MANUFACTURING | Krisana Gallezo-Estaura, Singapore

‘Ikea of tyres’ CEO says ‘Inaction is almost criminal’

GS Sareen talks about how Omni moves faster than competition.

Omni United, a Singapore-headquartered tyre manufacturer and distributor and often dubbed as the ‘Ikea of tyres’, just had its recent acquisition of a US-based tyre distributor, Interstate Tire, ITD. Founder GS Sareen, who is also the CEO and President, described this as another important strategic step in the evolution of the firm as a tyre designer as this opens for them a relationship with over 2500 retailers based in the US west coast. Money-wise, the acquisition will enable Omni to more than double its existing retail reach in the US market, which accounts for 65 per cent of its revenue.

Founded in 2003, Omni sells in excess of 6.5 million units of passenger and light truck tires a year in 80 countries. It sells more than two million units of passenger and light truck tires a year in the US.

Sareen, a local entrepreneur who believes in the principle, “Keep moving; speed is important and mistakes are acceptable,” talked to Singapore Business Review about the secret behind the success of Omni United, the soul of the company and his own personal trajectory.

SBR: What are the experiences from your childhood or youth that helped shape you for the business world?

Sareen: There is no one event that shapes anything (I believe) but a series of events, what we call experiences in life actually become our character! For me, because of my family situation, independence – decision making and then being responsible for the decisions made – managing money and other resources, etc were a few things that I learnt very early in life and that became a part of me. When you have to make decisions, you have to analyse the entire situation from start to finish before making a decision – this is something one learns in MBA classes! I learnt this very early on as a kid.

SBR: What is your key business philosophy and how is this reflected in your company?

Sareen: "Keep moving. Speed is important and mistakes are acceptable.” This is reflected in every aspect of our business – we have been able to achieve what some of our our peers have taken a few generations to achieve! This has been possible because of our passion for moving with speed. As someone with an Indian origin who grew up listening to philosophies of the ancient sages – for me inaction is almost criminal! We believe in actioning every thought, of course with full consciousness and awareness of its consequences. Most people live their lives in their minds and thoughts, we like to live life experientially! Keep what works and trash what doesn’t. Nothing like a first hand experience.

SBR: Prior to founding Omni United, you were an entrepreneur of one of the first B2B online market exchanges in the tyre industry, mindtrac. How did this first start-up help you in founding Omni United?

Sareen: Actually mindtrac was my third company! With each venture (or experience) one learns and evolves – specifically with mindtrac I learnt a lot. On human resources, how ambitious some can get, and how they can affect the entire organisation. On Growth, how to plan for growth and be flexible and in sync with the business environment to adjust as the situation demands, how to build systems and processes for scalability, how the finance world works, how and when to look for capital.

SBR: When you first started this company, how did you try to differentiate yourself from the rest?
Sareen: I have always believed that a sustainable business is one that is sorting out someones problems! With Omni, I set out to discover what problems did the customers in USA have and then provided them with a solution! That was the differentiation. Unlike others, I wasn’t pushing a product or a service on to a customer, I was finding out their pain points and then providing them with solutions that would help them make money!

SBR: What is the secret behind the success of Omni United? Can you cite some of the 'craziest' things you have done to make your business successful?

Sareen: Putting the customer ahead of your own interests always worked for me! If the customer benefits, I naturally had a share in it. We always went to market backwards, constantly looking for issues or problems and then providing solutions for them. I was surprised to see how many people didn't even know what problems they had or what was stopping them from growing further! They accepted the status quo as a saturation point! We constantly push our customers and ourselves and that I guess is our secret sauce! We love the word ‘disbelievers’ . We disbelieved every established fact and went with a ‘why not’ attitude. When people said a company could not be based in the value segment we disbelieved and here we are today! When we were told that ‘off road racing is only for premium brands that have big budgets’ we disbelieved and built a race team, a race tire and in the first year - we have a record number of podium finishes. When we were told that there can be no more innovation in the tire industry, we disbelieved and went ahead to create Timberland Tires - a marriage between fashion and the tire world. We have already been recognised as one of the most innovative companies in the world! So disbelieving is good!

SBR: How will the recent acquisition of Interstate Ltd provide new opportunities for growth and innovation for Omni United?

Sareen: With Interstate Tire, we acquire a relationship with over 2500 retailers – which they have built since 1963! It would have taken us a very long time to build a similar sized network – now we have a mature relationship with 2500 retailers on the U.S west coast, a complete infrastructure of delivery systems and we also acquire some great talent. ITD came with over 30 sales reps who have been with the company for a long time. To hire, train and deploy a sales force is not an easy task. We have probably gained 10 years on time frame alone (this is with our speed, for others this could take a life time!). With ITD we can now put our products directly in front of 2500 retailers who can influence customers like you and me to make the right decision!.

SBR: What is next for Omni United?

Sareen: We will continue to acquire distribution in areas where we don’t have a footprint yet, in the US and internationally. We are in discussions with a few people in the US and in Europe. In the US I plan to have a network of over 40 warehouses, this will cover almost 70% of the US consumer base. In Europe we want to establish a bridgehead quickly so we can offer a better level of service to customers. Today, shipping tires from Asia to Europe takes time and its not very efficient, either. Other than physical distribution, we are very aggressively working on levering various tools that technology has to offer so that the scalability of the business can be further accelerated.

SBR: If you were not an entrepreneur, what profession would you have chosen?
Sareen: I would have become a Professor of Philosophy!

SBR: What would be the one advice you would give?
Sareen: Dream and then act to make it happen. If you don’t have a dream then you are firing from the hip, and if you have a dream but you haven't done anything about it then it was just wasted energy!


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