Saturday, June 25, 2011

The (exotic) green revolutionary

If you bite into an iceberg lettuce at a posh restaurant or a fast food chain in Mumbai or Pune, it probably came from Samar Gupta’s farm

Fourty-four-year-old Samar Gupta has hit midlife crisis. “I’m certainly the right age for it,” he says. The owner of Trikaya Agriculture Pvt. Ltd, the largest supplier of boutique fruit and vegetables in the Mumbai-Pune area, has many roads in front of him, and he’s not sure which one his business should take. In the last decade or so, Trikaya has grown from a business kissing the red line to one that pulls in Rs6 crore revenue, supplies to every major institutional client you could throw a dart at, and is growing at 35% per year. But now what?

To get an idea of the extent of Gupta’s interests, you only need to plot the destinations of his holidays: 22 times, so far, to Thailand, thrice to the Philippines, and, in 2006, a two-and-a-half-month horticulture course at Florida University.

Gupta is the consummate gentleman farmer, driven by the lure of the exotic and a genuine love for growing things. “My idea of a good holiday is a plant holiday. What would I do hanging out on a beach somewhere? I only travel to tropical countries such as Thailand, which is horticulturally way ahead of us,” says Gupta.

We meet at his club, the Bombay Gymkhana, where the slightly built Mayo grad is hanging out with a dog-eared copy of Niall Ferguson’s The War of the World. Over multiple pints of Coca-Cola, the history buff attempts to plough through the past, present and future of his agri-retail business.

The present-day version of the 160 acres spread across five farms in Talegaon, Chinchi and the Konkan, grew out of a weekend 5.5-acre getaway that was first set up by Gupta’s father, Ravi, in 1987. The then head of Trikaya Advertising India Ltd (the family sold the business to Grey Worldwide in 1994) was a weekend farmer, who fled Mumbai two days of the week for the rural outpost. Slowly, he began experimenting with growing temperate vegetables that were completely antithetical to the dry, tropical environment of the area. The work was difficult; it was a time when general demand for their produce, which was expensive, was zero; boutique vegetables were only nestled by the menus of five-star hotels, and even they simply imported produce. The younger Gupta joined the business on the marketing side, and soon became a 50% partner in it with his father. “For my dad, it was always on a weekend basis. Just when the business turned the corner, nine years ago, he passed away,” says Gupta.

Their fortunes turned just as the effects of the New Economy began to take effect in the lives of everyday people, and the father and son duo discovered new ways to market their produce. “Our first breakthrough was when we realized that anyone looking for our kind of vegetables would go looking at Crawford Market (Mumbai’s main fruit and vegetable market), and that we could set up a stall there to sell directly.” Gupta still hangs on to the very first bill Trikaya made out to Mumbai’s Taj Hotel for a kg of iceberg lettuce, delivered to the hotel in his father’s Contessa car.

“The petrol bill cost me more than what we got for that sale,” he remembers.

Today, Trikaya’s produce ranges more than 150 items, from 15 varieties of lettuce, to broccoli, asparagus, avocado, leek, exotic fruit such as dragon fruit, mulberry, rambutan, the off-season Thai mango, Samruddhi, and various herbs, sprouts and flowers. Their biggest volumes come from broccoli and iceberg lettuce, which are found in every burger dished out by McDonald’s. It’s a capital-intensive business that burns easily, but Gupta is completely self-financed and his client roster runs up to more than 75 institutions, including Kentucky Fried Chicken, Subway, Domino’s, five-star hotels and restaurants such as Grand Hyatt, Taj Mahal Palace and Tower, The Oberoi, and Indigo, various ship chandlers and air kitchens. On the other side, sits the retail end of Gupta’s business, which is a round-up of the city’s supermarket chains, including Big Bazaar (they supply through a contractor), HyperCity, Godrej’s Nature’s Basket and Foodland Spinach. In fact, they have a knack for getting on everyone’s list. A team from More, the Birla retail venture scheduled to kick-start in Pune, has already visited the farm in Talegaon.

