Once A SealMan Always A SealMan

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A Journey
Mechanical Seals

On the dreary, wet and misty morning of November 05th 1993, while my flight LH 98 from Frankfurt to Munich was hovering over Munich airport to find its proper slot and clear instructions from the ATC to land at the runway I was seated near the window gazing with sheer amazement and childlike joy at the German landscape. The manicured fields looked like green carpets from the plane and the small beautiful houses came alive from books I had read. Munich, from atop, looked like heaven, and I was going to land in it.

Only God in his absolute creative mood could have fashioned the city; everything looked so well organized and beautiful. I was beaming with joy, eager to set foot on European soil; a land seeped in history, beauty and mystery. Finally, the flight landed and I deplaned to be gingerly greeted by the immigration officer with a warm "Guten Morgen". As is customary, the immigration officer asked me the purpose of my visit. I was proud to announce that I had come to visit Feodor Burgmann Dichtungswerke GmbH & Co KG.

My journey in the business of mechanical seals started by chance. After graduating from the University of Bombay (as Mumbai was known back then) in the year 1988, I originally wanted to branch out of the family business of real estate and hospitality to set up a garment manufacturing unit in the city of Bombay. Back in the days Bombay was one of the largest export hubs to Europe and USA for ready-made garments. As luck would have it, my father–after initially expressing encouragement and support towards my independent garments export business plan-decided against it.

Much to my disappointment and even after I spent ample time reasoning with him, my efforts to convince him did not bear fruit. I felt dejected and betrayed and sulked for many weeks. While I was brooding, my older brother Hussein Balwa had decided to make a foray into the mechanical seal business and founded A K Engineering to honour our father Abdul Karim Balwa whose initials it bore. It was a small engineering enterprise. Much to my chagrin, I had neither heard about this line of work in the past and nor was I familiar with its market or its functioning.


It was on May 18th 1989, when I was sitting idle- my daily routine in those days - as I had become redundant and had no work other than performing menial jobs for my father and my older brothers who thought I was whiling away my time and being unproductive, that they made an announcement to me: I was to report to A K Engineering from May 19th 1989 at 9:00 AM every day. The Indian family structure with all its glory and security has its flaws. Once your father announced a plan of action, it got cast in stone and there was little choice but to abide by it. I had to accept this non-glamorous proposition which when compared to the glamorous business of ready-made garments fell short of my expectations. There I had been dreaming of interacting with young models and the who’s who of the fashion industry, but in reality I had no recourse except to reach A K Engineering at 9:00 AM sharp, the following day. Hence, I reached the office on May 19th 1989 and began my journey in the business of "Mechanical Seals".

I was 22 years of age when I set foot in the business of mechanical seals. It was a totally different world as compared to my family businesses of real estate and hospitality which were pretty much set and with which I was familiar. The first and the most important lesson I learnt about the mechanical seal business was that it is difficult to design, manufacture and sell! I was thrown into its rough sea rife with challenges and one that I didn't quite know how to navigate. I worked solo and did everything in the company; from writing letters of solicitation to customers, to purchasing raw materials and my tasks even included chasing errant customers for payments.

I soon realized upon meeting good customers like KSB, Sulzer, Ebara and many more that unless and until my company acquired a sound technological back up from a renowned mechanical seal company of Europe or USA, I would be wasting my time in this business. The world was different in those days, information was sacred and secret, and there was no readily available data base that I could access for the names of good international companies to collaborate with. I went to a technical book store in Bombay and enquired with the owner if he had a book on mechanical seals. He nodded and instructed me to revisit his shop after two weeks. He said he could get me a book on seals, the contents of which he could and would not guarantee. Moreover, he was unsure if it would be of use to me. I was desperate and took the risk and ordered the book from him. He asked me for a 100% advance. To my consternation I had to shell out Rs 2200/-, a substantial amount in those days, especially for a book on mechanical seals! I was nervous and unsure if my gamble would pay off.

After four weeks of waiting and numerous phone calls to the book store, I finally laid my hands on the book I had ordered. It was titled Seals And Sealing Hand Book by Elsevier Publishers. That book changed everything for my mechanical seal business. I got to know of companies such as Burgmann, John Crane, Crane Packing, Flexibox, Pacific, Safematic, Borg Warner, Sealol, Durametallic, Eagle, Pillar and many more.

