The breathtaking growth and change in the technology world over the past 50 years has touched nearly every aspect of business and daily life. In this sea of revolutionary transformation, there are few constants. Yet, Manohar Lal (M.L.) Tandon, chairman of Tandon Group, has been at the heart of the tech industry from the early days of punch cards and floppy discs, and continues to influence today’s dynamic entrepreneurial community.
Throughout a career spanning five decades, M.L. Tandon has transformed the business community in India and around the world through technological advances, as well as social and economic change.
Today, Tandon Group incubates promising startup companies and operates successful businesses in India and North America. The companies Tandon Group fosters solve significant problems in industries such as IT, healthcare, financial services and e-commerce. M.L. Tandon shares his expertise in, and influence on, industry and innovation in India, overcoming common obstacles and lessons learned through his illustrious career.
Q: Tandon Group has a rich history of innovation with a strong influence over the first floppy drives and first generation of IBM personal computers. What inspired you to start Tandon Group and continue to evolve into the startup incubator it is today?
I remember the day I left India to pursue my master’s degree in engineering at Purdue. As I climbed the steps to the airplane, my father pulled me aside and said, “Don’t do anything that would give you, me or your country a bad name. The rest of you is free.” It was a liberating moment for me because I knew I had my father’s blessing to think and do differently, as long as I did something for the higher good. This continues to be a guiding principal and driver behind what Tandon Group continues to do today.
In some ways, the evolution to Tandon Group has been a natural one. I began my career at the IBM Development Lab in San Jose as an engineering manager. I returned home in 1967 to take on a key role at IBM India for nine years until IBM was asked to leave because of non-compliance with Indian Equity norms. When IBM was forced to close its plant in India in 1977, I, along with other key ex-IBMers, proposed to take over the plant. IBM accepted the proposal to give us all assets at the cost of 10 cents to a dollar as long as we employed everyone who had been working in the factory. As a result, we created a company called Pentax Engineering to provide products for the local market in India.
I started Tandon Magnetics in 1978 to supply recording heads to Tandon Corporation, which was founded by my brother Sirang Lal Tandon. We manufactured and exported magnetic heads and storage products as IBM’s preferred supplier for floppy disk drives. We followed up the success of Tandon Magnetics with Tandon Motors in the 1990s, which focused on the manufacturing of motion technologies. That put Tandon Group on the global tech stage as a major supplier and partner for multinational companies including IBM, Hitachi and Toshiba.
In the beginning, I focused on improving manufacturing in terms of process, labor, trade and talent. Today, my family is working tirelessly to take Tandon Group to the next level.
Q: Tell us more about how the next generation of Tandons are leaving their mark.
My son Sandeep leads Tandon Group as managing director, focusing on identifying talented entrepreneurs and startups for our group to invest in and incubate. He also serves as chairman of Infinx Healthcare, a software provider for patient access and revenue cycle management for healthcare providers in the United States, as well as Syrma Technology, which continues to provide the world-class electronics manufacturing services the Tandon brand has been built upon.
Jaideep serves as joint director for Tandon Group, Infinx and Syrma and is focused on growing Infinx and Syrma in the U.S. and Europe, as well as building our investment portfolio in the U.S.
Sudeep, also a director of Tandon Group, helped FreeCharge more than double its user base and transaction volume, and onboard more than 500,000 merchants. Now, he is leading innovation at Infinx, specifically focused on artificial intelligence and robotic process automation for its patient access and accounts receivable software.
My daughters-in-law, Gauri and Radhika Tandon, launched a popular Indian-inspired fashion jewelry brand called Isharya after noticing a void in the global market for high quality and well-priced statement jewelry. The brand is carried online at Isharya.com, in international stores like Harvey Nichols, andat its own branded retail stores in Mumbai and New Delhi. Radhika also serves as CMO for Tandon Group, helping Infinx and Syrma with branding, marketing and sales enablement. Sandeep, Jaideep, Sudeep, Gauri and Radhika carry on our rich history of solving industry problems. This is the common thread that has allowed our companies to change how people in India do business in the country and around the world, pioneer progressive workplaces in a state-directed economy and create technology that drives global change. It’s why progress, entrepreneurship, innovation and excellence are part of our mission, and why we’re committed to advancing technological and social innovation by helping next-generation startups in India succeed.
Q: What do you feel are the biggest myths about developing tech startups in India?
The global community does not recognize the level of innovation growing in India today. The entrepreneurial environment here is very dynamic, not just in terms of manufacturing components, but in new companies and ideas that are transforming industry.
Q: How has manufacturing and technology in India changed over the last five decades?
When I started the Tandon Mumbai plant in 1978, training the workforce was my top priority because I saw first-hand how corporate efficiency and flawless quality put IBM at the top of the global market. That’s what I wanted for Tandon, but in India we have something called “Chalta hai” – meaning “It’s good enough” or “The little things don’t matter.” But I knew that the little things do matter. Whenever I was on the production floor I would tell the workers “Chalta hai, nehi” or “Chalta hai is not okay!” Today, that spirit has spread to make our workforce second to none in the world.