“I don’t pay much attention to my competitors and they don’t dictate my way of working. I firmly believe that if you better yourself, you automatically better your organisation and good results will obviously come out of that,” says Cabinet Shrestha, MD, Agni Group. According to him, he sets his own target and he is in constant competition with himself.
Shrestha was born in 1965 in Jawlakhel to Minati Devi Shrestha and late Dil Bahadur Shrestha. He was born in a politically influenced family. His father was a Minister when he was born, and being a member of the cabinet his father named him Cabinet. Shrestha grew up with a lot of siblings, and says his childhood was a happy one and well provided for. “My father never forced me into any career. He just wanted me to have a good education, and wanted me to learn shooting, horse riding and driving, all of which I started at about age 10,” recalls Shrestha. He went to AVM School till grade four, and then was sent to Mount Hermon in Darjeeling. He then joined St Joseph College in Darjeeling, majoring in Science. “I was actually studying to be a doctor. I was really good at studies, and exceptionally good at Biology. At that time, if you were good at studies, you were automatically forced into science,” recalls Shrestha. But life obviously had other plans.
After returning, Shrestha started an IT company called Himalayan Business System in 1992. “I used to work with a lot of software companies at that time. While I was trading in software, I once had the opportunity to meet Alan Durant, then President of Mahindra. He was looking for a distributor for Mahindra vehicles in Nepal. It just happened that we had similar interests, and they offered me the distributorship,” says Shrestha.
Shrestha was very enthusiastic about automobiles, and this opportunity felt just right. Secondly, he knew that the penetration of vehicles was very low in Nepal, and that there would be a good future. “In addition, all the automobile distributors were based in Kathmandu and no one was going outside the valley. So I thought of moving out of Kathmandu and decentralise as I had rural products like tractors and agricultural equipments as well. I started an office and showroom in Kathmandu, and five offices in Birgunj, Chitwan, Bhairahawa and other places,” says Shrestha. That was how the first bricks of Agni Group were laid 25 years ago as Agni Incorporated. “I started the business by selling tractors and MUVs. In the first year, I was able to sell only five units in Kathmandu. I was new in business, and I was selling very less,” he recalls of the initial days of business which he started with an investment of three million rupees including bank loans.
At the beginning, Agni’s line-up consisted of a few models of tractors and passenger vehicles CJ 350, CJ 500 and Marshall. When Shrestha moved out of Kathmandu, he was able to sell a mere two vehicles in the first year, and things were not looking very promising. “People in rural areas were not confident about us because we were a new company. They used to come to Kathmandu to buy the vehicles. When we approached them, they had doubts that we might run away after selling our products. So business was very slow,” he shares. In the second year, the company was able to sell 14 vehicles in Kathmandu. According to Shrestha, Mahindra immensely helped his company despite the low sales. “Mahindra was very supportive. They would send personnel for technical training, marketing training and for other assistance. This gave me confidence that they are not just selling products but are also backing us up with service,” he reminisces.
Shrestha recalls starting his company with just two staff. “I myself used to sell, market and manage finances, everything except the technical aspect. I used to go to villages to sell the vehicles,” he recalls. But Agni Incorporated was destined to grow, albeit slowly but steadily. “If you are willing to learn and grow, it is not very difficult. We witnessed a decent growth for the next 5-6 years. Still we were not making profits, it was mere sustenance. The next 17 years went on like this without a big break and without huge profit. “Whatever money I made, I kept reinvesting into infrastructure, hiring and training,” he says.
The Big Break
After 17 years in business, Agni Incorporated finally reached a level that Cabinet Shrestha had always wanted and worked for. He recalls, “Then came a product from Mahindra that moved us from sales of below-hundred to double that volume. That vehicle was called Armada and it could seat around 10 people. A lot of institutions and projects bought the vehicle. I was selling around 100 products combined, but after Armada, we sold 200. Sales doubled with just one product”.
Later another vehicle penetrated the market. It was called Savari and helped them penetrate the market further. At that time, around 16 years ago, the government implemented a policy to build roads in all VDCs across Nepal. It was mostly off-road and operational only for a few months. Savari was tough and rugged and could ply those roads even in monsoon. “We again doubled our sales volume with Savari. It gave us a push in business. The government indirectly helped my business,” says Shrestha.
