East India Company, reborn!

Written by Namrata Rao | Updated: Aug 3 2014, 07:03am hrs
It was four years ago in 2010 that the East India Company made waves across the world. It had been bought by an Indian. Many were surprised. Not just by the fact that it now had an Indian owner, but that it was still in existence.

In June, the company grabbed headlines again: it issued limited-edition gold coins to honour cricketer Sachin Tendulkars illustrious career.

But how did a company that colonised half the world, including and especially India, transform itself into one that now retails the worlds finest gourmet foods and beverages, publishes books and has a bullion business Not to mention that an Indian calls the shots now.

Its a story right out of a fairytale. Its common knowledge that East India Company ceased to exist in 1874, hit hard by Indias first war of independence (or Sepoy Mutiny, as the Britishers called it) in 1857. Its army, navy, the treasury, factories, etc, were all transferred to the crown, to Queen Victoria.

It was only in the 1980s that a group of British merchants went back to the crown to the present Queen Elizabeth II and sought permission to trade using the companys name. They consequently took ownership of all the intellectual properties of the company, which were sitting idle with the crown or the British government. They traded in, among other things, tea and coffee. In the early 2000s, they approached London-based, India-born businessman Sanjiv Mehta to build a teabag business.

Mehta, who comes from a family of jewellers and diamond traders, and who had in the past collaborated with Hindustan Unilever to export India-made toothpaste, tea and coffee to Russia, realised that there was a lot of scope in the East India Company brand.

When they came to me, only Englishmen owned the business and there wasnt a single man from the colonies, as I would call it, associated with it, so the emotional connect that a person from, say, India, Australia, Singapore or Hong Kong would have with it, that wasnt there, says Mehta, who now owns the business. The company was owned by around 33 shareholders. Over a period of 18 months, I negotiated with them. Finally, on October 2, 2005, 100% ownership of East India Company was shifted from their hands to mine.

In the following two years, Mehta travelled to those parts of the world wherever East India Company had ever set foot in its original form, including Kabul, San Francisco, Oakland, Cape Town, Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Sydney, Brisbane, etc, in order to understand the brand and its impact.

Careful planning about the product segments we would have, market entry, what countries to enter from, etc, took around three-four years. We then embarked upon two businesses to begin with: publishing and fine foods. We started the fine food business because, historically, in 1600 when East India Company was formed, its primary objective was to bring food from the east to the West. We wanted to re-establish its historic legacy, says Mehta. While they have published nine books on the company so far, their flagship store selling fine foods in London on Conduit Street was opened on August 15, 2010coincidentally, the day of Indias independence.

Since then, they have opened 10 stores and have 300 points of sale in countries such as Kuwait, Qatar, Norway, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, France, Spain, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, China, Thailand, Malaysia and Australia.

But why is India, the jewel in the crown, missing from this list, one wonders. We have a deep engagement with India, but presently the import policies in the country have very high import duty, therefore, we dont feel its a commercially viable option to set up retail stores in India. Should that change, we will definitely enter the country, says Mehta.

The companys retail stores in the country may be out of the question for now, but Mehta does divulge that they plan to get into the luxury real estate segment in India real soon. Not just that, they also plan to open tea lounges and restaurants across India. We are looking at getting into the luxury real estate segment in India, where our role would not be of the conventional builder, constructor or developer, but more to do with designing the interiors of apartments in the British style. We will be launching this hopefully in 2015-16, he says, adding, We are also looking at setting up restaurants and tea lounges in some of the key markets in India, including Bangalore, Delhi, Mumbai and Hyderabad, but all of this will be under licensee and franchising agreements. I can assure you that we will definitely have a presence in India in 2015 probably have revenue coming out of there.

But Indians are an emotional lot. Will they ever accept a company that inflicted deep wounds on their psyche, scarring it for ever How does Mehta intend to tackle that Will he change the name of the company to suit Indias palate No, no, not at all. I think its great that an Indian now owns the company. In fact, since February 2010, the first time I announced that I own the business now, I must have received over 50,000 emails, including from India, congratulating and thanking me. A young Indian child wanted me to talk to his old grandfather in Ahmedabad. I think there is a lot of positivity there.

As if to attest Mehtas belief, one of Indias leading business houses, Mahindra Group, bought a minority stake in the company in 2010.

Apart from the Tendulkar coin, which costs 12,000 pounds for the 200g version, East India Company has many other unique products to boast. One of them is a jewelled pair of ladies shoes, which they created in collaboration with leading French fashion house Roger Vivier in 2012. Called A Queen Forever, the shoe had a fleur-de-lys motif encrusted with over 3,500 brilliant cut diamonds, its intricate setting designed by East India Company and hand-crafted by its team of expert artisans, using diamonds supplied by an Indian diamantaire. Clearly, the shoe fits just right.