Not many people know that infotech major Wipro's chairman and CEO Azim Premji was once a vegetable oil products trader until the media came up with his personal details. Dhirubhai Ambani's meteoric rise from being a small textiles merchant to a business tycoon is also a legend in the Indian corporate history.
If you want to hear another rags to riches story, come to the hilly Adimaly village in Idukki -- known as the spices district of Kerala -- and meet M E Meeran, chairman of Eastern Group of Companies. He is India's curry powder king.
Meeran, a former wholesale dealer in provisions, is conquering the world with his Eastern brand of spices and curry powders.
Consistently winning export awards in the last decade and breaking production barriers, so much so that an American company is reportedly eyeing the group now.
In an interview with Commodity Online at his Adimaly office, Meeran, the sixty-five-year-old, soft-spoken businessman revealed the secret to his success this way: "To succeed in the market, give quality products at appropriate price."
Meeran belongs to a conservative Muslim family from Kothamangalam, an hour's drive from his home at Adimaly. His family was engaged in trading of provisions. Naturally, the question arises as to how he began to 'think big' -- to go for branding and set his sights on the Gulf, European and American markets.
Here's what he had to say: "I entered the provisions business in 1970 in a small way. In 1975, I started marketing and distribution of several major consumer products including, bulb, soaps, batteries and biscuits. That was the turning point for me. The products, business, and management training that I got from major companies such as Britannia, Mysore Lamps and Kerala Soaps aroused my interest in building up a brand myself."
He discontinued marketing of consumer products and took up manufacturing of curry powders in 1984. And the curry powder business took a serious turn in 1991, coinciding with the economic reforms ushered in by the then finance minister and current prime minister, Dr Manmohan Singh.
"We started exporting from 1995 onwards and from then on our growth has been consistent," Meeran said.
Six months back, Eastern was in the news following a Rs 45-crore (Rs 450 million) venture capital infusion by Mauritius-based New Vernon Bharat Ltd for a 15 per cent stake in the company.
"We would have gone ahead with our expansion plans even without this venture capital by utilising our own resources and support from banks. Since the terms and conditions of the venture company were acceptable to us, we have availed the funding," Meeran stated.
Like all family businesses, Meeran has groomed his next generation into the Eastern business. His son, Navas Meeran, is on the board of directors as vice-chairman of the group. However, the senior Meeran is far-sighted enough to ensure that family business should be run on professional lines unlike many other family businesses in India, which either did not professionalise or were late in doing so.
"We have implemented corporate governance in the company and ERP systems ensure that procurement, production, planning and inventory control are all optimised to give consistent growth in output and profits," Meeran said.
Apart from three people from the Meeran family, including M E Mohammed (director, projects and operations), two external directors have been inducted. Among them M S Ranganathan is director, finance and accounts, and M S Sebastian is director, technical and manufacturing. Now one more director representing New Vernon Bharat Ltd has also been inducted into the board.
Eastern is now in an aggressive expansion mode to take the daily production of spices and curry powders from 100 tonne to 300 tonne. It has three plants -- one at Theni, Tamil Nadu, and two in Adimaly.
The company is unable to fulfill its export orders. "We have ten orders still pending from Dubai," Meeran said.
Eastern has already installed imported machinery from Germany, at the Theni factory, that can process one-and-a-half tonne of spices in an hour.
Meeran said the market can expect an Eastern IPO in two-and-a-half years. This is part of the agreement with New Vernon.
Eastern would utilise the venture capital for setting up a chilli processing facility in Andhra Pradesh. It may also take up chilli cultivation in Andhra Pradesh.
How does he spend his spare time? Meeran said he loves reading novels and business publications. "Travelling was a craze for me and I used to read travelogues. Now there is hardly any major place in the world that I have not visited."
However, he has also had his share of woes in running a manufacturing unit in Kerala, which is not known to be investor friendly. "I had labour problems from 1991. . . we have 2,500 employees in our group." Then on, he decided not to give workers a share of the company's capital.
Pesticide residue and bacterial contamination pose a major threat to the spices exports. Meeran's foreign jaunts are also the opportunity to hunt for quality control equipment, irrespective of the cost. He has heavily invested in state-of-the-art quality control equipment brought from France, Australia and Germany.
As this correspondent starts clicking pictures of the businessman in action in his well-furnished office surrounded by awards and citations, he receives a call from his Eastern Public School. Meeran takes leave not before arranging a visit of his ultra-modern production facility, a place where he spends most of the time, when he is not abroad.