India Country Head at
Vignesh Janakiraman: I have been in the Indo-French space from back when I was a student, despite not having any prior connection with France. I travelled to France for the first time for an internship during my engineering degree. Even though I was not fluent in French, I fell in love with France. The mentor in the lab where I worked suggested that I pursue a doctorate, which eventually led to my becoming the first doctoral student to have an Indo-French bi-directional thesis (these en cotutelle), with a double diploma from the University of Bordeaux in France and VIT University in India. I was also a recipient of the Eiffel Doctoral Scholarship in 2012 for my stint in France. I was mentored by Prof. Xavier Santarelli of ENSTBB Bordeaux INP and Prof. Krishnan Venkataraman of CBST, VIT University.
My doctoral thesis was related to cardiovascular disorders and the recombinant production of apolipoprotein A-I for eventual therapeutic use. This led to joint publications, funded projects by BPI France-BIRAC, and a longstanding collaboration between the two laboratories (ENSTBB-IPB Bordeaux and Centre for Bio-Separation Technology, VIT-Vellore).
Post-PhD, I started my first company, Plasmatech Solutions, a start-up focused on haemophilia therapy. This was a translation of my earlier research work that the lab had filed a patent on. The startup was awarded the Biotechnology Ignition Grant (https://birac.nic.in/big.php). After a couple of years with Plasmatech, I couldn’t raise further funding to execute clinical trials; hence, I closed down the company and moved to France.
In France, I worked with Algobiotech SAS as their Scientific Head from 2017 to 2019. During this time, I gained a diploma from INSEAD and started moving away from R&D towards business development. While I was looking to transition into the biopharma industry, the Groupe Roullier found my profile, and I was interviewed about potentially expanding their operations in Asia.
I joined Groupe Roullier in early 2020 to set up the Indian subsidiary of their legacy business, TIMAC AGRO. It was based out of Saint-Malo, France. During the first eight to ten months, I developed the strategy and goals for entering the Indian market. Being a bicultural person with strong experience in both India and France, the group invested in me to start the Indian subsidiary, which I finally started in October 2020, post-COVID lockdown.
Vignesh Janakiraman: For decades the group knew they wanted to enter the Indian market, but the piece in the puzzle that they had been missing was the “how?”. They even discussed joint ventures with one of the country’s leading fertiliser companies, but it didn’t go further.
With the approach to setting up the Indian subsidiary, I opted to start with Tamil Nadu as a sandbox because of the unsaturated market that provided fertile grounds for testing and adapting the group’s business model and port accessibility.
For me, it was also a cultural advantage, as I knew the local people and language. Another reason for choosing Tamil Nadu is that within Groupe Roullier, there is another vertical that was already present in Chennai, which facilitated our initial paperwork.
Vignesh Janakiraman: It’s very important to understand a key differentiator here compared to other companies in the plant nutrition space. TIMAC AGRO’s products pride in being highly efficient. Since there are no direct product equivalents in the market, it helps us carve a niche and cater to farmers who have an interest in productivity over price. We are not a mass-market player and hence do not suffer from seasonal fluctuations either. Our products fall under a premium category, which is rightly justified by their high efficiency.
India’s agricultural sector is one of the largest and fastest-growing. While the potential is there, the market is heavily fragmented, with multiple levels of distribution and small land holdings, which is a challenge to an organisation that provides localised solutions catered to the farmers’ needs.
The group was also cautious while starting in India due to past challenges in other Asian countries where trying to replicate the European business model didn’t yield results.
There were several adaptations that were made to bring our unique business model to India. TIMAC AGRO lives on a robust B2B2C system; we always sell to the farmer on the distributor’s account. One key adaptation was keeping a lean structure, which was helped by the lower cost of hiring in India (roughly one-fifth of what it costs in Europe), making it easier to become profitable on costs. Since we started operations from scratch, we didn’t make heavy capital investments (vehicles, etc.) until the employees were bringing in profitability, and this way we were also rewarding them based on performance. This model is unique in comparison to other companies.
