The instruments industry is ever-evolving: Brij Suri
Brij Suri is the founder of AHGT, Dubai Instruments, Phi Sigma Calibrations and is the CEO of Dickson’s Middle East office. With a career spanning over four decades, Mr. Suri has witnessed the evolution of the technical instruments industry in the West Asia region and harnessed innovative solutions to some vital industry challenges.
After graduating from the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Delhi in the 1970s, he took a rather unconventional route, and quit his cushy job at a well-known multinational company to start his own company servicing the healthcare and hospitality industry. Armed with innovative insights and a vision for the future, he shares his journey and experiences as a founder over the years.
Tell us a bit about how the idea of Dubai Instruments come into being.
Just when the children had grown up a little, I decided to take up an offer with the Nestle group in Dubai. It seemed like a great opportunity and I worked with the Nestle group for a very long time. I started this job in May 1984 and we shifted to Dubai with the family. You see, my wife, Poonam, was also keen on starting something of her own. I remember we came with 500 USD, the amount that was permitted by the RBI at the time and the dream that one day we will have our own business. I cannot put it in words how Poonam supported me greatly and in fact, she was the one who started this project. Before we had moved, she was working as a teacher. Once we took the plunge, we started with hygiene products and some instruments. I clearly remember from almost four decades ago that our first thermometer was sold to the Emirates Golf Club.
After we started, we were joined by the US-based company Dickson. Around this time, we had started settling into our environment and our children were in middle school. Initially, it was a start-up with Poonam doing everything- from accounting to sending quotations making client visits. Given that we had just started out and everything had to be established from scratch, I must admit that she got nearly everything done by herself. She was clear that I should not join the start-up until it was generating enough revenue. That continued until 2001 when I finally joined and the company had become significantly bigger by then.
We were getting enough new orders and my full-time entry into the company coincided with the rise of a new concept in the market, that of servicing. At this point in our journey, we had been established for over two decades and we started dealing with several banks. In my vision, I was absolutely clear that we just didn’t want to be agents or distributors or item collectors but wanted to truly offer value addition through our services.
So how was your experience back then and how did you add value for your customers?
Things were certainly very different back then and we started by offering hygiene products to the hotel industry. They were the key players in this market and we offered the essential washroom accessories such as air fresheners and room fresheners. What worked in our advantage was that not enough companies were offering these services back then. In many ways, I saw not just an opportunity here but also a chance to bring about a difference in the style of operations. Like I said earlier, we didn’t want to be just service providers but instead be different in how we provided services.
In many ways, this is easier said than done but the first thing that helped us get close to our goal was us obtaining prestigious corporate clients. For instance, we got to service all the branches of Standard Chartered. The chance to service an entire chain of offices was exactly the kind of opportunity I was looking for. From the beginning, I insisted that clients should not just buy a product from us – you know, I wasn’t aspiring to be a salesperson. I proposed that we will charge some nominal fees and offer a full package of services. At that time, the service was a new concept and that is what excited me to launch this kind of experiment.
How did you go about bringing value addition to the doorsteps of your clients?
As we all know in hotels, most of the cleaning is done in-house by their staff. But the new technologies required automatic refreshing every five minutes and continuous flushing. This kind of service management couldn’t be done efficiently by staff alone and I saw a possibility to revolutionise the idea of service here. This technology of constant sanitisation through automated machine was thus introduced in the Dubai market 30 years ago by us. And the market response was great. Several companies copied this move but despite copying us they were lacking one crucial element. And that was the personal touch that we added as Poonam would often go to installation sites herself to supervise and monitor the set-up. You see many may call us early adopters but just being the first to bring a technology is not enough if you cannot add an element of human touch.
How did your learnings from your stint at Nestle help you here?
When I was in Nestle, I learnt that hygiene was in great demand in the food processing industry. This gave me a good learning as well as inspiration on why cleanliness is so integral to some industries. I realised early on that there were serious ramifications if one was not to take cleanliness lightly. If anything went wrong, we would lose the entire batch of products and that would be a huge loss. I witnessed how all workers before going to the processing hall had to change their dresses and maintain hand hygiene. This made me realise that certain industries really valued hygiene as a service. I did not just conceive this aspect as a stream of revenue but also realised that hygiene was a critical component for ensuring efficient services.
How have you seen the market evolved? Especially since you have been a part of the market for long and have continuously added new products to the inventory.
The best part about being in the business for so long is that one has seen all kinds of dynamic challenges. In the early days, I remember getting some antiseptics into the country was extremely tough. (In 2003), an epidemic started from China and a mass demand for Purell products came. I had been dreaming if I could get this product here it would be great. I reached out to the company and when they saw my passion, they decided to allow me to distribute it. I was keen on getting this contract any way and thought that several offices would want it and take it from me. There was a huge demand at that time and products were in short supply. The first thing I realised was that people were not used to these products. Today, with hand sanitisers all around us, it is a bit tough to believe but I remember that for most people, such products were not a part of their hygiene habits. When I would visit companies where these sanitisers were kept, often a container would only be half empty even after a month’s usage.
This meant people were not using it though technically to prevent cross-contamination, one must use 1ml on each hand in every usage. However, even though companies struggled in teaching people how to use them and ensuring their usage, the seriousness of the epidemic did lead to a demand. Given how passionate and serious I was about bringing Purell to this market, I kept thinking of alternative places where these products could be sent. I discovered that since children were returning from vacations, I could reach out to schools too. Obviously, my first stop was the Indian High School where my children were. The automated system was set up and I remember it had become an object of fascination for the children from the moment it was installed. They played with it, they put their hand and emptied the container without using it, wasted it and did all kinds of things. But eventually it was made compulsory at the schools too. One of the reasons I was so keen on taking Purell to different sectors was that is produced only in one factory and there can’t be any duplicate products. It had a great design that minimised the risk of cross-contamination and thus was a huge success.
Have you had any challenges in navigating across sectors?
Challenges in this industry are dynamic. Initially, when we were doing mapping, validation and qualification programs, we used to get calibrated from the third party and their mandated expiry date would be one year. So, if something goes wrong within one year, the entire process would stand invalidated. Our speciality is that we have become a unique vendor that we are the first company in the region with the ISO 9001 to service the entire cold chain supply management. We have our data loggers, our own in-house calibration lab and provide clients with pre and post details. We are using multiple data loggers across the area even if warehouses are very big, even 50000sq m. Our other strength is data integrity. We provide the raw data too which eliminates the risk of data manipulation and auditors can rely on our reports. Many of our clients include the Big 5 Pharma companies, health authorities of various countries (including Dubai), hospitals and of course, the aviation industry.
What have been your learnings on recruiting people?
This has been a challenge. I have realised that getting the right people can be very tough. In the early days, the market trend was to select from college campuses. We did that but the only worry was that they would work for a short period and jump ship and you can’t really stop that. The other concern was that colleagues would go into the market with all the data about us. We did take legal steps to safeguard our information but every method has its limitations and you can only patent that many IPs for your company. But I am proud to say that with time, we have evolved in applying best practices to the HR function too. Our people are our biggest assets and we believe in investing in them. For most of our staff, we have a guest house for accommodation. We have an in-house library, offer gym memberships to select staff and also believe in a good work-life balance. Our company believes in the values of respect, integrity, authenticity and collaboration as the keystones of our success.