The Indian paper industry's next act

The Indian paper industry has enjoyed rising revenues and profits in recent years. However, these gains have not been evenly shared among the top players and new threats are looming on the horizon. To prepare for the next period of industry evolution Indian paper companies need to act now to transform themselves.

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In brief:

  • The Indian paper industry has enjoyed a period of profitable growth as incremental demand outstripped incremental supply and input prices remained subdued
  • However, the rewards have not been evenly shared among the industry's top players
  • Paper companies must now confront the growing challenges of rising imports, higher commodity prices, and digital disruption
  • To succeed in the changing environment Indian paper mills will need to think more strategically, aim for excellence in manufacturing, bring marketing orientation and digitalise their business

Indian paper has enjoyed steady growth and rising profits

The Indian paper industry has enjoyed steady growth over the last 5 years with domestic demand rising from 12.8 million metric tons (MMT) in 2013 to 17 MMT in 2017 at a CAGR of 7.35%. All the major paper product segments have grown over this period but the largest growth has been achieved in paperboard and packaging where demand has risen from 6.1 MMT to 8.8 MMT at a growth rate of 9.59% and now accounts for more than 50% of total paper demand. This was followed by printing and writing paper which has grown at 5.74% and makes up almost 30% of demand.


Newsprint saw the lowest growth with a CAGR of only 2.02% and its share of paper demand has fallen to only 15.3%. Speciality papers saw the highest growth of any category in the period at over 18.92%, but still only account for less than 4% of total demand.

Kanvic analysis of India's top 37 paper companies - which together account for 63% of the industry's sales - shows that from 2015 to 2018 revenues have grown at a CAGR of 4.20%. In the same period, net profit for these leading companies grew at a CAGR of 13.48%. The average EBITDA margin for these companies now stands at 17.76%, up from 14.20% in FY 2015. While the average net profit margin has risen from 3.43% to 4.44%.

Paper demand in India has risen on the back of several key growth drivers. The country's rising literacy rate has increased demand for books and textbooks. While India's booming e-commerce and retail sectors have accelerated consumption of paperboard & packaging. Furthermore, growing concerns about plastic packaging and the recent plastics ban in Maharashtra has provided an additional fillip to paper-based alternatives. At the same time, premiumisation is driving industry growth as consumer product companies seek to differentiate through higher quality packaging that requires premium papers. Across the board, rising disposable income is increasing both direct and indirect paper demand.

While demand has been steadily increasing, Indian paper companies have been able to profit from a tight supply scenario and falling costs over the period. Incremental demand has outstripped incremental supply in each of the last seven years and this gap is forecast to increase further through to 2021. As a result, the industry's capacity utilisation rate has increased and now stands at 86% with very few companies planning expansion.

These favourable conditions have been further improved by the falling prices of the key input - waste paper. Since China imposed a ban on the importation of waste paper in 2017, the global price has fallen over 6%. This has helped a large number of companies which use waste paper as the principal input material.

Winnings have not been evenly shared

Although the Indian paper industry has enjoyed rising sales and profits in the last four years, these gains have not been evenly shared. By analysing the individual performance of India's top paper companies since 2015 we have identified four distinct segments. Less than half (46%) can be classified as Outperformers who have grown their revenues at above the industry median at the same time as improving profitability. A further 31% of companies can be classified as Squeezers who have grown below the industry median but managed to increase profitability. By contrast, some 17% of paper companies are Strugglers who have grown below the industry median and also seen their profitability decline. Lastly, the remaining 6% of companies are Laggards who have had above median revenue growth but watched their profits fall.

This analysis shows a clear need for the majority of Indian paper companies to improve performance to realise the benefits from the favourable market scenario. Furthermore, with new challenges looming on the horizon for the Indian paper industry, even past Outperformers will need to revisit their strategies to ensure future success.


Challenges are looming for the paper industry

Although the growth drivers for Indian paper remain strong, three key challenges are now looming over the industry.

