Treading a path not as smooth as the marble they dealt with, three youth reach the pinnacle in business
Three boys from a family of small time paper traders switch to selling marbles but scale up their business rapidly with a unique vision and a keen eye on emerging markets that their company, Stonex India, whose turnover now hovers at Rs 300 crore, is poised to become an international brand.
Stonex is already a trendsetter in India, having introduced high quality marbles in seductive colours like Burberry Beige, Giorgio Armani Bronze, Burberry Grey, Casanova Beige, Statuario White and so on, and the founders, too, lead a high-flying lifestyle.
But they are only too proud to recollect their humble past. “We lived in a single room rented flat till 1990 when our father bought a 2 BHK flat where we siblings shared a single room. We couldn’t afford family holidays and even gave excuses to our friends for school excursions,” says 39-year-old Gaurav Agrawal.
He, along with younger brother Saurav Agrawal (37) and cousin Vikas Agrawal (40), entered the marble business in 2001 with an investment of Rs 9 lakh, by renting a 300 square feet shop at Delhi’s Rajouri Garden.
Earlier, the young cousins were helping out their fathers in the family’s paper trade, which was operating from Chawri Bazar, under the banner Chirnaji Lal Sons. It was a meeting with a maternal uncle of the Agrawal brothers that changed their life.
Cousin Vikas Agrawal, who clearly remembers the meeting, says: “The uncle, who had a marble factory, ‘Kushalbagh Marbles’ at Banswara in Rajasthan, suggested that we do something different as the paper trading business did not have much scope. So we visited his factory and then decided to open the shop in Delhi.”
“We took a loan of Rs 9 lakh from our father and started working hard. Our father also gave his scooter, which the three of us rode to visit various clients, to travel for work and everything else,” says Saurav Agrawal, who now drives a BMW.
In June 2002, they opened another outlet, ‘Saraswati Marbles’, at Mangolpuri, another renowned market in Delhi and Vikas Agrawal took over its day to day operations.
“In those days we would cut costs in every possible way. When we had to travel to Kishangarh and Udaipur in Rajasthan, we would travel by normal buses that charged Rs 250 for a seat instead of buying a sleeper bus ticket for Rs 450,” recalls Gaurav Agrawal, the youngest founder who now flies business class.
When they went to Rajasthan, they would stay there for 15 to 20 days and do detailed research of the marbles they wanted to buy. Instead of going through agents, they procured it directly from the manufacturers, which helped them choose the best quality.
“Within one and a half years, we were able to build a brand name and launched ‘Stonex’ in June 2003, which was a huge 2,000 square feet showroom,” Saurav Agrawal says.
Besides buying their first car, a Maruti 800, in 2003, they bought their first godown in 2005 for Rs 80 lakh. Spread across 200 square feet, the same godown in Delhi today has been converted into a showroom that houses Laminam ceramic slabs, and caters to an elite clientele.
From the beginning the promoters of Stonex understood the needs of customers and strove to fulfill them. As Saurav Agrawal says, “We were customer centric and understood that people who are making their houses are investing not just their money but also emotions.”
The stress was on working as consultants, and not vendors, imparting knowledge to the customer to help them make the right choice. The approach helped with satisfied customers spreading the news through word of mouth, thus bringing more clients to them.
Vikas Agrawal remembers his first business bloomer: “A client asked me to cut various sized marble slabs, which I promptly did but charged him only for the slabs he bought. The wastage is normally borne by the customer, but in this case I ended up bearing the loss.”
In 2006 they shut the shop in Mongolpuri as the Rajori Garden outlet was doing fairly well, while the Mongolpuri clientele wasn’t up to the mark. But that year was a watershed in the history of the company.
“In 2006, Gaurav went to Turkey on his first international trip, and we imported our first consignment that was sold out in a month earning great profits,” says Saurav Agrawal about their first big jump.
Soon they realised that demand for Indian marble was going down with clients preferring imported marble. So, they closed down the Indian marble business in 2008 and scaled up import.
