Sheetal Talati: The entrepreneur who did the unthinkable after losing her father when she was just 22

Sheetal Talati had to take over her father’s manufacturing business – about which she knew nothing – Sheetal Talati was thrown into the deep end, but she came out a winner

Sheetal Talati: The entrepreneur who did the unthinkable after losing her father when she was just 22

At an age when youngsters are worried about choosing a career or spending time on frivolous things such as fashion and social media updates, 22-year old Sheetal Talati’s world completely changed. She lost her father, who was not only her role model but also her confidant and best friend. Worse, Sheetal had no time to grieve as she had to take over the reins of his business. 

In 1987, Sheetal Talati's father had founded Pushpa Industries, a company that manufactures heating and cooling coils. Over the years, it supplied components to leading manufacturers such as Daikin, LG, Voltas, Hitachi, and more. The company won many awards for being the best in the industry. This was the business Sheetal had to take over practically overnight.

Predictably, it wasn’t easy. Sheetal knew nothing about the business when she started. Not only did she have to learn the ropes, she also had to fight to make her presence felt in a male-dominated industry.

Let’s listen to her inspiring story.

How did you deal with people who didn't have faith in you when you started?

Nobody trusted me. I was just 22 and a woman. As soon as our clients came to know about my father’s demise, they withdrew their orders. There were a few who trusted us only because of our experienced team. It was summer and all I remember was turning off the lights at the end of every day and leaving for home.

When we lost business initially, I personally called up a lot of clients to retain them. I assured them that my father’s demise would not come in the way of fulfilling their orders, and requested them to continue having faith in the company.

I had to work very hard to sustain the old staff. We even pulled down the prices of our products to attract more customers. At the same time, I ensured that all employees kept a strong focus on quality and excellence, and did what they could to create flawless products.

How was your experience at Father Agnel College, considering that you enrolled in a course mostly taken by men?

I remember my mother had to take special permission from the Head of the Department to allow me to enrol in the course. The college and teachers were very supportive. The course helped me learn the basics. It was quite challenging as I did not come from a technical background. But I made some very good friends in my class who helped me learn, and they are still in touch with me.

How did you manage to keep your company afloat after losing existing clients?

It was very difficult. We had to work on minimum margins. I had to take up small orders that involved more labour and less profit. To sustain, I grabbed every order that came my way.

What are some of the biggest lessons that you have learned in your ten years in the industry?

The last decade has been full of risks, hard work, and learning. I’m not afraid to look back. The mistakes I made in the past have helped me improve and made me the individual I am today. 

Being a woman in manufacturing does have its challenges, as there are very few of us in the industry. Constant learning is required to keep up with the changes in technology and that can be challenging at times. One must educate themselves at every stage. It’s a lifelong process. Do not let your past educational choices limit your career options in the present. If you have a different passion – and the drive and perseverance to make your dream a reality – you will see many avenues open up for you.

However, I would say that one of the biggest challenges is straddling the role of a mother, wife, daughter-in-law, and boss – all at once! In our Indian society, many people expect mothers to not go to work but stay at home and look after the kids. I’ve often been questioned why I need to work, given that my husband is professionally stable.

Random people offer unsolicited advice all the time. I feel it’s sentiments like these that force 60-70% of women to give up their careers.

What were some of the biggest guiding factors during your induction into the industry?

Being in a male-dominated industry, I did not have any women role models to look up to. It was challenging when I started off, but then I decided to be my own role model. I didn’t shy away because I was the only female manufacturer in the heating, ventilation, air conditioning and refrigeration (HVAC-R) industry then. 

I believe that if I can hold my ground, it will inspire other women to also follow this path, and this is what keeps me going. Also, it is immensely satisfying to be able to give wings to my father’s dreams.

Many people think getting into a family business is the easiest thing, but in my case there was no godfather to hand-hold me. It was quite difficult at that point of time, and I remember battling many offers for a buyout. There was a strong mindset against women in this industry, and it was assumed that I didn’t know or understand anything in this field. I also faced some degree of resistance within the company. There was a lot of scepticism about me from all corners, and I would often feel overwhelmed.

But there were also good things that I am grateful for. The old employees at the company offered a lot of support, and helped me learn about the business and the work. And each new relationship I built at work – be it with the staff or with a client – has taught me something new.

How did you achieve a growth of 18% in annual turnover?

We worked towards keeping in regular contact with our customers, remembering small personal details about them, and diligently asking for constant feedback to get repeat orders. We set achievable targets within a given time, in line with the manufacturing quality standards. 

A constant change in the technology is something we work upon the most to keep up with the current market trends and demands. New orders and inquiries kept pouring in, and we could fulfil them with pure hard work and dedication. It was challenging, but not impossible. 

What are your plans for the future growth of your business?

I’m looking to grow our business and expand to service international markets as well. I’m also working on revamping processes and systems to improve efficiency, while not compromising on quality, so that work can happen independently – with or without me.

What is your advice to women who wish to venture into a male-dominated industry?

When I started off, there definitely was a strong belief that women are not cut out for manufacturing, and that they are better off in more ‘regular’ professions such as teaching, banking, and the like. I’ve struggled against this mindset from so many corners! 

There have been many times when clients or vendors would come to office and demand to speak to the ‘boss’ or someone who knows about the work. In fact, this mindset is so deep-rooted that in our industry association meetings, the salutation is always addressed to gentlemen – ladies are not even acknowledged! I’ve even had competitors tell me that I get orders only because I am a girl!

I have never been afraid to be the only woman on the premises. Manufacturing does remain predominantly a male profession. But I have also received a lot of support and appreciation from the HVAC-R industry.

My advice to women is not to get into manufacturing if you’re not building something you strongly believe in. Ignore the rest. Just let your product do all the talking.

 

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