Business India, January 22-February 4, 2001
In pursuit of excellence
While we were preparing the list of hi-tech entrepreneurs in the US, and discussing optical networking, gigabit routers, switches, chips and software, it struck us: how could we forget the original Indian entrepreneur in hi-tech, Dr Amar Bose of Bose Corporation? Starting way back in 1964, when most present-day entrepreneurs were in graduate schools or even in high schools, Bose set up his company to produce speakers. The privately-held company is considered the biggest audio brand in the world today, and its revenues are expected to cross a billion dollars this year. The name Bose is whispered in hushed tones by audiophiles. His speakers and audio systems are pervasive and can be seen in NASA programmes, US Air Force, homes, stadiums, theatres and auditoria. However, very little is known of Bose, the man himself.
The media-shy Dr Bose graciously agreed to meet us for an interview and photo session at his headquarters in Framingham, Massachusetts. When we mentioned that we would be meeting Bose, Desh Deshpande told us: "I know very little about him and would love to read his story in Business India.” And Mukesh Chatter said: "That man is way up there. He is the dean of all of us."
Bose Corporations' headquarters, popularly called "the mountain", is on top of the now verdant dirt hill, created in the early part of the century, during the construction of the US highway system. It is a gleaming glass structure shaped like a, take your guess, an audio system. We entered it with certain awe, but we were pleasantly surprised to meet the legend, a friendly, informal and animated speaker. The 45-minute interview stretched to two-and-a half hours as he realised that we were as interested in his life story as in his research in statistical communication theory and acoustics at MIT.
Technically, Bose is not an India-born Indian-American, like most people we met, but his bonds with India and its struggle for independence are as strong as you can get. His father Noni Gopal Bose was a member of a revolutionary group, while he was studying physics in Calcutta University. Two weeks before his University examinations, the British police caught on to him. Luckily, Bose Sr. made a successful escape to the US in 1920 on a boat with no passport and $5 in his pocket, with the Special Branch hot on his heels. After coming to the US, Bose Sr. worked full-time with a New York-based revolutionary group headed by Dr Taraknath Das, mobilising moral and material support for India's struggle for independence. He married an American schoolteacher and settled down in Philadelphia. "In a sense, my mother was more Indian than me. She was a vegetarian and deeply interested in Vedanta and Hindu philosophy," says Bose. The connection with Indian revolutionaries did not go away. Amar Bose vividly recalls the hush-hush meetings in his house and the visit by a person who had escaped the horror of Jalianwala Baug. The stories of British atrocities, which he heard from this visitor as well as from others, have left an indelible impression on him even 60 years later.
Bose's childhood in Philadelphia was not easy either. One pictures the deep south of US as the seat of racism and bigotry, but during the '30s and '40s, right in Philadelphia, the home of Bill of Rights, the Boses had to suffer intense racial discrimination and humiliation. "Nobody would rent a house for us. We had to send my mother house hunting. Every time we used to enter a restaurant we would keep on waiting and nobody would serve us. Finally my father would call the manager, the whole restaurant would suddenly fall silent and father would make a short speech: 'Sir, we are good enough to cook and wait and serve you. We are good enough to die for this country in the wars, but we are not good enough to pay and be served. Why is that?' Obviously, it was largely rhetorical and used to have no effect on the proprietor. We all used to then stand up and leave the place. My father never tried to say that he was not an African-American but an Indian. When I met Bill Cosby - he is also from Philadelphia - he said: 'What do you know about .racism? You grew up on the other side of the railway tracks.' I said, just hold on, and told him a few stories," reminisces Bose. "One cannot forget that things were not as they are now. But all said and done, as far as recognising talent for what it is, there is no country like the US."
Bose showed a penchant for engineering pretty early in his childhood. He could not afford toys but he learnt to repair toy trains and started earning a little pocket money at the age of 13. During World War II, he started repairing radio sets and developed the largest network of radio repairs through small advertisements placed in different stores in Philadelphia. His brilliance in academics led to admission in MIT and later BS (1952), MS (1952) and DSC (1956) from the same institution. His actual thesis advisor was the legendary Norbert Wiener, but since Wiener was in Mathematics department and Bose was registered in Electrical Engineering, another advisor Dr Y.W. Lee nominally filled in as his advisor.