Then came the boom time in 2008-2010 when Delhi was upgrading its infrastructure, building more hotels and other amenities to host the Commonwealth Games 2010.
A major turnaround for Stonex came when Hotel Country INN, Sahibabad, ordered marbles worth Rs 5 crore.
Stonex was recognised as a trusted vendor in terms of quality and price and called to do projects with more than 100 hotels, thus enabling it to establish itself as one of the big players in the marble industry.
“In 2008 we expanded our team from 15 members to 50 and also bought a space of 250 square metres to construct an aesthetically designed showroom, where every sample can be seen, touched and felt,” says Saurav Agrawal. “We built model bathroom, kitchen, toilet and staircase to showcase the final result of using a particular type of marble.”
While other vendors stored marble in open space Stonex was building an air-conditioned covered space. The showroom had a special lift to carry the marbles to second and third floors for storage.
“When the showroom was inaugurated in June 2011, traders in the industry said we had gone mad,” recalls Saurav Agrawal. Finally the cousins laughed all the way to the bank as the showroom became a trend setter in the industry, impelling others to follow suit and sales saw a 100 per cent growth every year from 2011-14.
When sales crossed Rs 200 crore in 2015, the construction industry slowed down, forcing the cousins to innovate again. So, on August 1, 2015, Stonex opened its first out of town showroom in Ahmedabad, from where clients had been coming to Delhi. In 2016, they targeted 14 other cities, including Mumbai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Surat, Chandigarh, Ludhiana, Kanpur, and Lucknow.
They expanded the team from 50 to 150 in 2016 by hiring marketing staff and, for the first time, a full time HR head in the marble industry, which was till then unorganised with people following old methods of business.
They also have one showroom for Laminam products, which is a slim porcelain type of flooring material. It is in fact a niche product that the cousins are dealing with.
In 2017, they constructed a state-of-the-art fully automated plant in Kishangarh, Rajasthan, at a cost of Rs 100 crore. “The cost of our marble is 5 per cent higher than the market rate. However the quality is unmatchable,” explains Saurav Agrawal.
Vijay Maheshwari, joined the Kishangarh Factory in 2016 as the CEO and he is the fourth director of Stonex India Pvt Ltd, along with the three cousins.
While Gaurav Agrawal, hailed as the visionary, looks after HR and new policy making of the company besides heading procurement, Vikas Agrawal handles the daily financial management as well as sales in Delhi, NCR, Gujarat and Punjab. Saurav Agrawal, the youngest one, looks after sales and marketing, and feedback coming from customers.
Vikas Agrawal did his BCom from Delhi University as a private candidate in 2000 before joining the family business, while the Agrawal brothers too started working young a year later – Saurav at 17 and Gaurav at 19 - as their father had met with an accident.
Gaurav Agrawal was pursuing BCom through correspondence course while the younger brother wanted to join IIT. He had even cleared his JEE prelims. Though the two brothers understood the predicament of their parents and did not complain about the lack of luxuries they gave a protected childhood to their little sister Shailja Mittal, who is the founder of Koala Cabs that has created a niche in the Delhi cab market.
While they all enjoy comfortable and luxurious holidays with families, they haven’t forgotten their roots. Gaurav Agrawal starts off: “Our mother has been the guiding light of our life. She has kept us grounded and ensured that we never over spend. Today with enough money in hand, we still don’t splurge.”
Vikas Agrawal loves his Apple gadgets, be it his watch, Ipad or desktop and spends quality time with family and friends.
Saurav Agrawal considers his BMW the most prized possession. “This was one thing I really wanted to buy. Since I am the pampered youngest one, my elder brothers happily obliged.”
But the brothers prefer home cooked meals even in office. “With a small kitchen in every office, we eat and share our food,” says Gaurav Agrawal.
When they had started, they could hardly afford to pay salary for one employee. Today they employ 400 personnel all over India. With a vision to make Stonex a global brand, the brothers have their eyes firmly set on the next goal.
This Article is Part of the 'Amazing Entrepreneurs' Series