It opened my world, helped me expand my vision and enabled me to reach out to these wonderful companies in the business of mechanical seals. I wrote incessantly to every company whose name and address was mentioned in that book, following those letters with badgering phone calls. I can candidly say that I often found myself at the receiving end of terribly rude and curt answers because it was difficult for a company in Europe or USA to understand the requirement and urgency of setting up a mechanical seal company in India. Understandably so, because the Indian economy had not yet opened up and nobody cared enough about the potential that lay for any such foreign company in India.

The Indian market was considered a very protected one with heavy bureaucracy and there were many other problems that made it unattractive for a company to set up a joint venture in India. Finally, my labour, patience and perseverance paid off. I managed to get an audience with Feodor Burgmann of Germany. I remember reading and re-reading the fax that I had received from Burgmann dated 12th March 1993, which said,

We have received your proposal of a joint venture along with other documents to manufacture mechanical seals in India. We will visit your office in Bombay shortly to evaluate your company along with other applicants to discuss the matter in detail.

I was riding high; my joy knew no bounds and I was behaving as if I had already signed the joint venture agreement with Feodor Burgmann of Germany. The team from Burgmann visited our company in Bombay. There were other strong applicants who had put in more years in the mechanical seal industry than me. In fact we were the youngest company, formed in 1989, whereas the other applicants were already in existence and in the business of mechanical seals since the 1970s. I had to put my best foot forward and give an earnest presentation. I had to do my best as this was my only chance. I was aware that other global mechanical seal companies were not interested in setting up a joint venture in India.

The drama was high octane, filled with suspense, while the pendulum tilted sometimes in my favour and most of the times in favour of the other applicants. Yet, I was determined to have this joint venture but then so were the other applicants. As it turned out, I almost lost out because Feodor Burgmann had decided to go with another applicant whom they found more suitable than our company. I was crestfallen but my inner spirit that never says die prompted me to keep my hopes alive and pray for a miracle. And it did happen! God bestowed his mercy and blessings on me. Their final discussions with the other applicant did not go well and that was when I seized the opportunity with both hands.

The date of the signing ceremony of the Joint Venture was scheduled for November 10th 1993. On the 05th of November 1993, after clearing immigration, I was greeted and received by my older brother at the meeting area of Munich Airport. That is the first time I heard the words Achtung Bitte, Bitte Schoen, Danke Schoen and so many such fascinating terms that have now formed a part of my vocabulary. It seems to me that the Germans have a word for every occasion and emotion. Even today, I always say the word Danke instead of thank you and my conversation is peppered with German words. At home with my wife we use words such as fantastische instead of fantastic because German sounds exotic to our ears.

My tryst with Feodor Burgmann, Germany and Europe started from that moment onwards. Through the drive from the airport to the beautiful town of Wolfratshausen, which rests on the foot of the Alps, I was mesmerized by the organized traffic on the autobahn. Men drove at great speeds and girls drove with equal ease. It was new to me and all too much to absorb in one go. I kept wondering what it would be to like to drive on German roads. Would I ever drive on the autobahn? Furthermore, I had not prepared for the cold and the possibility of snow; weather conditions prevalent especially in the southern regions of Germany. The temperature in November can fall to 2 degrees Celsius even during the day. I was clad in a traditional Indian sweater and grew conscious of its gaudy multicolours. I wanted to get rid of it as soon as possible. The lowest temperature is 20 degrees Celsius in the region I come from and I was thus ill prepared for the cold weather and even worse, I could be deemed as unfashionable. The following morning I went to the market in Munich and bought myself a beige coloured Mackintosh overcoat. Now I looked like one of them and felt happy and comfortable.

As scheduled, the ceremony of signing the joint venture was held on Mitwoch November 10th 1993 which got covered in the Lokales newspaper. As I mentioned earlier, my older brother Hussein Balwa was there to sign the agreement and to see its execution to perfection. My training which commenced on 08th November 1993 lasted three weeks. It was eventful and invigorating. I thought it was a great learning experience and felt very sad about returning home at the end of it. I had been enjoying myself thoroughly. A special mention ought to be made about the warmth and the camaraderie of the people in the company. In the three weeks of training I learnt a great deal about technical matters, but above all, a few things got ingrained in my mind; success came to German engineers because of their dedication, sincerity, perseverance and most importantly their discipline. Discipline set them apart from everybody else.