Vignesh Janakiraman: The success of TIMAC AGRO’s model comes from its emphasis on decentralisation and local adaptation. There were several adaptations we made in India. We refused to compromise on the minimum gross margins for products. When new price-sensitive markets open up, people tend to lower prices, which we did not do. Key strategies to adapt to India were keeping our structure and costs light, investing in the right talent, hiring relentlessly (to overcome turnover), and being exigent on them for performance.
Each division, zone, or region of our company is responsible for its own P&L. This emphasis on performance enables us to weed out people who do not fit into our business model while motivating the rest of the team to perform more efficiently.
I started by myself as the first employee when I arrived in India in October 2020, and we are now at 88, with 60+ in the field and 20 in support services across operations, finance, IT, and logistics. We are on track to break even by this December, recovering all of our costs in India.
Our business model is one of intensification before expansion. Building our talent through hiring has been consistent in the past six months. The technical sales specialists (TSS), who are our commercial employees at the forefront, are what distinguishes our business model. We scout for talent through unconventional channels: through a number of alumni and agri WhatsApp and Telegram groups. We don’t use LinkedIn very often and place a high value on abilities and training rather than just diplomas and certifications.
The Dynamic Team Driving
TIMAC AGRO's Success
Vignesh Janakiraman: The future of agriculture in India needs to move from subsidies to sustainability. Being pioneers in innovative and efficient products, we are spearheading the transformation of farmers to using products that result in increased productivity. It’s important for Indian farmers to consider agriculture as a business that provides for their families rather than just something that they need to do because other people would look down upon them if they didn’t work on their land.
The potential of the Indian plant nutrition market is enormous, consuming over 60 million tonnes of fertiliser every year. India is a key geography for growth for the group, and we should be making several hundred crores of revenue in the coming 5–6 years.
The key is to hire the right people, which is where we put a lot of effort into training the team to improve their efficiency. We are quick to test out different models, seeing what works and what doesn’t, and how quickly we can become profitable.
Vignesh Janakiraman: Without a doubt, India is the place to be in the agriculture space for any company looking to grow. The first challenge for any foreign company looking to enter and succeed in the Indian market is understanding the regulatory landscape. There is often a better understanding of local regulations in practice rather than the bureaucratic interpretation of legislations. Success comes from building relations with local authorities, who act like sherpas in navigating regulatory hurdles.
We also had tremendous help from the Fertiliser Association of India, which forms a key bridge between the industry and various governmental bodies. They also helped us connect with several peers in the segment, who have been very helpful in advising us in the right direction.
The agriculture sector places a greater emphasis on respecting local cultural sentiments and adapting to local languages and dialects than other sectors. The operations team has to be local for early success.
There is also a clear segmentation in terms of products in the market: commodities that rely on market forces and premium products that are less price-sensitive. Following the second wave of COVID-19 in India near the end of 2021, there was a global container crisis, followed by the Russian invasion of Ukraine in March 2022. This created dramatic fluctuations in fertiliser prices globally, and commodity fertiliser prices soared. This was another opportune moment for us, as the price variance between commodities and our products reduced, making it easier to help switch farmers. It’s only in the second half of 2023 that the prices are beginning to stabilise, and we hope to see further growth moving forward.
Vignesh Janakiraman: When I started TIMAC AGRO in India, the Indo-French Chamber of Commerce & Industry was our first home; we relied on their domiciliation services (until we outgrew the space). IFCCI was also a personal choice for me because of my affinity for and connection to the French diaspora. My experience with Business France and the Embassy connected me with not only resourceful people but also a great network that benefited shaping TIMAC AGRO’s India story.
I’m also a strong believer in giving back to the community. In 2022, I got elected into the governing council of the IFCCI. Along with Payal S. Kanwar (DG, IFCCI), I worked over the past year to create a working club for the Food and Agro domain that would eventually grow to become a sectorial committee. The IFCCI Food and Agri Club has been operational since last month, chaired by me along with Govind Suryawanshi, Vice Chairperson [Corporate Affairs Director, Royal Canin India]. The idea is to bring in a greater French presence in India in this sector and see how we can better capitalise on our synergies.
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