How Suhana Spices became a new-age food brand from being a traditional family-owned businessSohini Mitter
It began as a single masala business in the 1960s, then faced family squabbles, until the young generation gave it a new direction and brand identity.
Vishal Chordia wears many hats.
He owns a food and spices business, he is state minister and chairman of the Maharashtra State Khadi and Village Industries Board, he runs a sports NGO Lakshya, he is one of Pune’s distinguished citizens and founder-member of the Entrepreneurs Organisation - Pune Chapter, he is also member of the Maharashtra Chamber of Commerce & Agriculture, and more.
What Vishal would also want to add perhaps is that he was a state tennis champion until his “entrepreneurial outlook” and business interests took over in the late 90s. His family spices business, Pravin Masalewale, that dates back to the 1960s was in dire need of a makeover as India approached the new millennium.
MBA-holder Vishal had a novel outlook towards business and growth, and that didn’t sync with the traditionally-run operation that was Pravin Masalewala. Vishal says he didn’t want to be the “fourth dimension” in the business that was being managed by his father and two uncles.
So, he branched out.
Vishal set out on a near entrepreneurial journey during which he gave the fledgling spices business a new name and brand identity, segmented and expanded its product line, ramped up manufacturing units, roped in distributors and retailers across India and international markets, and created loyal customers in western India.
What was a Rs 18 crore business in 1999 is a Rs 600-crore operation in 2018. From being leaders in rural Maharashtra, Suhana Spices - the new brand he created - now reaches nine Indian states and 25 international markets. From three manufacturing units, it has grown to nine.
Seated in his old-world office in Pune’s industrial area of Hadapsar, Chordia tells YourStory,
“A smooth transition didn't happen [back then]. But I knew I was here to take the business to the next level. I had the vision.”
This is the story of that vision, of business transition, of an entrepreneurial setup that emerged out of an orthodox family-owned structure.
Pravin Masalewale - origins and business outlook
Vishal’s grandparents were enterprising people. They started making masalas at home in 1962. This was in addition to his grandfather selling chilli seeds in Pune on weekends.
The first batch of kanda-lasoon masala (a paste of onion and garlic) was priced at Rs 5 per kg. It sold out fast in the neighbourhood. More batches were made, and each one sold out quickly enough. It generated local demand. “My grandfather spotted a potential in the masala business very early. The flavour of our masala was the highlight,” he says.
That one masala led to the creation of Pravin Masalewale and its range of Indian spices and blends served to customers in Maharashtra and Gujarat.
In the 1970s, Chordia’s uncles and father - the second generation - took over. While they managed to grow the manufacturing capacity, and also started producing pickles and other mixes, the focus on expansion and product innovation was missing.
“They were focused on the processing and engineering side of things. They had a very different idea about how to grow the business.”
Liberalisation in 1991 did change a few things though. “A lot of business design changes had to be done. It had created different dimensions for managing a business,” he adds.
Foreign money had started to flow into the Indian market. India’s exposure to international brands and products increased. Sales, marketing and branding emerged as growth drivers in business.
But Pravin Masalewale lacked vision and insight in that department. Chordia notes, “My family was happy to grow the earlier way, by increasing manufacturing capacity.”
Symbiosis-educated Chordia, who got involved in the family business from 1994, started feeling a dissonance. Moreover, his uncles and father could not arrive at a “unified business plan” that would help Pravin Masalewale grow in a liberalised, privatised and globalised India.
Suhana Spices - the breakout brand
Vishal recalls, “I finished my MBA and then told my father that I have a vision and am confident that I can run a new business.”
In all Indian families, anything unconventional is treated with doubt and disdain. He faced the same, but was pragmatic.
In 1999, he bought over the masala business from his uncles, while they retained the fruit processing and pickle manufacturing units of Pravin Masalewale. He paid Rs 15 crore for the masala unit that would go on to become Suhana Spices.
It didn’t begin well. The day after Vishal took over the masala business, all department heads, trusted aides of his uncles, resigned. There were 15-odd resignations in a day. “But I started afresh. The cost heads went out and it was a blessing in disguise,” says Vishal.
He spent the next 7-8 months touring all districts of Maharashtra and interacting with sellers and distributors. These conversations helped him identify “real market issues”. He realised that a common brand name for masalas and pickles wasn’t working anymore. It was alienating the customer.
“We had to change the brand name and that was a struggle. Mid-2000s, we started working on it and it turned out to be a logistics nightmare. We took a year to finish the rebranding, and relaunched our products under the Suhana name in 2001.”
In the last 17 years, Vishal has expanded Suhana’s portfolio to over 150 products that includes spices, ready-to-cook mixes, instant eats in ‘cuppas’, snack items, and more. There are two sub-brands under Suhana: Ambari (that sells the traditional masalas from Pravin Masalewale) and Sarvam (value-for-money masalas).
Though the Suhana brand started gaining popularity via word of mouth, several sellers refused to stock it. Back in 2002, shops in Pune sold Ambari masalas but weren’t keen to sell Suhana-branded spices.
Vishal and his team set out to hunt down “unconventional” markets for their products. They arrived at Tulsibaug, an area in the centre of Pune that is known for its large flea bazaars, where buyers and sellers from all over the city assemble. “We knew that if we could make a dent there, we could reach anywhere,” says Vishal.
Suhana Spices, of course, made a dent, and grew in range and reach. It has over 1,200 distributors and 300,000 retailers across India. The instant mixes were introduced in 2006, and the cuppa products launched in 2012. It was production innovation in line with evolving consumer tastes and habits.
“Back in the 60s and 70s, it was a seller’s market. We could decide what to sell. But, now India has moved towards a buyer’s market. Customers are more informed, they have more choices and a lot more international exposure. We have to give them what they demand, and they are quite demanding.”
While Suhana Spices caters to a more or less standardised Indian palate, it is keen to experiment and “customise”.
Vishal describes that one time when Suhana launched a special mix for “Muslim dishes” like paaya, korma, haleem, kebab and biriyani. It was lapped up by the Bohris of Mumbai.
He says, “We advertised the product in Mahabaleshwar [a hill station in Maharashtra] where the Bohri and Gujarati trading community comes to holiday. The masala became very popular.”
Taste customisation will keep happening at Suhana Spices. It is, what Vishal calls, its edge over multinational FMCG companies.
“The moment a taste factor comes in, the MNCs aren't very successful because they don't customise. They only commoditise. But, we are creating products according to the tastes of the market. And the market changes every 50-100 miles in India.”
Suhana Spices is also expanding its distribution reach. It has started selling on Amazon under the ‘Grocery and Gourmet Foods’ category. Online is still a negligible segment of its business, but it is where the new-age customer is.
“The landscape is changing and consolidation is happening. Every state has its own leader brand. But, we want to go pan-India. We are already leaders in the rural market and that is much bigger than the urban market.”
Suhana Spices has managed to carve out a distinct, independent identity. It has broken the archaic shackles of its parent, Pravin Masalewala. Ask Vishal how he managed to achieve that, and the answer is simple, “Be a risk-taker as an entrepreneur, and think of returns before investment.”