Women of Worth 2017

The Pathbreaker

Rajni Bector did not let her detractors get in the way of building one of India’s biggest foods company

Vishal Koul

At Rajni Bector’s spacious house in Ludhiana, we have just been served coffee and snacks. “Do you want to sprinkle some more coffee powder? I have a feeling that it’s not perfect,” beams the 77-year-old self-made entrepreneur. Even before we had taken a sip, she seemed to sense what was amiss. And, she was right. Clearly, Bector knows more than a thing or two about aroma, considering that the company she founded, Cremica, is one of the leading manufacturers of bakery products and condiments.

Partition child
Born in Karachi in 1940, Bector grew up in Lahore. Her father was an accountant general while other relatives were highly positioned in the government. Though this helped them cross into India unscathed, but not without witnessing the madness. Seventy years later, she recollects the paranoia around partition. “We were told that there would be a train at Pathankot. But none came for seven days and we waited under a tree for a week. Then a maal gaadi (goods train) arrived. I still remember seeing loads of dead bodies. On our way to other cities in Punjab, people would offer us lassi and food, and I would innocently ask my mother, ‘Why are they giving it to us? Do they know us?’” says Bector. 

Later, the family shifted to Delhi and settled there. A student of Miranda House, she got married in 1957 before she could finish college and graduated only after. Her husband belonged to a business family in Ludhiana. Bector describes her initial memories of the city, “Ludhiana was very small when I moved there. It was quite backwards compared with Delhi. There were only four cars in the entire city.” Similarly, her mother-in-law, though quite in sync with her times, was also conservative. “I came from a very broad-minded family. My dada and nana’s families were highly educated,” she adds. In her words, life was strange initially there.

Bector was very fond of cooking and throwing parties. She would attend courses related to food or cooking that were available in Ludhiana. Soon, she started experimenting with cookies, salads, and ice creams and started inviting friends and their children to taste. “Everyone appreciated the food. There were no caterers in the ’60s and ’70s, so I would do everything,” says Bector. Of those who praised her, she recalls two such persons, “Brijmohan Munjal of Hero Motocorp and the Pahwas of Avon cycles have complimented me: ‘Rajni, you have introduced Ludhiana people to good food.’”

Later, the local MLA insisted that she manage the catering at his granddaughter’s wedding. “I was a little stunned as I had to cook food for 2,000 people which I had never done before. But with the help of only two assistants, I managed and it was very well received,” she explains. Till the late ’70s, Bector was still doing it for family and friends but nothing commercially. She also started offering cooking classes to some students at home, but this only angered her mother-in-law. “She would ask me why I had to work when my family and husband were earning quite well,” she says. But Bector somehow managed to have her way, and her husband was supportive of it.

Bector speaks of a doctor who steadily encouraged her to start a food business. “He always told me, ‘Do you know even McDonald’s started from a food stand and it is so big now,’” she says. Dr SC Jain of Punjab Agricultural University, an authority on food and dairy, later helped her install a hand churner and then setting up a small ice cream unit in her house. Back in 1978, this set-up cost her Rs.20,000. 

There used to be several fetes in Ludhiana around that time. She participated in one of them and put up an ice cream stall next to Kwality. “I was very anxious but, surprisingly, people liked my ice cream a lot more than Kwality’s,” she says. And this was a big confidence booster for not only her but other women in her circle. “They were elated when they learnt that I had started working. They felt that would set the path for them to explore various career options,” she adds. 

Meanwhile, her husband was very particular about branding and doing it the proper way. Say for instance, the day he called up Bector to register the business under a brand. “He asked me to quickly think of a name — whatever came to my mind. I used a lot of cream to make my products, and that is how Cremica [Cream ka] was born in the early ’80s,” explains Bector. 

Cremica’s demand took off, slowly, as she started making breads and biscuits. “We took a bigger place on GT Road in Ludhiana and shifted our operations there,” she says. Even though it had only been a few years in the business, Bector never advertised her products much. It was mostly through word of mouth considering that she received a lot of orders for weddings, parties, and from caterers.