Another major milestone occurred when pickups were introduced as public transport on various routes. Agni introduced the Mahindra Bolero as a goods and people carrier and entered another big segment. Finally arrived Mahindra Scorpio which helped the company enter into the most popular passenger segment.“Vehicles prior to Scorpio were mostly used by institutions and projects. We made a strong presence in the personal vehicle segment with Scorpio,” he says. Scorpio is today one of the top selling SUVs in Nepal, and Agni Incorporated is the biggest Scorpio seller outside of India.
Later, Shrestha got keen on electric vehicles. Mahindra had its share in a company that manufactured the electric car Reva in India. Shrestha also started working in the electric vehicle segment. Mahindra later purchased the brand and launched the electric car e2o. According to Shrestha, the economic blockade helped in the marketing of electric car segment. The introduction of electric vehicles helped Agni diversify its portfolio. In recent days, Agni has introduced KUV, TUV and XUV targeting the younger generation.
There are six entities under the Agni Group. Agni Incorporated deals in Mahindra vehicles, Agni energy in electric vehicles, inverters and generators, and Agni Motor deals in Mahindra two wheelers. Likewise, Balaju Auto Works under the Group looks after service and spare parts. Agni Holdings is an investment company under the Group that invests in sectors like banking, hydropower and education. According to Shrestha, another entity Agni Investment is starting in a few months for financing of automobiles. Agni Foundation is there for all CSR activities of the Group. Today, Agni Group is providing direct employment to more than 400 people. The Group enjoys an annual growth of 40 percent since the last four years and has its presence in more than 65 locations in Nepal.
The Way Ahead
Shrestha believes that there is immense scope in the transport sector in Nepal as it is a developing country and a lot of places are yet to have roads. “Transportation is a crucial sector. New roads will be constructed in a lot of places and there is a lot of potential. So, at least for a few years, we will be totally focussed on transportation. I want to diversify the Group a bit, but our major focus will always remain in automobiles,” he elaborates.
According to Shrestha, the most important prerequisite for success is hard work, but even that solely doesn’t determine success. “To succeed, a mix of dedication, hard work, investment and discipline is essential,” he shares. Shrestha firmly believes in changing according to time and is not scared of trying new things. “I try new things; bring newer products, new software and systems in the Group. I keep evolving along with technology and do not hold on to conventional measures,” he says about his work style. According to him, Nepal is an excellent place to do business as there is scope for everything and there is a big market, but the government is pulling businesses down. “Nepal is good to do business up to a certain level, but after that, you get stuck, you can’t go beyond. That’s why most business houses in Nepal are doing multiple things because they can’t grow beyond a certain point and they have to do something else,” he opines. According to him, policies are not very favourable for doing business. “The policies are unsupportive, the government is not professional, lacks modernisation and is still functioning in a conventional way,” he says.
Shrestha rushes to office in the morning and is there all day, except for lunch and meetings. Evenings are spent socialising and at get-togethers. He spends his weekends at home and relaxes watching movies and spending time with the family. Shrestha is married to Susan Shrestha who is also a Director of Agni Group. The couple have three children, two daughters Veda and Vera, and a son Vedant.
Shrestha says that he considers himself successful and is happy at the company’s growth.“I enjoy my job. I look forward to coming to office every day and I enjoy what I do,” he says. Shrestha loves to travel, and spends his vacations visiting his children in Australia, and travelling in Nepal. “I have travelled almost across 75 percent of Nepal, and the remaining 25, I wish to accomplish in the near future,” he says. His hobbies include listening to music, watching movies and reading books. “I grew up listening to rock bands like Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin, but over the years, my preference has changed. Now my mood dictates the kind of music I listen to,” he shares.
Shrestha is also a partner at Moksh in Jhamsikhel and loves to promote music. Another hobby is art collection. He buys paintings made by Nepali artists on a regular basis, and says that it gives him joy in promoting Nepali art and artists. Shrestha is tech-savvy and loves to use new technologies. He is a big Apple fan, and carries an iPhone, owns an iMac and iPad. Needless to say, he drives a Mahindra XUV, and also owns a Subaru XV.