Back in India, I got involved in imparting all that was learnt during my training in Germany. Sometimes my Indian colleagues did not understand certain aspects of my instructions. They often raised queries as to why tasks were to be done in a particular fashion. They preferred to employ short cuts. It was then that I would smile and say -

Discipline My Dear Fellows - Discipline

I experienced my ample share of disasters, failures and disappointments. I was partly to be blamed because I had raised customers expectations. We were proud to introduce ourselves as a German company that could solve any mechanical seal related problem, and the customers obliged us by bringing all their problems to us. Most of them were chronic cases which could not be solved by the competitors. In the process we burned our fingers and of course a lot of money went down the drain. Consequently, our reputation took a beating until we finally got our act together. In due course, we became one of the most successful mechanical seal companies in India.

After investing 17 years in the business of mechanical seals, I was finally beginning to relax and enjoy the success of my long labour- a high that made me believe nothing could go wrong, when there came a sudden announcement from the company in Germany that it was taken over by a larger conglomerate. The year was 2004. I thought I ought not to worry about an event taking place in Germany due to its distance from India, but how naïve I was. The repercussion did arrive at our doorstep, albeit after three years. Despite our efforts to the contrary, under a congenial agreement, in August 2007 my family had to sell our shares to the parent company in Germany with great sadness. Though the agreement was concluded in a gentlemanly manner, it did not mean that my family and I were happy about it. In fact I was extremely sorrowful.

I had built a family within the company; it was the purpose of my life. My colleagues felt like family to me and the company a baby I had nurtured for so many years. Even so, I had to let it go, just like that! It was too much to endure and I was emotionally exhausted by this loss. Finally I bid adieu to the company and my colleagues and went into professional oblivion, far away from the mechanical seal business. I neither wanted information about the company nor of the mechanical seal industry. The subject could serve only to trigger my raw nerves. If I may candidly say so; I could never really get over the loss of Burgmann in India.

In those years I took a hiatus and did not want to start anything new. My experience of starting a mechanical seal company remained etched in my mind. Much work goes into building a new enterprise, so much labour and so much heart burn that, I, smarting from my experience, vowed never to enter the mechanical seal business again. In my own way, I had come to terms with it. I was keeping myself occupied with the family business of realty and hospitality when one evening in December 2011, an old colleague - Hanif Chaudhary walked in. Hanif, who incidentally was my first colleague in A K Engineering - and has always been my confidant and well-wisher-made an unexpected suggestion to me. Why don't we start a mechanical seal business? I looked at him with a quizzical expression and answered, "Do you know what it takes to start a mechanical seal company?" He said, "Yes." I asked him if he was willing to go through the grind and the pain of starting out again. I pointed out that we were merely 22 when we started out in 1989 as opposed to our current age. We were both in our mid forties and so I wondered aloud if our energy levels had abated. Even as I posed these rhetorical questions, I knew that Hanif Chaudhary and I didn’t really have any doubt in one another's abilities. In reality, from that moment on, a new idea had begun to germinate in our minds.

In January 2012 Sealmatic was born. As it started out of a small premise of 220 sq meters, waves of nostalgia came rushing back. My brother, Hussein Balwa, offered us his words of encouragement. In fact both my older brothers, Hussein and Ismail permitted us to use the family's infrastructure, thus giving a boost to our ambitious endeavour. This time around we were enriched by wisdom. We had learnt important lessons from the past failures and hard earned successes of recent decades, which would of course remain deeply entrenched in our minds and make us more aware of our responsibilities. But yet we had brimmed with boyish enthusiasm. However, no amount of experience is enough because honestly speaking, every experience is new and inspite of all the knowledge one gains, trials and tribulations follow a startup.

Sometimes, during the journey with Sealmatic, circumstances got so trying that I questioned my decision to begin again. What prompted me to restart the painstaking process? It could probably be the strength and support of Hanif who has always stood like a rock besides me and given me the grit and determination to move forward against all odds. Hanif effortlessly and efficiently took over the entire operations on the production side and left me free to scour the world of international business. Here, I also wish to acknowledge and appreciate the Chaudhary family in entirety. Hanif, his brothers Abid, Sadique and son Zakir, have put in their blood, sweat and tears to build Sealmatic, often pledging their life savings at risk.