But, with big retail also comes big challenges. Gupta’s business is built on the strength of being able to deliver what most farmers can’t and, therefore, dictate prices. But, it’s a business plan that leaves him open to a lot of pushes and shoves from various corners. A few years ago, the head of distribution centre Radhakrishna Foodland was pressuring Trikaya to offer preferential prices: “They all say, ‘I’ll develop someone else and shut you down’, without realizing how difficult it is to learn how to grow iceberg lettuce in the middle of summer,” says Gupta. The company has also been elbowed by the likes of Reliance to cut the prices of their vegetables, but as long as there’s no one else doing what he does, Gupta’s safe. But that comfort factor comes with an expiry date.

At least twice he was forced to discontinue a line of vegetables because someone else began growing them cheaper. “Our biggest challenge is the young Maharashtrian farmer, who’s well-educated, and is able to do what we do and get into a price war, because I won’t get into the business of selling something for Rs4 just because another guy is doing it for Rs5,” he says.

Gupta’s fighting plan is to innovate, and add value. So, three years ago, he set up Clearwater Farms, the processing and canning arm of the business, which manufactures gourmet processed foods such as pickled onions, paprika and jalapenos in brine, preserved artichokes, etc. “We know the pyjama farmer is always out there, so we’ve got to keep moving. If the canning and processing goes right, I’m looking at a Rs40 crore market, which I think will overwhelm the growing side of our market,” he says.

And that’s when you hit the midlife crisis. Gupta is single, with no dependents and no concrete transition plan; neither of his two siblings is interested in the business. “I’ll never die,” he jokes. But he’s also hesitant to grow beyond a certain point. He has cast off the idea of spreading out the farming to cities such as New Delhi or Bangalore, because of the lack of management control. And as the processed foods business kicks off, Gupta insists it’s also time to look at a more philanthropic side of life: perhaps start a botanical garden, or maybe adopt a traffic island and do these up with ornamental plants. Gupta admits he’s not sure which path to take, and says he’s at a cusp. “I’m not going to take the money with me, and I want my business to be less bottomline driven, but I’m also enough of a baniya to stick around while the price is right.”


Name: Samar Gupta

Born: 1963 (in Mumbai)

Education: Graduated from Tufts University, Medford, UK.

Work Profile: Ran a family printing press for three years, then worked with Pheroze Engineer on Real Value Fire Extinguishers for five years, before joining Trikaya Agriculture Pvt. Ltd 16 years ago. Now owns both Trikaya Agriculture and Clearwater Farms.

Interests: Collects stapeliads, rare fruit and cactii


An entrepreneur born to succeed : Kunwer Sachdev

How do you take Rs 10,000 and convert it into a Rs 200 crore (Rs 2 billion) company that is all set to complete a major US acquisition in a year?

Well you need to be taken hostage by your client, be locked in a room for a few hours and also promise to give up your bike in exchange for a job half done - at least that is what Kunwer Sachdev, CEO of Su-Kam, a Rs 200 crore Delhi-based company engaged in the business of power inverters UPS and batteries says as he recalls the time when he began his entrepreneurial venture in the early '90s.

Kunwer Sachdev started out as a cable TV operator and recalls an incident that took place in his initial years, which incidentally was a turning point in his career.

CEO of Su-Kam, Kunwer Sachdev told Moneycontrol,� "During the early years of struggle I was into the cable TV business and did not have any domain knowledge. I took up any and all types of projects from people. There was one such project that I could not complete on time. It was for a hotel and seeing that I could not deliver, the owner locked me in a room. I stayed put in the room for two hours until he opened the door and asked for his advance money back. But since I had spent that in buying the equipment, I told him to keep my bike instead should I fail to deliver. Eventually I did complete the job and he was happy. Now he is a very dear friend of mine," recalls Sachdev.

They say entrepreneurs are not taught, they are born and perhaps Kunwer Sachdev is one person who perfectly fits this theory. Additionally, as any entrepreneur would testify, failure is not only an important ingredient but also a very important aspect in any successful venture.

