Farrokh Cooper's entrepreneurial journey — by chance

by Shahkar Abidi 26 Jan 2020


Satara, which lies in the heart of Maharashtra state and just 250km from India's financial capital Mumbai, is where you will find Cooper Corporation and its connect with the Cooper family, which has been in Satara for more than 100 years now. Since then, the Cooper name has gone across many diverse fields, ranging from agriculture, education, social reform, politics to liquor, engineering, and industry including automotive. Automotive is where Autocar Professional's connect lies, so we drove to Satara to find out more about this dynamic component manufacturer. 

Seventy-four-year-old Farrokh Cooper, chairman and managing director of Cooper Corporation, considers himself to be destiny’s child. He believes everything that transpires in his life, happens by chance. If that's the case, the town of Satara in Maharashtra must be thanking its stars, given that 11 Cooper Corp plants have employed most of the locals across generations.

If it weren't by chance, Farrokh would have been an agriculturist, a profession he planned to take up after completing his studies in England. In fact, his going to Engand also happened out of the blue when his mother, Homai, visited a close relative. The relative's advice saw Farrokh land in England, where his cousins studied in the same school. Staying in a foreign country, in his formative years, helped instill plenty of independence in the young Farrokh, a quality which turned into an asset when he entered the hurly-burly world of business.

Cooper Corporation

Stamp of heavy mettle. Cooper Corporation has been at its manufacturing best for close to 100 years now.  

When he turned 25, the Cooper family had to make a key decision which brought Farrokh into the limelight. His brother, Sam Cooper, met with a serious accident. This was only a few years after Farrokh’s father Nariman had passed away in 1944 before he (Farrokh) was born, due to pneumonia and the lack of penicillin which had been diverted to the soldiers of the British army who were busy fighting World War II. Farrokh’s grandfather Dhunjishah Cooper died three years later in 1947 at the Taj Mahal Hotel, while attending the session of the Legislature in Bombay (now Mumbai).

“My mother said, look the factory has started. Give it a try. There are only 20 people. Succeed, succeed otherwise close it. It worked,” recollects Farrokh of several conversations he had with his mother then. Farrokh’s mother and brother died around 10 years ago.

Though Farrokh decided to take the entrepreneurial plunge on his mother’s insistence, his inexperience never proved to be an obstacle. One of the reasons Farrokh attributes to this is that he never shied away from asking for help from others, a quality that helps him till date. The assistance, Farrokh claims, at the time came from other industrialists such as the Walchands and Kirloskars, who helped him learn the ropes of the business and guided him whenever needed.

Cooper Corporation

Farrokh Cooper reminiscing about the family legacy through monochrome prints in his office.

Decades later, Farrokh’s Cooper Corporation, of which he is the chairman and managing director (CMD), is counted amongst the largest employers in the Satara region offering jobs to around 3,000 people, directly and indirectly. The company generated revenue of Rs 535 crore during FY2019 which, according to the management’s projection, is expected to increase substantially to Rs 1,500 crore in the next two to three years. 

The company currently stands as one of the leading manufacturers of engines, auto components and gensets with 11 state-of-the-art  plants in the region. Cooper Corporation supplies cylinder liners to many automotive, locomotive and marine engine OEM manufacturers; its clientele includes Jaguar Land Rover, Nemak-Ford, Kawasaki, Maruti Suzuki, Renault, Harley-Davidson, Wartsila, GE Transportation, Waukesha, Mahindra & Mahindra, Royal Enfield, Hero MotoCorp and Cummins . The company manufactures one-, two-, three-, four-, five- and six-cylinder engines in diesel,  CNG and LPG variants. Furthermore, the company also has a wide range of generator sets.

As per Cooper Corp's website, "Over the past few years, the company has managed to self-finance about 64 percent of Cooper Corporation's growth by re-investing company capital. Our sales are geographically diverse, with 40 percent of our business being with our well-established customer base here in India, with the further 60 percent being split between long-term clients and new business in the United States of America, the United Kingdom, Germany, Finland, Japan, Austria, Spain, Italy, Sweden, Netherlands, China and Taiwan. "

Farrokh Cooper corporation

The hands-on approach of the promoter has helped in keeping the attrition level of employees remarkably low, with many completing 20-30 years in service. Therefore, it did not come as a surprise when an employee recently completed 33 years with the company. Farrokh now has plans to enter the agricultural sector. “Agriculture is a big sector. Every industry will slow down but not agriculture,” he points out.

Impact of slowdown
In the face of the ongoing industry and the economy slowdown in India, the company has now cut down on its earlier announced investments of Rs 200 crore. “We have slowed down investment because you have to be careful with money. Mine is a family-run business but still you have to be careful and earn profit. If you exceed, you are done,” Farrokh points out.

Farrokh Cooper Corporation

However, Farrokh is not one to take things lying down. Though the domestic industry in India may be reeling under the prolonged downturn, Cooper Corporation has increased its focus on exports. The company has been attempting to use the situation arising out of the US-China tariff war, wherein businesses are moving away from China to other countries. Farrokh had earlier said that he has been able to modify the company's business strategies to counter the impact. The company bagged orders for production of cylinder liners from the US, as Chinese firms have been barred. “I am blessed,” Farrokh had quipped.

