong dealer network is one of its greatest assets) to ensure quality and authenticity. While its products are not available through unauthorised web sites, it recently started its own e-commerce service to keep up with the times.

Extra activities

MRF has associated itself with cricket through Pace Foundation that has trained many fast bowlers. In fact, MRF Tyres has been confirmed as a Global Partner for ICC events from 2016-20. It is also involved with racing, karting, rallying and motocross events.

Its CSR initiatives include providing education to children in rural areas, setting up infrastructure facilities in schools, conducting general health camps, medical camps and nutrition awareness programmes, undertaking tree plantation drives; and spreading environmental awareness.

Through the MRF Institute for Driver Development, training is imparted to underprivileged youngsters to become commercial drivers; and young children are trained in cricket (through its Pace Foundation) and other sports like table tennis and tennis.