Looking beyond tobacco

DS Group is eyeing new growth drivers in the FMCG space to dwarf its core tobacco and mouth freshener businesses

Photographs by Vishal Koul

There is no denying that business histories are rarely documented, let alone in print, so a museum that chronicles a renowned company’s tumultuous history was till recently a far-fetched idea. This is where the experiential DS Museum started by the Dharampal Satyapal (DS) Group has scored a major first, recounting the grassroots-to-major-group transition of the entity, covering its diverse interests, from tobacco, mouth fresheners, confectionery, food and beverage and dairy — its core businesses — to latex, agroforestry, packaging, hospitality and infrastructure — its emerging businesses. Started by Dharampal in 1929 as a tobacco business, the group, which many of us now associate with the Catch spices label, counts Rajnigandha and Baba among the prime building blocks of its emerging empire. 

Indian digestives have taken a beating in recent years, so the idea of using a museum to bring the brand’s story alive — from the colourful streets of Chandni Chowk in Delhi to the founder’s laboratory, painstakingly detailed with life-like marionettes and the original accouterments of Satyapal’s office — is heightened with dramatic possibilities. Satyapal was responsible for steering the fledgling company towards quality, research and its early experiments with branding. Audiences love rags-to-riches stories and there’s enough of that here to endear the company to the small groups that have permission to visit the museum, which is located on the group’s office premises. Similar museums at the Akshardham Temple, also in the capital, and the Khalsa Museum at Anantpur Sahib have used comparable tropes, but DS distinguishes itself by providing a more intimate experience to the audience. 

For this purpose, visitors enter through a ‘fragrant forest’ where lights and aromas are triggered by the visitor’s footsteps, a kind of tactile experience unexplored in India so far. In the next section, a theatrical dramatisation of the group’s founders is used as an emotional hook to retain interest in the two remaining zones, which are built around the group’s aspirational vision and the range of products manufactured in its state-of-the-art factories. Though the museum is not yet open for the general public, it may not be long before it is: the ₹4,800-crore group has a story to tell and it has done so with poignant vigour, something other companies may do well to emulate.

Changing shape

It was during Satyapal’s era that the group firmly ensconced itself in a highly commoditised category like tobacco by pioneering the branded chewing and paan masala market in the country. Lala Satyapal had realised in the late ’50s that branding was critical for the company’s survival. The inception of the company’s first brand was just as fortuitous — Satyapal was walking around Connaught Place in 1958 when he came across a small laughing Buddha statue in a shop. Enamoured by the image, he got an artist to redraw the figure, albeit wearing a doshala and tilak. In 1969, graced with image, the first product from the company’s stables Baba — was introduced, also holding the distinction of being the first-ever branded chewing tobacco product in India. Soon, new brands such as Tulsi in 1979 — to mark the 50th anniversary of the business — and Rajnigandha were created. Satyapal found the name apt because it was a sweet-smelling flower that had a popular film song dedicated to it, ensuring easy recall among the audience. The Catch brand name, inspired by a one-off cricket match, was also his brainchild.


Something to chew on

Though diverse, mouth freshener accounts for a chunk of group revenues

After ruling the tobacco and paan masala market in the ’70s and the ’80s, the group diversified into the food business with Catch salt shakers in 1987, followed by Catch spices. Since then, the group has been entering new market segments quite regularly — packaging (with Canpac), spring water (Catch), mouth fresheners (Pass Pass), rubber (Uniflex), hospitality (Manu Maharani in Nainital), agroforestry (in the northeast) and dairy (Dairybest and Ksheer).

The diversification has largely been driven by Satyapal’s two sons, group chairman Ravinder Kumar and Rajiv Kumar, who is the face of the group. The group’s turnover currently stands at ₹4,894 crore and they hope to be a billion dollar company by the end of FY15.

Putting the expansion in perspective, 52-year-old Rajiv, VC and MD, DS Group explains, “We are not top line- or bottom line-obsessed. We enter businesses where we see value and where we can add value. Though some of them are niche categories, in a country of a billion, that translates into numbers equaling the population of European countries such as Switzerland.”

The diversification is not without reason. Tobacco companies the world over try to break free from the negative image associated with tobacco consumption and dependence on tobacco products. The group, too, has spread its basket with this aim. The constant focus on reducing dependence on tobacco has meant that it today contributes just 25% to revenue.