First, imports pose a growing threat to the competitiveness of Indian paper producers as they are growing at a faster rate than the market. In FY 2018 total paper imports were 3.3 MMT and have grown at a CAGR of over 10% in the last 5 years which is much more than the rate at which domestic demand is growing. This has been mainly driven by imports from large integrated paper mills in the ASEAN region which have benefited from a Free Trade Agreement signed in 2014 that removed most import duties. If we consider product categories other than newsprint (where duties are higher) the figure is much greater, with imports of paper and paperboard from ASEAN countries rising at a rate of almost 40% in the last 5 years.

These overseas mills benefit from larger scale and lower cost structures, as well as access to virgin pulp supplies which Indian paper manufacturers lack. While the industry is lobbying for a change in the duty structure, it seems likely that Indian players will have to contend with the rising threat of imports for some time to come.

Second, the steady rise in commodity prices is increasing the production cost for Indian paper mills which generally rely on captive thermal power plants. This is significant as energy costs typically account for 13% of Indian paper mills cost compared to only 8% for international players. The recently imposed ban on the use of petcoke as a fuel will also increase costs for some players. Furthermore, rising oil prices also increase the transportation costs for paper, which are high due to it being a bulky and relatively low-value product.

One additional challenge for Indian paper mills is the more stringent government regulation of captive power plants introduced in 2018 which now requires them to follow the same norms as independent power plants. This means that any surplus power generated has to be sold to an entity which owns at least 26% of shares with voting rights in the captive power plant in order to gain preferential rates.

The third challenge for Indian paper companies is the fast-emerging digital revolution which is poised to bring about a radical change in an industry which has been historically slow to adopt new technologies. Popularly termed the fourth industrial revolution, global manufacturing is undergoing a transformation as the rapid development and deployment of low-cost sensors, cyber-physical systems like robotics and cloud computing combine to realise major productivity gains.

Paper companies should act now to transform themselves

To tackle the emerging challenges for the Indian paper industry as well as take advantage of the large opportunities, players need to seize the moment to transform themselves.Through our work with leading Indian paper manufacturers, we have identified four key areas of transformation that every company must address.


Think strategically

First of all, Indian paper mills need to bring a new level of strategic thinking to their business. This is required to identify where and how to compete in a changing market landscape and then optimise their product portfolio to maximise profitability.

Today, many Indian paper companies straddle a range of product segments but do not have a clear idea of each segment's role in overall business growth. For example, one leading paper manufacturer did not have an accurate picture of the market demand and growth prospects for each of its product categories, therefore it was unable to make right decisions about where to focus its efforts for the future. Instead, by building the market map and identifying the high potential products of the future, paper companies can make a strategic shift toward more attractive product-market segments.

Furthermore, different paper products enjoy very different profit margins, therefore in a continuous process industry like paper, maximising machine utilisation with the most profitable product mix is essential to improving the bottom line. Today, however, most Indian paper companies put new products into their portfolio on the basis of the latest customer demands, without realising the impact on their business model and competitiveness.

Paper manufacturers need to get a precise understanding of how different products contribute to their profitability, then take a stand on what they will and will not provide, rather than bowing to the whims and fancies of the latest request from sales.

By adopting such a strategic approach, paper companies can also move away from the price-driven commodity mindset that dominates the Indian paper industry today. Through a focus on categories and customers where there they have a clear and sustainable competitive advantage, paper companies can build a strong value proposition and capture pricing power.

Aim for excellence in manufacturing

The second area where Indian paper companies need to transform themselves is in manufacturing. To reap the substantial benefits of manufacturing excellence companies need to benchmark with the best, adopt lean practices and upgrade their people.

Today Indian paper companies largely rely on internal benchmarking to direct performance improvement initiatives. However, this approach offers limited scope for innovation and advancement. Instead, companies need to adopt external benchmarking with industry leaders in India and overseas. Companies can begin by defining average and high-performance benchmarks across all key parameters in manufacturing such as water, power, chemical and steam consumption, recovery of waste paper and machine downtime.

They can then compare their current performance with these benchmarks and develop a prioritised set of performance improvement initiatives accordingly.

Lean practices are also vital to improving performance in the Indian paper industry. With the bulk of input material being recycled paper the industry has typically paid less attention to waste. However, any overconsumption of raw material indicates an inefficiency in the production process that will be negatively impacting the bottom line. Manufacturers need to put in place steps to measure and then minimise waste of materials, as well as energy and the time of their people.