"When I started making invertors in 1997, we experimented with new technologies. We didn't have any idea what we were doing and we kept borrowing components from different products. Money doesn't matter in any entrepreneurship, I started with only Rs 10,000. There were a lot of negatives in the beginning. I remember going to a bank for a loan of Rs 5,000, and they took so much time that I said forget it. From that day I didn't go to banks, I have raised funds in my own way," says Sachdev.

Early this year, the $200 million Reliance India Power Fund, picked up a 20 per cent stake in Su-Kam in a Rs 45 crore (Rs 450 million) deal. Su-Kam has already made inroads into world markets such as Asia, Africa, Middle East and the Pacific Region and is now looking to make a strategic US acquisition.

"We are looking to acquire a company in the US in the next one year. I haven't seen any company that we might want to acquire yet, but the acquisition will be complete in a year. Deadlines are very important for me," says Sachdev.

Sachdev is confident of scaling up his operations in India as well. "We will keep on scaling up. My balance sheet for the last 6 years shows more than 100 per cent growth in each year. It has been a challenge for me to sustain that year after year. This year we installed invertors on all major cell sites across the country, and we have a big order from Reliance Infocomm.

We are in talks with Bharti and other telecom players. Next year, I plan to do Rs 1,000 crore (Rs 10 billion) business, and I can see that happening," concludes Sachdev.


The inspiring story of Suresh Kamath

Suresh Kamath, the managing director of Chennai based Laser Soft Infosystems Ltd is an unusual man. Unlike most other entrepreneurs, he does not aspire to create a business empire; his sole ambition is to provide employment to 10,000 people. He also plans to reserve 40 per cent of the jobs for the disabled.

Suresh started Laser Soft in 1986 with just Rs 200 and five people. Today, the company is a force to reckon with in the banking software arena.

In recognition of his commitment to the disabled, President of India A P J Abdul Kalam felicitated Suresh with the Best Employer award in December 2005. He also won the Best Employer award from the Tamil Nadu government. He has been awarded the NCPEDP shell Helen Keller Award for giving equal rights and gainful employment to persons with disabilities.

Read on for the inspiring story of Suresh Kamath

Ambition as a child

I come from a poor family. We lived in a one-room-kitchen house in Mysore. Though my father struggled very hard, he did not let his penury affect the lives of his children. Unemployment, depravation, hardship pained me and right from my school days my ambition was to create employment in this country. As a child I was motivated by Mr Laxman Rao - one of my teachers at school who always advised me to do something for the country.

I heard tales of poverty and struggle from my father and grandmother. How my father could study only up to the 10th standard, as he did not have money for further education. My mother too did her schooling only till the 8th standard. But all this hardship did not stop them from encouraging us to continue with our studies. I was the eldest among my siblings and took up the mantle of setting an example. Encouraged by my performance - I was always a rank holder - my younger siblings too did very well in studies.

As far as my career was concerned, my father gave me full freedom and I decided to study engineering. I joined the National Institute of Engineering in Mysore in 1975 in electronics and then did my M Tech in computer science from the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras.

Life after graduation

I was keen to start my own company immediately after my post graduation. But since I did not have any job experience I was advised against any such move. So, I joined Tata Consultancy Services and worked for a year. I noticed that all the major Indian software companies were into services; they were not into creating products and it disappointed me. I was convinced that India could create excellent products thanks to the huge talent pool available here.

While at TCS I found that most of my colleagues aspired to go abroad to further their career. But I was not interested in overseas assignments.

Even at IIT, I was the only student in our batch of 20 who did not go abroad after studies. On hearing of my ambition, many of my friends ridiculed me and even called me a 'fool'! I took their scorn in my stride. However, my parents were very supportive. They encouraged me not to pay heed to what others were saying and encouraged me to strive to give shape to my ambition.

After TCS, I joined another company that was into hardware because I wanted some related experience. I worked there for three years.