“At its peak, tobacco, along with paan masala, made up for the group’s entire revenue in late ’80s. But that’s no longer the case today,” points out Rajiv. Though the tobacco business brings in a sizeable ₹1,262 crore in revenue and has been instrumental in making the group cash-rich over the past four decades, it is mouth fresheners — mainly the flagship Rajnigandha paan masala — that contribute 40%, or over ₹2,334 crore, to the group’s top line. “Though tobacco is not likely to be banned in the foreseeable future, we chose to work on healthier alternatives as well,” he explains.

Making a mark

Though the group’s journey seems starkly similar to the way tobacco major ITC remodeled its business to emerge as an FMCG-to-hospitality conglomerate, Rajiv disagrees with this observation. “It is the media that compares us with ITC. There are so many businesses where we are present and they are not, and vice versa. Our diversification is our natural progression,” he emphasises. In others words, the group consciously chooses to stay away from the personal care segment and food categories such as wheat flour. Instead, it is now betting on FMCG businesses through its DS Foods subsidiary, banking on its existing strong sales and distribution channels that have been hawking salt and spices for decades. The group has chosen to enter niche categories with a premium positioning attached to them. “Premiumisation is in our DNA. My father would travel all the way to Kashmiri farms to ensure that the right quality of saffron was being supplied to us,” points out Rajiv. The habit of getting the right ingredients has been crafted into a business strategy for the premium positioning of its mouth fresheners.

“It is a choice that each company makes. However, my opinion is that if you are committed to building a brand from the very beginning, then instead of competing on the price front with generic products, it is best to start with a premium brand. The additional margin available can be invested in strengthening the brand and its product attributes. The premium itself can serve as a vehicle to establish a difference from the competition,” says Devangshu Dutta, chief executive, Third Eyesight.

As early as 1987, much before the consumerism wave hit India, the group entered the foods space by going premium with table salt. Today, it has found its sweet spot in the dining condiment arena with its free-flowing table salt and pepper shakers under the Catch brand, which is today worth ₹400 crore. Though Tata came out with its own brand of shakers, Catch continues to dominate the salt and spices shaker category. At ₹15 for 100 gm, Catch is costlier than ordinary packaged salt.

“In the table shaker category, we perhaps hold 99% market share,” points out OP Khanduja, associate business head, food business, DS Group. Similarly, In 1999, it launched bottled water by positioning Catch Natural Spring Water as having been bottled at source in the Himalayas. At ₹53 crore per year, the brand today accounts for a lion’s share in the bottled spring water market.“The demand for Catch Natural Spring Water is more than the supply, given that the number of springs in the Himalayas is limited,” points out Bhavna Sood, senior vice-president, DS Group.

The premium plank has worked well within the group’s flagship business too. The total size of the paan masala industry is worth ₹27,000 crore, with the premium segment accounting for ₹2,800 crore. Of this, Rajnigandha holds close to 80% share. CK Sharma, business head, mouth freshener, who handles the Rajnigandha portfolio, says, “Over the past couple of years, the rural-urban divide has narrowed, with an increasing preference for branded products. This reflects in our sales.” As a result, the Rajnigandha business has seen an astronomical spurt in size last year (from ₹1,300 crore to ₹2,334 crore). Besides an aggressive TV commercial strategy, the company kept consumer interest alive by introducing several variants, with the latest — Rajnigandha Silver Pearls — being introduced in convenient plastic packs.

What is also working in favour of the mouth freshener category is the gutka ban in 26 states since 2012, which Rajnigandha paan masala seems to have benefited from. Sharma says the brand has tried to steer clear of gutka — a banned product that could tarnish its clean image. “Based on consumer demand, we did manufacture gutka in the past but were not that successful. However, after the ban, we have abided by the law and stopped manufacturing gutka.”

Though consumers have simply shifted to mixing paan masala with chewing tobacco (both of which are available as the company’s products) after gutka was banned, Sharma believes that this is not what is driving Rajnigandha paan masala’s sales. “People consume paan masala in a variety of ways but largely as a mouth freshener. There is no correlation between the rise in the sales of Rajnigandha and the gutka ban; the former is due to expansion and focus on rural penetration.”

Keeping in line with its expansion, the group entered the dairy business in 2011 with the acquisition of a plant in Rajasthan, including an institutional brand called Dairy Max. Two years later, it forayed into the premium dairy segment with ultra high temperature (UHT) processed milk and cow’s ghee under the newly launched Ksheer brand. With only a handful of players such as Nestle (GLYPH), Mother Dairy, Amul and Parag Milk present in the ₹2,000-crore high quality and long shelf life UHT premium segment, the group chose its positioning carefully, with industry forecasts predicting the UHT milk market to grow at 20% annually.