Legacy matters
Farrokh derives his family name from the profession of his grandfather Dhanjishah B Cooper, who worked at a government liquor barrel warehouse in Satara during the pre-independence era. Cooper essentially means 'a maker or repairer of casks and barrels'. Soon, his entrepreneurship got him into the liquor business, which at the time was spread across Satara district.

Dhanjishah later diversified into the real estate business before finally starting a grey iron foundry in 1922 and a small machine shop called ‘Satara Industrial Work’ (SIW), closer to the market for agricultural implements. The company manufactured agricultural equipment and tools useful to farmers. Some of the products produced included an iron plough which, until then, was imported. In 1928, the company was rechristened Cooper Engineering Works.

Dhanjishah also became the first businessman in India to manufacture engines in the early 1930s.

There's an interesting story there. According to Farrokh, his grandfather was visiting the foundry when a man came up to him with a very old engine and spoke in native Marathi, “Saheb, hya engine cha head gelay ahai. Mala madad kara.” (Sir, something has gone wrong with the cylinder head. Can you please help to rectify it?). Dhanjishah successfully did the job. It's then that the company foreman and supervisor advised Dhanjishah that if they could make a cylinder head, then why not complete engines? “So my grandfather said, let’s make it (engine).  He started that business and he did well,” says Farrokh, marking the manufacturing of the first diesel engines in India. The engineering business was later sold to the Walchands which was subsequently taken over by Premier Ltd.

While making inroads with his businesses, Dhanjishah was also deeply involved in the country's social reforms and politics too. He is said to have vociferously worked on social causes with eminent personalities including Karamveer Bhau Rao Patil, Dr BR Ambedkar, and Prabhodankar Thakeray. He was also bestowed with the title of 'Knight' by the then British government of India. However, the peak of Dhanjishaw’s success came when he was appointed the first Prime Minister of erstwhile Bombay Presidency in April 1937 due to, what else, but "accidental chance". His government lasted for 110 days.

Farrokh, when asked whether it would have been possible for him to be as successful if it weren't for the Cooper family legacy, quickly responds: “Without the goodwill of my ancestors, I could not have done what I did. Money is one thing, goodwill is another. You cannot put a value to goodwill."

Big supporter of stiff fines for traffic rule offenders
A stickler for discipline, Farrokh is a big supporter of recent legislative changes brought by the government for road traffic-related offences. The rules are yet to be adopted by all the States in the country including Maharashtra, as it mandates stiff fines for the offenders.

Farrokh’s wife Maharookh is a survivor of a road accident, which happened over a decade ago but its impact can still be felt. Maharookh reportedly went through three surgeries related to that incident. Though the Pune police then registered the case and filed the charge sheet in the case, the Lok Adalat, an alternative dispute system forum, reportedly disposed off the case ex-parte after the accused failed to turn up for any of the hearings. Farrokh and his family have now approached Bombay High Court and also written to transport minister Nitin Gadkari, seeking his intervention into the case. “When it happens to you or your relatives, then you feel it. Till such time and the trouble you have recovering (accident) from it, it is terrible. It’s a good thing (new traffic fine laws),” remarks Farookh.

Nimbu pani on the tarmac
Recalling his earlier days in England as a student, Farrokh says it was a different era altogether. Sharing some nostalgia, Farrokh recounts how the aeroplane landed every three hours during the journey. The flight from Mumbai had a stop over to refuel in Cairo, Beirut and Frankfurt before reaching its final destination — London. “You sat on the tarmac, no security, no terrorism. They even served nimbu pani on the tarmac!,” Farrokh recollects fondly. Also, during his travel from the airport to the railway station and to school, he often forgot his cycle on the road only to find it standing at the same place the next day.

Farrokh is an early riser, his day usually starting by 6 am. After 30-45 minutes of exercising followed by breakfast, he reaches office and meets around 40 people daily including the plant heads and supervisors. In the afternoon, he is mindful of running for about 15 minutes on his treadmill in the Cooper Corp office, before heading for lunch.

This untiring technocrat has a huge passion for outdoor photography. He also loves to read books, news (mainly on his cellphone) and travel, among other interests.

Destiny as a growth driver
The word 'chance' never leaves any conversation with Farrokh. Before concluding our meeting, he reveals another such incident which changed the course of Cooper Corporation's business.

When Farrokh was looking to set up a latest state-of-the-art foundry, an American businessman, who had offered to help with the technology, reneged at the very last moment. Later, he was referred to an English businessman who helped him with it. “It is after that, that we have the latest technology in the world, and which we still have. Had the American businessman not gone back on his word, this thing would not have happened. I was recommended to this person by somebody else, whose boss was my guardian when I was in England,” recalls Farrokh.

There is a further twist to the Cooper tale. The British guardian was someone who had, several years ago, visited Satara to inaugurate Farrokh’s grandfather’s foundry! “There are many such stories,” Farrokh signs off with a cryptic smile.

(This article was first published in the December 15, 2019 Anniversary issue of Autocar Professional)