Starting Laser Soft

When I was 28, my father told me to get married. I decided to marry the girl of his choice. By then I had decided to quit my job and start my own company. I told my fiancee of my plans and asked her if she still wanted to marry me. She said, 'Yes. I have faith in you.'

On May 1, 1986 I launched my company. I intentionally chose May Day as it is also labours' day.

With initial capital of Rs 200 and five technical people from NIIT the company was launched. I told them, 'I will give you whatever I can afford but all of us will draw the same salary.' I did not even try to hire any engineers, as I was convinced that they won't work for a small company like mine. Also, I strongly believe that you don't need engineers for programming. What you need is logic. I also wanted a team that would be the foundation of the company, who would remain with the company.

Why Laser Soft? Because the word laser - meaning accuracy and precision - appealed to me, and soft is of course from software. Our office was a room in my house, and our first job was to get visiting cards and letterheads printed.

First client

We decided to focus on banking and healthcare. Banking because it was a gargantuan sector and had huge potential. At that time automation of the banking system was a faraway dream. We approached the State Bank of India and Apollo Hospitals and told how our products could facilitate their work. SBI admitted that they had a six-month backlog in the DD purchase for Madras Fertiliser Ltd. Since we did not have computers, we requested SBI to allow us to work in the bank in the evening. They agreed.

First product

Our product for SBI was out in two weeks' time and the backlog was cleared within a month. Our first product was thus a big success. Both SBI and MFL were very happy and we were paid a remuneration of Rs 5,000.

Sensing that we could help them in various quarters, SBI sent us to their overseas branch -- which incidentally was their largest branch in the South doing business of over Rs 5000 crores. Everything was done manually. On any given day the branch could take only 25 bills from the exporters. Our product, readied in a week's time, was exclusively for handling export bills.

From 25 bills, they were able to handle 200 bills a day and the profit of the branch zoomed to Rs 55 crores (Rs 550 million).

End of first year

By the end of the first year, our turnover was Rs 128,000, and our staff strength had doubled to 10. With Rs 1000 as monthly salary, we could manage. After the success of the export bills, SBI assigned more work to us. As our work pressure increased, we hired more people and by the end of the second year we were 25 people and our profit stood at a handsome Rs 600,000. In five years' time, we computerised 70 SBI branches all over India.


Then one morning in 1987 Parthasarathy - we call him Partha - came to meet me. He was disabled and was not an engineer but had undergone a computer course that the government had offered in an institute. I told Partha, "I like to employ people like you."

And it was not a wrong decision. Partha had an amazing zeal and his disability did not stop him from being mobile. I thought it was the right model for any industry to follow.

I was not doing any charity by employing him because my company benefited more from Partha than vice-versa. I have noticed that physically challenged people are more committed than others but unfortunately we pay scant attention to them. Business houses talk about attrition. I tell them, 'Look at these people, they will never leave you.'

Disabled-friendly office

At that time our office was in the first floor and Partah had difficulty tackling the stairs. Seeing him struggle, I decided to make the entire office disabled-friendly. Our ground floor is now exclusively for the disabled people, and we have ramps in our office and there are special toilets for them too. We have also built houses for them near the office so that they can avoid long travelling hours.

After meeting Partha, I decided to hire more disabled people. We waited six months to get a disabled person who could be our receptionist.


I don't look at employing disabled people as charity. I look at this as my responsibility. This country has spent money to educate me and I feel it is my duty to do something for the less privileged.

It had been a great experience working with them. Seeing them work, get married, settle in life and have children is a wonderful experience.

We have 550 employees now, and 15 per cent of them are disabled. We go to engineering colleges looking for disabled people but find only one or two in each college. Parents don't send them out. The biggest challenge for the physically handicapped is the attitude of their parents. We, at LaserSoft, hire them even if they are not engineers.

Other than the physically challenged, we have people suffering from cerebral palsy too working for us. We find them good in graphics. Many of our employees are deaf and dumb.