Rajiv claims that even with stiff competition, the initial results have been satisfying. “The dairy business has grown from ₹30 crore in FY13 to ₹111 crore in FY14 but it will be at least three-four years before cold chain infrastructure comes into place and we are able to realise its potential with new products,” he adds. The group is now looking at revenue of ₹300 crore from the dairy business by 2016.

Network connections

The group has managed to create a sizeable FMCG business as it has leveraged and ramped up its existing distribution network. Sharma says, “From 8 lakh retailers, we have reached 10 lakh in two years and have entered new towns and villages. Perhaps, we enjoy the highest retail reach after ITC,” mentions Sharma. The retail penetration is an outcome of its revamped distribution strategy that resulted in the number of depots increasing from 24 to 30 with 160 super distributors and close to 1,400 sub-distributors covering close to 9,500 villages.

The deeper penetration coupled with changing consumer preferences has worked in favour of the group. In case of mouth fresheners, DS was a strong player in northern and western markets, but not in south, which is what it is trying to change. “Pass Pass is our carrier brand in the south and we are leveraging our distribution and reach, to place Rajnigandha paan masala and other products in kiosks in the south,” says Sharma. The group is convincing retailers for better display of their brands. “If a retailer earns ₹500 and ₹250 comes from our products, we can influence space management in his shop,” adds Sharma.

“Consumption is rising rapidly in the higher income segments where availability and branding are greater drivers of product off-take than price-based competition. Most FMCG companies in India are under-penetrated with regard to distribution. Perhaps about 20% of the market is unserviced even for a market leader such as Hindustan Unilever; for other companies that figure is far higher. So increasing a brand’s availability across geography and penetration within the locations already serviced are avenues of future growth” says Dutta on DS group’s expansion plans.

In the case of Catch salt & spices business, which has grown over 30% over the past two years, the retail reach has gone up from 1.5 lakh outlets to 2 lakh outlets. “We revamped our reach in southern and eastern markets where we were weak, and outsourced part of our production,” points out Sharma. In case of the spices business, the group is focusing on all sales channels — general and modern trade, and restaurants and catering. Though there are several regional players and MDH and Everest dominate the general trade, Khanduja points out that they lack a national focus unlike the DS group.

The way ahead

Over the past five years, the group has trebled its turnover of ₹600 crore with a diversified portfolio. By going that extra mile, it stands separate from other homegrown peers such as Kothari Products (Pan Parag) and Dhariwal Industries (RMD Gutka). Says Sood, “We are a privately held company but our accounting practises are at par with that of a public company. We aren’t required to present annual reports but we do. We are transparent and follow best practices.” 

Today, the group garners more than a fourth of its revenue from food and beverage products and intends things to remain that way. Industry experts believe that given the competitive landscape, the DS Group has its task cut out. “The biggest challenge for them is how to get blockbuster brands. Catch is only one brand; they have to look at a much broader horizon and launch fresh brands in other categories such as processed food, chocolate or chips, the way ITC has progressed,” says Harminder Sahni of Wazir Advisors. But Rajiv has a different plan and doesn’t believe that the group needs to create fresh brands in multiple categories. “Catch will be like an umbrella brand — like Nestle — and sub-brands such as Catch Ksheer or Catch Piyoz (powdered beverages) will make space for themselves.” 

However, getting market share is not that easy. In case of Catch spices, DS’ market share is hardly 7-8%, even after two decades in the business. The ₹6,000-crore spice market has two major players — MDH and Everest — and numerous regional players. Catch is a premium but niche player. But Rajiv is willing to be patient. “MDH is 80 years old, Everest 50 years old, so our brand too needs time to come of age,” he feels. Nevertheless, the group is doing all it takes to create a buzz around its products, including celebrity advertising; actress Vidya Balan endorses its spices brand. While FMCG is a core part of the group’s strategy, its blueprint for the hospitality industry is taking shape. After acquiring a 67-room hotel — Manu Maharani — at Nainital in 2000, DS is ready for a second round of expansion. 

“We acquired our first hotel fifteen years ago and have learnt the basics of the hospitality business. It’s only now that four of our properties are coming up at Kolkata, Jaipur, Guwahati and Jim Corbett National Park,” Rajiv adds. With close to 1,000 rooms, the new properties will be a mix of budget and star hotels and will be largely funded through internal accruals. Though the group seems to be aping the ITC growth model, Kumar believes otherwise. “We entered agroforestry because we needed herbs for our spice and mouth freshener business, packaging because of company needs and hospitality because of my passion and our group’s emphasis on Indian culture,” he mentions. That being the case, the experiential DS Museum will probably have a lot more tales to tell about the group’s journey in the coming years. 

—With inputs from Kishore Singh