After he finished his doctoral thesis and was waiting for an appointment in the EE department at MIT, for a faculty position, he got a Fullbright Fellowship. He chose to visit the National Physical Laboratory, Delhi and lecture on Statistical Communication Theory, which was just being developed in the world. Since there was a month to leave for Delhi, Bose had nothing better to do and bought a so-called hi-fidelity system after checking out its technical specs. But when he played it at home he was terribly disappointed. Since he did have some free time on his hands, he decided to get to the bottom of the audio system. This led to mathematical calculations, redesigning electronic circuits and conducting actual experiments on people to see what they find pleasing to listen to. Then just before he went to Delhi, the chairman of the EE department casually mentioned, when Bose was corning out of the pool, that when he came back from Delhi, he would be given office and lab space. "I could not believe it. The uncertainty was over just like that, he had confirmed my appointment at MIT," recalls Bose. His days at NPL with its illustrious director, K.S. Krishnan, a few lectures at the Indian Statistical Institute and discussions with P C Mahalnobis, a giant in statistical theory, are etched indelibly in Bose's mind.
After he returned to MIT from Delhi, the acoustics experiments were carried on in a corner of the lab as a skunk project. Finally, in 1964, he decided to commercialise his research and set up Bose Corporation. His first employee and the only one for more than a year, was Sherwin Greenblatt, a former student of Bose, who is now the company's president. MIT encouraged Bose to set up the company while continuing as faculty member of MIT. Till today, Bose teaches at MIT part-time and his course on psycho-acoustics - an area in which he holds many patents is one of the most popular electives there.
Bose holds the company 100 per cent. When asked why he has not taken it public he said: "As far as employees are concerned, we pay them top of-the-line salaries as determined every year by an outside consultant, so they do not feel the absence of stock options. I myself don't need the cash. In fact, every dollar of profit made in the company has been ploughed back. Moreover, taking it public will mean others telling us how to spend our dollars in research, whereas some of the research projects we are working on will take decades and some may not even be completed. I am sure we could not have taken up such projects if we were not free to do what we want to."
Clearly, knowledge creation is what excites Bose. We could see that in the sparkle in his eyes and the alacrity with which he jumped up to explain technical points about wave guides, normal modes and spherical speakers or a subtle point about non-linear systems. But this academic engineer has taken up commercial challenges as intellectual challenges and either licked the competition or created totally new technologies. The way he conquered the Japanese market is an abject example to American corporations who constantly wring their hands about 'fortress Japan'. When he found that passenger cars were being given lousy audio systems, he studied the interior of every car model and designed the audio system for each interior. He spent over $13 million on R&D before he could sell a single system to GM. Today he occupies the throne in car audio market with Mercedes Benz, Accura, GMC, Nissan, Mazda, Audi, Cadillac, Infiniti, Oldsmobile and Pontiacs flaunting custom-made Bose systems. His latest product, which has taken American homes by storm, is an ordinary alarm clock radio, with a CD player in it. Usually alarm clocks are considered a necessary evil in a bedroom. One feels like throttling them early in the morning, but to the owners' surprise Bose wave radio incorporated the new wave guide technology and reproduced sound as well or better than the much larger and more expensive audio systems in the drawing rooms. When Bose realized that retailers may not do justice to this product, he directly sold it to consumers and made it a great success.
To use a cliché, Amar Bose is 71 years young. He simply oozes energy, visibly cringes if anybody calls him an icon but jumps up to the blackboard and waves his hand all over the room if you discuss physics.
His two grown-up children have clearly shown no intention to run their father's business. Son Vanu 35, an MIT alumnus himself, has an IT company which is selling the concept of Software Radio and daughter Maya, 34, is a chiropractor.
When told that his systems are very popular among the audio cognoscenti in India, his eyes go damp and he says: "I wish my father were here to see it".