Best employer award

I was elated when I won the award but with all humility, let me say I am doing very little. I am very disappointed to see that I was chosen when there are so many business giants in India. Seven per cent of India's population is disabled but all of us turn a blind eye to them. I realised that if I could get an award by doing so little, it means that others are not doing even this much.

I was honoured to meet Dr Abdul Kalam. He is a wonderful person, a real motivator. He asked me, 'What exactly do the disabled people do in the company? Do they do software or menial job?' I told him barring two all are involved with technology.


My ambition is to create 10,000 jobs, and I want to reserve 40 per cent of that for the disabled. We also have a light top model as far as salaries are concerned. We don't give huge salaries to those who occupy the top positions but distribute the money to all the employees.

Reservation row

Reservation based on caste is going to divide us further. Reservation should be based on economic criteria alone. We should learn to forget our past and start looking at the future. What have today's children got to do with what some people did in the past?

What difference does it make if you are a brahmin or a non-brahmin when you are poor? How many IITs and IIMs do we have? How many good medical colleges and engineering colleges do we have? We have such a vast population but not enough resources. Instead of starting more colleges, and there should be special colleges for the disabled, the government is talking about more and more reservation.


Once penniless in Mumbai, now a crorepati!

Hunger was his only companion when he roamed the streets of Mumbai in search of a job.

At age 17, Prem Ganapathy left his native place Nagalapuram in Tuticorin without informing his parents in the pursuit of making money, after a person promised him a job in Mumbai.

Destiny, however, willed otherwise. There was no job as the man promised. Instead he was abandoned in Bandra, a Mumbai suburb. But this boy did not lose hope, he decided to stay back and fight for survival.

Ganapathy turned his misfortune into the biggest opportunity of his life. He found a job as a dishwasher in one of the bakeries in suburban Mahim. He worked for about two years across restaurants in Mumbai doing all sorts of odd jobs. He soon realised that there was a good potential in the catering business . . .

A great beginning

Finally, in 1992 he took a handcart on rent to sell idli, dosa and vada. His brothers also joined to help him. His items became very popular as they had a different flavour and variety. He even got the homemade sambar masala from his native place. Ganapathy's hand cart did brisk business.

Five years later Ganapathy was confident enough to open the first Prem Sagar Dosa Plaza outlet outside Vashi station in Navi Mumbai. Since then there has been no looking back . . .

"My father instilled in me a lot of positive energy. This is what kept me going strong. I have tried to see an opportunity in every loss. Even when people teased him, saying 'your son has ditched you and gone far away', he always used to tell them 'I am happy for him as I know wherever he is, he will do well'.

If I had not come to Mumbai, I would have never been so successful," he says.

My Nagalapuram days

After Ganapathy completed his tenth standard, he did not want to study further.

"My teacher told me that I should continue studying but I told her frankly that I do not want to study. We had lot of financial problems so I wanted to work and earn money, help my family. Even getting water and firewood was an arduous task. We had to walk miles to get water and firewood," says Ganapathy.

His father had a tobacco business which ended in a loss. He also incurred huge losses in the farm. With seven children, his parents struggled to make ends meet.

He decided that he would get them a good life.

"Many young boys from our village were working in coffee shops in Chennai. So I also decided to join one of those shops. I worked there for about two years for monthly salary of Rs 250," he says.

Those days his only ambition was to make money and open a coffee powder shop. However, he was destined to take a different path.

The Mumbai saga

In Chennai, he met a young boy who promised him a good job in Mumbai.

"He said if I pay him Rs 200, I would get job with a salary of Rs 1,200. I wanted to leave but knew my parents would not let me go. I was only 17 years old then. So I left Chennai without informing my parents," says Ganapathy.

They got down at Mumbai's Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, a place where thousands of migrants land every day in search of a better livelihood.

"I was scared but I was willing to take the risk. We took a local train to Bandra and I was eagerly waiting to see where I would begin my new career. He took me to a tea shop and vanished. My worst fears came true. He had just dumped me there," Ganapathy reminisces.

