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NRI makes a fortune from floss
Monika Joshi in New York | January 06, 2006
Nobody calls Puneet Nanda by his name. To friends, family, and employees, everyone, he is just 'Dr Fresh,' a respectful allusion to the budding empire he has created in the world of oral hygiene.
His company, Dr Fresh Inc, with sales of over $25 million a year, may be humble compared to behemoths such as Colgate, Oral B, and Proctor & Gamble, yet the immigrant who arrived in southern California in 1998 sells 1 billion yards of dental floss a year.
In a telephone interview from Buena Park, California, where his 55,000 square foot warehouse incorporates a high-tech laboratory, he claims to make all the label floss sold by Target and Walgreens, all label toothbrushes by Walgreens, and a large number of toothbrushes under Wal-Mart's private label, Equate.
Dr Fresh's products range from oral care to personal hygiene (flushable sanitary napkins), baby wipes, pens to shoe shines. The star among them is Fire Fly, a toothbrush that flashes for 60 seconds when the bottom is pressed, encouraging children to brush on.
Fire Fly, which is Target's best-selling toothbrush, controls 25 per cent of the company's sale. "(With Fire Fly) I control approximately over eight percent of the US market for kids' toothbrushes," he says. AOL Parenting (an online resource from America Online) has recommended it as one of the 'Mom Must-Haves.'
Be it Fire Fly, Dr Fresh Flosh (brush and floss in one product), or travel kits that include tongue brushes, it is innovation that drives him. His mind keeps throwing up ideas, but not all translate into success.
"Take Fire Fly, for example," he says. "I never thought it would be that big." One of the inventions close to his heart is a dental floss he had built that changed color according to the amount of plaque it came in contact with. The product sank, but he hopes to revive it.
Nanda spends most of his time is his research lab, generating new ideas for products. "I'm filing almost a patent a month," he says.
Since the process is under way, he cannot disclose much of it, but says tons of upcoming new products would take his company to $100 million or above in the next few years. He is also planning to go public.
The 38-year-old studied medicine in south India, but returned to join the family business of making Oral B toothbrushes (in India) before he could complete his residency. "Floss is a totally alien concept there," he says. "We sold 1,100 pieces of floss as Oral B company in the whole of India -- that is 1 billion people," he adds. "Pretty distressing."
After coming to the United States, he found that although people are initiated into brushing and flossing at an early age, only 11 per cent of the US population had started to floss. He saw an opportunity there. "I took it sportingly."
He found that most flagship companies did not have any popular brands of floss, except Reach (Johnson & Johnson). "I thought if I could develop a second brand of floss, somebody could either buy me out or I could be No. 2, and make a lot of money," he says "It's a big market and lesser competition."
Like most immigrants, Dr Fresh arrived in the US, clueless about the big store chains. He landed, April 13, 1998, in New York, where he asked the owner of a store if he could sell to them. He was directed to the head office, and after multiple calls, finally got the contact information of a buyer. When he said he had never sold in the United States, he was hung up on.
His first break came from a 99-cent store. "When I saw they did not have good quality toothbrushes and did not carry any brand names, I presented a good quality toothbrush at a low price," he says. "There you could negotiate." He got an order on the spot.
He lived in New York till December 25, feeling low because of the New York winter. "I've had my share of cold weather in Moscow, I've been to Siberia. I don't want to see snow ever again," he says. Russia, incidentally, was a bitter experience: he was robbed and shot in the back of the head, following which he returned to New Delhi.
Early Christmas morning in 1998, he took a flight to Los Angeles. "The moment I landed in LA, I felt much better," he says.
After bagging a big order from a 99 Cents Only chain, he began making cold calls to potential buyers. "One of buyers at a chain store told me -- if you call me one more time, Dr Fresh, I am going to call the police," he says. "He is now one of my top three buyers, he says. "It's a tough road, but you never say no. Right?"
In about a year, he had called his wife, Monica, son Anish and daughter Muskaan to the US.
Dr Fresh has been working with Wal-Mart for four years, five years with Walgreens, and two-and-a-half years with Target, providing lower prices by employing technology. He has a plant in India, one in China and another in the United States.
He has won a contract with Wal-Mart to make 5 million pieces of toothbrushes annually, and opened an office in Bentonville, Arkansas, near the company's headquarters.Nanda, who turned 38 in December, enjoys Hindi movies and research-oriented reading. In his later years, after his dream of going public has been realised, he wants to let someone else manage the company, and, remaining a shareholder, move into medical research.