As for me, I soon realized that I had more to lose in my second innings. In 1989 I had my entire career ahead of me but this time around I had an immensely successful history in the business of mechanical seals behind me, and the expectations of others as well as my own were high. Moreover, I had to swallow my ego and my pride, and reintroduce myself to customers as if I were a beginner, which I was not. I had decades of experience behind me but no badge to wear on my shirt. I was back again from where I had begun. On the autobahn, the autostrada, the highway, the motorway- whatever name you call the road I was there, bag in hand, and aspirations on my sleeves. Also, this time the collective hopes of the Chaudharys and the Balwas (my own family) rested on my capabilities to create awareness for our fledgling company. Even though I had no reason to worry about the factory back home due to the good work done by Hanif and his family, as well as our earnest employees I had to garner the strength to revisit my youth. Every so often I received a rude reply by someone who had never heard of us and didn’t care enough to give me a few minutes of their time. Yet, I had little choice but to persist. It was a commitment I had made to our respective families and our employees.

The financial aspect of any enterprise only comes into play after a long period of time. At first, it is genuine appreciation of the product that an entrepreneur seeks. Ultimately, a good business is developed by keeping one’s eye on one goal at a time just as a long journey becomes easier to embark upon by eyeing one milestone at a time. Over the span of the last several years I had to undertake long arduous tours to scout for customers. I drove through cities, big and small, crossed states and countries and traversed the world to make Sealmatic a company that is worthy of international recognition. I have come a long way from the boyish young man of 1989 who came to Germany and wondered if he would ever drive on the autobahn. Today I have clocked more than 200,000 kms behind the wheel on foreign roads and yet I feel as though I have merely scratched the surface. There is so much more to explore, earn and experience.

Over the years Sealmatic has became synonymous to mechanical seals with deliveries to more than 43 countries. It has the distinction of being the only Indian mechanical seal company to have the API Q1 and ATEX certification and a long list of satisfied customers. I must say here that my brother Hussein Balwa has aided us and put his faith in us through this journey. With his support we shifted our factory to a state of the art building in the year 2017. The date to be precise was the 19th of May which made for an interesting coincidence; it was on the same date 28 years ago that I had stepped into the mechanical seal business. I felt as though my life had completed a full circle and I stood at the threshold of a new one.

The modern plant of Sealmatic has grown exponentially since the 220 square meters it was at its nascent stage. Above all, every colleague is proud to be a part of this journey and the company. Anything more I add here about a company such as Sealmatic which is growing every day will be premature. Sealmatic is the sum total of the efforts of all the people associated with it and a vision that Hanif and I shared. It’s proven to us that a dream that is pursued with dedication earns the right to be called a vision. To future generations I would like to say that a seed sown by Hussein Balwa in my respected father’s name via a relatively obscure company called A K Engineering proves to us that the name of a company can change over the years, as well as the hands running it, but its goals remain intact. I was given the privilege of watering this seed and nurturing it to its full potential, a process that is ongoing, but I trust that when its heirs enjoy the fruits they will remember where it all began.

The field of mechanical seals is a dynamic, challenging and highly competitive arena. Every new application invites innovation and demands solutions. The subject involves physics, chemistry, mathematics and most importantly common sense. I developed an abiding respect for the mechanical seal business. It is a business that is critical to every industry. A mechanical seal is a vital component of rotary equipments. It employs my personal philosophy- if you set the small things straight, the big things will fall into place.

A learned and experienced person from the mechanical seal industry cautioned me once. He was aware of my family's well established presence in hospitality and realty. He wondered why I would choose to venture again into a very difficult field such as the mechanical seal business instead of resting on my previous laurels in the same. Certainly, it was a well meaning concern from a gentleman who only bore goodwill towards me. "Why are you entering the mechanical seal business again?" he had asked. What could I say? I was 22 when I found my way to this industry after experiments in various other lines of work. In that era boys had to earn their place in the family business by the time they were 20. I dabbled with hospitality and realty, then spun dreams and made plans about establishing other businesses, but once I set foot into the mechanical seal business, I knew that I had found my calling. Sometimes, we meet our fate when we least expect to. I returned to the struggle out of my own volition and realized that for someone who has spent years in the mechanical seal business, the staid and easy would not appeal. I had no other way to express my choice. The explanation I gave him had made both of us smile. "Once A SealMan Always A SealMan", was my simple reply.

Umar A K Balwa