The first job

It was the most unforgettable day in his life. He could not speak Hindi, he did not know anyone in the city nor did he have any money. Finally, he met a friendly taxi driver and told him his story.

"He took pity on me and said they can collect some money and send him home. The train fare was Rs 121 then. But I said I will not go back home. I will do some work and live here. I slept in the temple compound till I found a job in a bakery in Mahim to clean pizza-baking vessels. I used to sleep in the shop itself," he says.

After working there for six months, he found another job, to deliver pizza bread to a hotel in Chembur. Later, he moved to Navi Mumbai where he started working as a dishwasher in a restaurant called Gurudev.

"As a Tamilian, I faced discrimination in the beginning. We were given only kitchen work to do. After a while, I started to move out of the hotel, to give tea/coffee to shopkeepers around that area. I used to earn Rs 1,000, three times more than the other boys as this service was based on a commission basis," he says.

A sincere worker

Ganapathy was meticulous and sincere in his work. Unlike others, he never got into squabbles with anyone.

"I used to keep a note of every person's requirement, some wanted strong tea, some wanted it without sugar. So I established a good rapport with the outside world. One person who had a small business saw that I was enterprising and hard working so he suggested that we open a food stall on the street on a joint partnership. He invested the money and told me to do the work and he promised me half of the profit," he says.

The stall near the market area did good business. But the person duped him. He refused to give Ganapathy any share of the profit as promised and said he would give only Rs 1,200 as salary. So he called off the partnership and decided that it is best to do something on his own.

The food stall business

Ganapathy realised that starting a food stall would be the best way to earn good money. Two years after he landed in Mumbai, in 1992, he went back home, got his brothers to help him.

"I borrowed some money from friends and rented a handcart for Rs 150. It was really difficult in the initial days. Many times, the municipality vans used to come and pick our handcart. But I was very positive and determined. I never gave up hope," says Ganapathy.

"I scored on account of cleanliness and the variety of food I offered. I got the recipes from my mother and brought the masala from my village. . . so the food I offered had a distinct flavour, which made it an instant hit.

Dosa plaza in Bhillai.
Supporters all along

Ganapathy was lucky to have helpful roommates. They were very friendly and supportive.

"Since they studied at NIIT, they guided me well. They even taught me a computer course. They also spread the word around about my dosas. My business did well," he says.

Ganapathy's day used to begin at 5.30 a.m. everyday. He cooked the food all by himself, used to be on the road till about 3.30 pm. "I took a break of two hours every evening and spent the time surfing at a cyber cafe. I used to read about various businesses and learned quite a lot. My brothers also played a crucial role in making the business a success," he says.

Dosas, an instant hit

Five years later, when Ganapathy had a regular clientele he became more confident about the business's future prospects. Interestingly, McDonald's opened its first restaurant in Vashi near his stall.

"I was amazed to see the long queues of people who wanted to buy a burger. What is so great about the burger, I used to think. That's when I realised how a restaurant can make a big impact."

"I did a lot of reading and talked to several people who had similar business. Then I started to look around for a suitable place where I could set up a food outlet and get a good customers," he explains.

A turning point

Finally, in 1998, Ganapathy decided to take a kiosk outside the Vashi railway station in Navi Mumbai to open the first outlet called Prem Sagar Dosa Plaza. Fortunately he got good response from the first day itself. "I added more variety to the menu. Along with his dosa outlet, I also tried my luck by investing in a Chinese restaurant, but it flopped. However, I tried to add the Chinese flavour in the dosas, which worked very well," he says.

His experiments with dosas resulted in exotic varieties like American Chopsuey, Schezwan Dosa, Paneer chilly, Spring roll dosa to name a few. Within a year, Dosa Plaza had created 25 original varieties of dosas.

"I did a lot of experiments to improve the taste and variety. By 2002, Dosa Plaza had 104 delicious varieties of dosas."

"In 2003, a new mall called Centre One opened in Vashi. The people from mall management team who knew me suggested that I open an outlet in the mall."

