This IIT graduate started Kent RO with Rs 5 lakh and built it into a Rs 1,000 Cr revenue water purifier brand
In the 1990s, IIT Kanpur graduate Mahesh Gupta was on a vacation with his family when both his kids suddenly fell ill. The children drank some contaminated water and were diagnosed with jaundice.
The kids recovered but Delhi-based entrepreneur Mahesh could not forget the incident.
He started doing research on water purification, and found that the commonly-used Ultra Violet (UV) system purifiers were not good enough to remove dissolved impurities from water.
The UV system is a water purification method that uses UV rays to disinfect the bacteria in the water. However, the system is not enough to render water completely safe for drinking.
“At that time, I was running my oil conservation products company SS Engineering. Before that, I worked with Indian Oil as an engineer. Despite all my expertise in oil engineering, I began doing a lot of research and experiments on water purification,” he tells SMBStory.
Mahesh Gupta, Founder and CMD, Kent RO
The process of Reverse Osmosis (RO) caught Mahesh's attention.
RO is a process of water purification that uses a partially-permeable membrane to remove ions, unwanted molecules, and large particles from water. It can remove different types of dissolved and suspended chemical and biological contaminants from water.
In those days, no one in India was using RO to make water safe for people to drink. Mahesh decided to test it out, and imported a membrane and a pump from the US. At home, he built his first RO water purifier.
From product to brand
Mahesh decided to make more water purifiers using RO technology.
“In 1998, I put in a seed capital of about Rs 5 lakh to procure equipment for these RO systems. In a small room in my house, I started building water purifiers with a four-pronged controller that used RO, UV, UF (Ultra Filter) and TDS (Total Dissolved Solids) processes,” he says.
Mahesh patented the technology, and in 1999, launched the brandin Noida to sell his first commercially-available RO purifiers.
A modern Kent RO water purifier
But the purifiers were not cheap. They cost Rs 20,000, and everyone said this was too expensive.
“I had a slow start with Kent RO. The purifiers were too expensive. People were willing to pay that price only for a fully-automatic washing machine. I realised it was not enough to just build a product. I had to convince people that they needed a RO water purifier,” he says.
Mahesh felt there was a total lack of awareness about the new technology. Kent RO purifiers were being compared to UV purifiers that were available at much lower prices.
Mahesh and his new brand had to rely on door-to-door sales and managed to sell only 10 to 15 purifiers per month.
“I faced a lot of competition from established brands selling conventional water purifiers. Further, I faced some issues with permits and also lack of capital,” he says.
Years of growth
Despite the challenges, Mahesh stuck to his mission of promoting RO purifiers. And it seemed he had got the timing right.
Through the 2000s, the disposable income and spending power of upper and middle-class people in metro cities and urban areas increased. Along with this came the desire for a better standard of living.
People wanted clean and safe drinking water and did not want to deal with water-borne diseases. With its advantages over UV filtration, RO purification seemed like the best bet.
These factors resulted in a growing demand for RO water purifiers. Kent, despite a stuttering start, was an early mover and pioneer in this space. As demand swelled, Kent reaped its rewards.
Mahesh attempted to keep costs under control and make his products more accessible to people. As business picked up, Mahesh set up manufacturing facilities at Roorkee in Uttarakhand to meet the growing demand. He also built a wide network of distributors, dealers, and retailers to sell his products.
Kent’s brand ambassador, veteran Bollywood actor Hema Malini, gave a boost to the company’s image. Kent ads with Hema Malini became popular and the brand became acceptable to people.
Workers in Kent RO's manufacturing facility
With Mahesh at the helm, Kent has grown into one of India’s leading manufacturers of RO water purifiers.
Today, the business claims to clock a turnover of around Rs 1,000 crore and has a 40 percent share in the RO purifiers market.
“We have around 12,000 retail outlets, 3,000 distributors, 300 direct marketing executives, and a sales team of around 1,500 people,” Mahesh says.
Kent has opened 50 exclusive shops through franchise models. The brand exports its products to a few countries such as Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Kuwait.
“Constant innovations continue to be our hallmark. We spend four to five percent of our revenue on innovation. This is one of the reasons why we stay ahead despite serious competition. Wall-mounted ROs, removable water tanks, micro-controlled purifiers, and smart ROs are some of the reasons for our continued growth,” Mahesh says.
“One of the problems with RO is the removal of healthy minerals while desalinating water. But we recently overcame this problem and ensured that water retains minerals, and only the impurities are removed,” he adds.
Inside Kent RO's manufacturing unit
Mahesh does not consider Kent a multinational player as yet as his products are not commodities, and generating demand overseas is difficult. He says he is currently focussing on boosting business in India.
But he is not overlooking exports entirely. “Plans are in the works to increase exports based on a country-wise or region-wise strategy. This year, the company is expecting to touch Rs 35 crore to Rs 40 crore revenue from exports, as against Rs 24 crore last year,” he adds.
With an investment of Rs 100 crore, the company’s new manufacturing plant in Greater Noida hiked its capacity to one million RO water purifiers per month.
Kent now aims to tap the under-penetrated space for water purifiers. Mahesh believes only one percent of the country’s water purifier market is covered by organised players.
“In metros and big cities, the penetration could be anywhere between 25 to 35 percent. But in smaller towns, the penetration is as low as 10 percent, or even less. So, we want to be everywhere,” he explains.
To reach customers across the country, Mahesh has made his purifiers available online. He is also focussing on growing Kent’s dealership network to reach Tier-III and IV towns.
“In India, contaminated water remains the root cause of many diseases. We have done extensive surveys which have revealed that wells and ponds are highly polluted. Another challenge is the lack of electricity in many villages. These people suffer the most when it comes to water-borne diseases. We have been designing RO purification products to address these challenges, and are educating and motivating people from these pockets to use them,” he says.
(Edited by Javed Gaihlot)