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narayanan madhavan

Some managers speak of troubled times as though they were good times. Krishan Atri is one of them.

It's a big plus for Windsor, Ont.-based Valiant Machine & Tool Inc., a manufacturer and supplier of automation systems for the automotive, aerospace, mining, composites, construction and forestry industries. Mr. Atri is the managing director of Asia-Pacific for Valiant-TMS Systems, a subsidiary of Valiant that was born out of its joint venture with Austria's TMS.

In India, Valiant focuses strictly on the automotive industry, which is experiencing its toughest year since economic reforms in 1991 introduced global players. State-run oil refiners that dominate the petroleum scene in May raised the price of gas by about 12 per cent, triggering street protests and grumbling from car owners. A diesel hike is also being discussed by the federal cabinet that adminsters fuel prices.

Gas prices in India have lagged globally under a state-subsidised system, but a fiscally challenged government is finally cutting back. That is bad news for auto makers already hit by a slowdown, and those who thrive on them, such as Valiant. But Mr. Atri is focused on the long term. Industries go through cycles, he says somewhat matter-of-factly, and starting out in tough times is the right time to build for the future.

"Recession is a good time to start," Mr. Atri explains, "so that when the market is up, we can take advantage of it."

He is also focused on revenue targets and customer relationships.

Since building its plant in late 2009, in the western Indian auto hub of Pune, Valiant-TMS now records annual sales of $5 million and it has grown to 60 employees. Globally, the privately held Valiant has $500 million in revenue and 1,100 employees. "This year's target is $8-million," Mr. Atri says. "Our capacities are full."

Mr. Atri says his customers are naturally price conscious and adds volumes were down after the gas-price increase, but a key part of being an ancillary supplier is to keep systems flexible to manage costs and sustain relationships with large customers. "Every company has to have its own processes to come into the market," he says.

The company's recipe for controlling costs was to have a firm grip on manufacturing, design and overhead, and to be flexible with those details to be competitive.

Valiant sources globally, and in India, its customers include Honda, Volkswagen, Renault Nissan and General Motors, and the country's own Tata Motors.

The sourcing model works well because Indian engineers are relatively inexpensive, despite a surge in wages resulting from more than a decade of high economic growth, Mr. Atri says.

Valiant-TMS may have done some smart hiring when it recruited Mr. Atri. The 39-year-old is an engineer from the Indian Institute of Technology's Kanpur campus, famous for turning out great mechanical engineers, and he also helped build Indian factories from the ground up for robotics firms Kuka, based in Germany, and Italy's Comau, both of which are among Valiant's competitors. It also helps that Mr. Atri is the type of person who shrugs off regulatory and customs irritants – issues foreign investors in India often complain about.

"These are part and parcel of the game," he explains, indicating an ease with government issues that make many hands-on engineers uncomfortable.

Mr. Atri also speaks fluent German, and given Valiant-TMS's Austrian connections, it could be viewed as a bonus.

"I know all the cultures," he says, adding he can also speak some Italian.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Narayanan Madhavan is associate editor of the business news pages of Hindustan Times, a leading Indian daily newspaper. He has previously worked for Reuters, the international news agency, as well as The Economic Times and Business Standard, India's leading business dailies. Though focused mainly on business and economic journalism with a strong focus on information technology and the Internet, he has also covered or written about issues including politics, diplomacy, cinema, culture, cricket and social issues. He has an honours degree in economics and a master's degree in political science from the University of Delhi.

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