So Prem Sagar Dosa Plaza joined the big league of restaurants to open a swanky outlet in the mall which attracted a lot of attention.

Dosa Plaza gained popularity, got a lot of media coverage as well. Ganapathy started offering franchises to people who wanted to set up the outlet elsewhere.

The first franchise outlet opened at Wonder Mall, in Thane. Even today, he supplies the special masala (the ingredients are known only to him) made at his production facility in Vashi. The franchisees are also given trained professionals.

Ganapathy went for a brand-building exercise for better visibility. "The brand makeover helped. We got a new logo design as 'approved by Dr. D', and changed the name to Dosa Plaza. This was a big boost to the business.

Dosa Plaza has indeed become a runaway success. Today, we have 35 outlets including franchiees. We plan to make it 100 outlets by 2011," says an optimistic Ganapathy.

"In 2008, we opened franchisee outlets in New Zealand. About 50 per cent of our clients in New Zealand are locals. In fact, the former Prime Minister of New Zealand, Helen Clark and other ministers had dinner from our outlet," says Ganapathy. The next outlets will be in the US and Dubai. Today, Dosa Plaza has 35 outlets across 10 states in India with a turnover of over Rs 5 crore (Rs 50 million).

Ganapathy's dream is to make Dosa Plaza a global brand with outlets across the world. The Dosa Plaza success story has also become a case study for management students.

"A PhD student from the SIES college did a project work based on Dosa Plaza. I was invited to the college for an interaction with students," says Ganapathy.

For Ganapathy, who has visited almost all the colleges in New Bombay to personally make dosas, it was a humbling experience to talk about his experience as an entrepreneur.

Coming to Mumbai was the turning point in his life. "I am indebted to Mumbai. This city has made me what I am.

Though initially I faced problems and some kind of discrimination, I feel no other city would give respect to a street vendor like the people in Mumbai. Their love and encouragement have been my strength," says Ganapathy.

Even today when his first customers stop to talk to him, he feels extremely happy. They tell him that 'you will go a long way. This is just the beginning.' He feels there is nothing more valuable than their good wishes.

Another interesting instance was when film star Rajnikant's wife visited Dosa

Plaza outlet in Mumbai. She liked it so much that he was invited to their house in Chennai. Rajnikant also invited him to attend his daughter's wedding recently.

How has life changed

is parents were the happiest in the family. "I brought them to Mumbai. I took them to the restaurants. They had food from my outlets and were extremely happy about my success. Now I am very happy that I can give them what they. My father is no more but I am happy that he lived to see my success," says Ganapathy.

He continues to live a simple life. "My lifestyle hasn't changed much. The only big difference is that I wear good clothes now. I still prefer to be simple. I do travel by bus and train many times and I enjoy it. I had an Indica car for a long time, now I bought a Ford Fiesta. Earlier, I could enjoy long train journeys, now I travel by flight when I go out of Mumbai," he says.

From a carefree life on the streets, now Ganapathy leads a very careful life, cautious about every step he takes. "As the business expands, my responsibilities have increased. Many people are dependent on me. Franchisees are also investing money so I work harder now," he says.


People in the village who had ridiculed me, give me a lot of respect. I visit the village once in while, taking part in the temple activities and I also contribute in small way to help people. If someone from my village comes to Mumbai in search of a job, I help them.

His biggest recognition came when his story was published in Rashmi Bansal's book 'Connect the Dots' as one of 20 best enterprising individuals without an MBA. "My story has also been mentioned in a Tamil book by Anita Krishnamurthi. Former president Abdul Kalam released this book in New Bombay last year. I felt very privileged to receive a copy of the book from him," he says.

Any regrets on not studying? "Well, not at all. But speaking in English becomes difficult when I go abroad. Other than that I don't think I would have learned so much in any school. My experience has been my biggest teacher," he says.

Does he ever think about the man who abandoned him? "In a way, I reached here and achieved so much because of him. I wonder where he is now..."