Achieving excellence in manufacturing also requires a mindset change on the factory floor and in the head office. The Indian paper industry has often struggled to attract quality talent, as a result, owners have tended to see factory staff as a commodity rather than a valuable asset to be nurtured. As the industry rapidly moves to higher levels of technology adoption, Indian paper companies will need to invest in training and developing their people on the shop floor. This not only includes acquiring new skills but more importantly changing mindsets so that all production staff become a driver of innovation and improved efficiency.

Bring marketing orientation

The third area where paper companies must take action is bringing a marketing orientation to the organisation. This will require much greater efforts to understand the real customers for paper companies, more effective customer targeting and shedding the commodity mindset.

Historically Indian paper manufacturers have been detached from their customers due to the influential role of dealers who aggregate demand from a large number of small customers and transact directly with the mills. However, as paper customers become larger and more organised, the industry structure will gradually shift. Already, large packaging and consumer companies are highly involved in the specification for paper and keen to build deeper relationships and get better integrated with their suppliers.

Even where dealers remain an important intermediary, it is essential that paper mills build up an accurate picture of their end customers' needs to stay ahead of emerging trends and new product requirements. Rather than waiting for this information to filter through to them from dealers.

With a clear picture of different customer segments, along with their needs and decision-making processes paper companies can take a targeted approach. This allows you to focus on those segments where you can more profitably serve the customer, and build a more compelling value proposition to communicate through your marketing activities.

Marketing has typically been an afterthought for Indian paper companies due to the production mindset that dominates inside the company and the commodity mindset that dominates in relations between producers and dealers. As a result, most companies lack a real marketing department and sales acts simply as order takers. To drive future profitability gains paper companies will need to build a marketing mindset and develop an internal marketing organisation. This will enable them to build and grow the brand through continually communicating and evolving the company's value proposition in tune which changing customer needs.

In the coming years, these needs and expectations are likely to move much faster and become much more demanding, as paper manufacturer's customers keep pace with rapid changes in consumer tastes and face increasing competition in their own industries.

Make paper digital

The fourth and final area where Indian paper companies must transform is digital. The Indian paper industry has been a clear laggard in the digital revolution that is sweeping the manufacturing sector. Companies that want to remain leaders in the future will need to quickly catch up by placing digital at the heart of their future strategy.

In our work with leading paper companies, we have helped firms identify clear opportunities to digitalise across manufacturing, maintenance, logistics, procurement, and marketing & sales.

For example, Indian paper companies incur substantial costs through unscheduled downtime. Through implementing Internet of Things (IoT) devices on the paper machine and other important equipment, it is possible to monitor key indicators like temperature and vibration in real time. This data can then be analysed and alerts raised when threshold levels are breached. Over time Artificial Intelligence will build up a picture of machine performance and parameters and provide increasingly accurate alerts for when to carry out preventive maintenance.

To give another example, today many paper companies take shop-floor measurements manually. This is imprecise and is often carried out inconsistently. Instead, by using newly available IoT solutions, it is possible to get accurate and consistent data on consumption of various inputs to manufacture paper.

Digital can't be just limited to the production process. As customers of all types get used to the frictionless experience offered by digital they will increasingly demand the same from paper suppliers. Today paper dealers and customers have very limited visibility of their order status. This results in endless calls, WhatsApp messages and email exchanges with company sales staff, production managers, and even owners. This consumes a huge amount of time and resources for both paper mills and their customers. By digitalising the order-to-delivery process paper mills can improve efficiency and customer experience, and free-up sales and marketing to identify and develop new customer relationships.

Central to the digitalisation process is creating a data culture within the firm. This can begin with a data audit that identifies current sources of data across the business operations and new areas where it can be captured through new technologies like IoT devices on equipment, GPS tracking on trucks or mobile apps for the sales force. Once data is being captured companies need to put in place analytics capabilities to draw insights and inform intelligent business decisions.

Companies that take concerted action to transform themselves in strategy, manufacturing, marketing and digital in the coming few years will be best placed to outperform their industry peers in the next era of the Indian paper industry.

About the authors

Shiv Sharma is associate principal at Kanvic based in Gurgaon. Alberto Manca is a junior consultant at Kanvic

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