It was all going well until the politics of Punjab turned things awry for the family. First came Operation Blue Star, followed by the Sikh massacre in Delhi and terrorism across Punjab. Her husband’s fertiliser and grains business, which was more than 100 years old, was being threatened too. “We had to regularly deal with farmers. The insurgency was extremely strong at that point,” she remembers. Threats had become regular, so much so, that there was an abduction attempt on her eldest son. That’s when they decided to fold the family business in 1990, remembers Bector. This also meant that her own food business would get all the attention from the family. 

Her eldest son joined her after finishing engineering from Manipal. When her business began to pick up, a biscuit plant was commissioned in Ludhiana in 1991. At that time, she also opened an ice cream parlour in Sarabha Nagar in Ludhiana. “It was a small and dull market back then. But our parlour drew in a lot of crowds. Today, it is Ludhiana’s top market,” says Bector.  Over the next couple of years, her other two sons also joined her in the businesss.

Things finally came full circle in 1995 for Bector. India had liberalised its economy and MNCs such as McDonald’s were trying to set up shop in the country. “They went all over India scouting for suppliers for their buns and finally selected us,” recalls Bector. But associating with a big brand like McDonald’s came with its own set of challenges. “For a year, we were put through constant trials. We were facing big losses and frankly, we were fed up. But we kept on. They scouted across the country for the right wheat quality but the gluten content was not right. Finally, they settled for wheat from Madhya Pradesh,” she remembers. Its first bun plant was set up in Ludhiana. Now, they have plants in Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru. More than two decades later, Cremica continues supplying to McDonald’s.  

Around the same time, Bector’s company also began supplying sauces to Chicago-based Quaker Oats. “McDonald’s introduced us to Quaker and we started a sauce plant,” she says. The JV was supposed to supply condiments and sauces only to McDonald’s. However there was an ownership change at Quaker, and its new owners weren’t interested in continuing the association. So they handed over the JV to Cremica for $1 around 1999 which introduced her company to the world of sauces. 

Two years back, Cremica’s overall business was split between Bector’s three sons. Akshay Bector now handles Mrs Bector’s (sauces, bread and syrups), while her other two sons, Anoop and Ajay, handle the biscuits business under the Cremica brand. The overall revenue for both the businesses is pegged at around Rs.700 crore and the company’s mainstay market for its B2C products business continue to be northwest India including Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal and Haryana. In 2006, Cremica sold a 21% stake in the company to Goldman Sachs for Rs.70 crore. In 2010, when the company wasn’t doing too well, Motilal Oswal bought that stake for Rs.44 crore. “They exited at Rs.300 crore last year, several times their infusion. You can say that we are doing good,” smiles Bector.

Hard at work
There is no shortcut to success, feels Bector, a follower of Aurobindo and The Mother. “Work is worship. That is what Mother teaches us in her writings. I’ve followed that all my life.” She remembers the times when she would work for 16 hours, “I had put my children in boarding schools. When they returned, I used to stop work to give them sufficient time.” Today, the third generation has also joined her business. Bector’s advice to them is to maintain quality at all costs and they are definitely paying heed. “Food business is very tricky and safety measures have to be followed religiously. My grandson was here recently and we were discussing, how in the Delhi market, an insect made its way into one of our bread packets. This tends to happen when breads are sold at vegetable and fruit counters. Our team immediately visited the complainant’s house and resolved the matter,” she says. 

While she did face criticism from society when she started working, her husband supported her to ignore the naysayers. “Back then, it was uncustomary for women in Ludhiana to work. So, it definitely raised a lot of eyebrows but mostly, it was just jealousy,” says Bector.  She feels that people management can be challenging when a business becomes large. “Show them love, but also be strict when needed,” she says. Bector may have stepped back from actively running the business a decade ago but she is still involved when it comes to her products. “My passion for food and my taste buds brought me this far. I still taste, select, and approve recipes for our products,” she smiles radiantly.