How I Made It

Bill Clinton sports them. They are new-age guru Deepak Chopra’s newfound mantra. Sting thinks they rock. Tantra T-shirts are a rage from Mumbai to Miami. Meet Ranjiv Ramchandani, adman turned entrepreneur, who sells India on T-shirts.

What started as an experiment in wordplay less than 10 years ago, is today a cult brand growing at 30 per cent annually, in more than 500 outlets across India. Ramchandani, then in his late 20s and a creative director at advertising agency Triton-BDDP in Mumbai, was holidaying with a friend in Scotland where T-shirts mirroring life in the highlands were on display. “Nothing like that had been tried in India,” says Ramchandani. “The idea was cool and I knew it would be profitable.”

Back home, a survey suggested that T-shirts topped the list of souvenirs tourists picked up. For Ramchandani, who was a seasoned cartoonist with leading publications like Mid-Day, writing smart one-liners for T-shirts was hardly a task.

And thus, were born T-shirts which showed an image of Lord Ganesha and read: Lord Ganesha, 50% human, 50% elephant, 100% cute. In another, a leering Rajput prince asked: “Your palace or mine?”

Ramchandani got such messages printed on a few plain white T-shirts and placed them in outlets along south Mumbai’s Colaba Causeway. The T-shirts were snapped up in no time. Ramchandani quit his job, and Tantra was born. “At the end of the day, who wants to work for someone else’s dream,” he asks.

Ramchandani set up an office, along with a friend in Colaba, with three employees. Later, his brother-in-law, Vimal Mariwala, joined him. As his idea was to sell India, the name Tantra seemed apt. “There was a zing about that name,” he recalls. “And its mystical connotation appealed to the youth.”

In the first year, they rolled out 40 designs and placed their products in over 50 stores; they also opened a Tantra store in Colaba itself. Before the year had ended, 1,500 T-shirts were sold.

Strange though it may seem now, Ramchandani didn’t set out to be an entrepreneur. He studied microbiology at Jai Hind College in Mumbai, and his first job was as a microbiologist at Bhatia College in south Mumbai. “The six months I was there sucked,” says Ramchandani. “My idea of a job was to arrive at work dressed in denims.”

Advertising gave him that freedom. His unusual creativity saw him climb the ladder quickly. Alongside, he honed his skills as a cartoonist. During one of his overseas trips, he even landed at the MAD Magazine headquarters in New York as a tourist and made some comic strips.

What he practised earlier as a hobby is now his bread and butter. Originally aimed at the foreign tourists, the first Tantra designs carried the usual imagery of Goa and Goddess Kali, and were unisex T-shirts. Gradually, the brand caught the fancy of the Indian youth. “Tantra T-shirts are so nuttily Indian that they are cool,” says Ramchandani.

Today, there are six Tantra variations — including Woman, Teeny Weenies, Polo and Fleece — and two brand extensions, Barking Dog (a wacky, alternative T-shirt brand) and Line Maro T-shirts. “We never chased targets,” says Ramchandani. “Taking one step at a time was our mantra from the beginning.”

In order to gain volumes and higher brand value, he made a presentation to department store Shoppers Stop in early 1998, only to be refused outright. Far from being dejected, Ramchandani shot off a letter to the store eight months later, stating 20 reasons why it should stock the Tantra brand, and managed to get a foot in the door.

Today, the Tantra brand is available at 18 other such stores. Besides, Ramchandani has set up an exclusive outlet at Churchgate in Mumbai and started five standalone Tantra stores in New Delhi. Similar stores are also being planned in Bangalore, Goa and Jaipur. Tantra T-shirts are now also being exported to France, West Asia, Australia, the UK, Hungary and South Africa.

To grow, Ramchandani has constantly challenged the status quo of the market. It’s hardly surprising that he is now diversifying into new product categories which could, over time, become popular souvenirs.

Like tea. Six months ago, Ramchandani launched Tantra Tea. Unwilling to talk about sales, he is confident he is on the right track. At the end of the day, as a businessman, you need to know what works and what doesn’t.

Source: The Telegraph