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Shreekant Sambrani: Tea times

Tata Tea's pioneering public service campaigns, jaago re and power of 49, are especially refreshing in this election season

Shreekant Sambrani 

Shreekant Sambrani

None of the featured events influenced my previous week: not the IPL auction (my interest in three-figure knocks does not transcend to nine-figure fees), not Valentine’s day (unlike the cloying TV ad featuring an elderly couple, the card-and-gift trade is on to my age), nor even the end of the (forty-) nine days’ wonder (remote outposts 1,000 km from Delhi, the happening capital of India, are off-radar). What affected it was tea, the cup that cheers the Indian aam aadmi and aurat.

And that had nothing to do with a certain former teaboy now occupying the centre-stage.

It started Sunday with a nice Italian lunch at an intimate Pune trattoria. The Filipino wife of a classmate settled in the US of A for close to half a century was intrigued when I ordered service tea for her. I explained that the term referred to the beverage being served in a tea service, letting the drinker make it to her taste. She chose masala chai instead. I didn’t think that quite went with the Arrabiata sauce she had just relished.

We returned on the rather cramped upper level of the Double-decker Express, surrounded by 48 souls trying their best to prove that Indians were indeed argumentative. Amid the din, an endless procession of vendors offered minuscule quantities of elaichi chai (which probably had one whole cardamom per cauldron) for a trifling sum of only Rs 10. Back home, I searched the many fine emporia in my fair city of Vadodara for pure leaf tea for my lady. That wild goose chase yielded the house-brand of a leading retail chain whose name implies confidence, but she found quantities of cut, turned and curled variety in it. I thought of registering an FIR against the owner, but found that I was beaten to it by someone whose newly-grabbed monopoly of hot air was apparently threatened by the tycoon’s gas.

My interest in tea turned serious when the late Darbari Seth, the gentle Titan of the (pre-Ratan) Tata Group and the Chairman of Tata Tea graciously invited me to assist him two decades ago. The Tatas had bought out the James Finlay group in the 1980s and moved into the far more lucrative but challenging branded trade from the original commodity business. Mr Seth, meticulous as always, discovered after a thorough study that as in food, regional preferences determined the tea market. Local traders’ blends met prevailing tastes. That is how they dominated specific markets even in the face of competition from companies with nation-wide presence in other goods and infinitely greater resources for promotion. Tata Tea, Brooke Bond and Lipton were no match for Vaagh Bakri and Hasmukhlal in Gujarat. They still are not.

Mr Seth decided that if he could not beat the competition, he would join them. He bought Kanan Devan, a strong brand all over the South, with sub-regional variants. That strategy succeeded. He proved that branded tea was a money spinner. Well before infotech companies, Tata Tea was spoiling its shareholders with annual dividend payouts in three digit percentages. Alas, Mr Seth could not become the king of the tea market in Gujarat, his karmabhoomi of 60 years!

His protégé, Mr R K Krishna Kumar, now an éminence grise of the Group, set the template for the international foray of the Tata brand. He converted a long-term marketing tie-up with the Tetley Group into the latter’s acquisition in 2000. Tetley was the second largest tea firm in the world then, behind Unilever. That takeover at $400 million was the largest ever by an Indian company at that time. The head honcho of Hindustan Lever (as it was then called) confided in me that the Tatas would regret this. That worthy was soon to preside over the downturn of the Anglo-Dutch giant’s thriving food and beverage business in India from which it has not yet recovered fully. Tata Tea, with several more acquisitions, is now Tata Global Beverages. It remains the second largest producer and distributor of tea world-wide (Unilever has withdrawn from tea plantations) and has a major presence in coffee too.

That adventure was just the cup of tea for Mr Tata. The Group went on to acquire the JLR brands and works from Ford and turned the loss-making venture into not just a profitable one, but the mainstay of the parent Tata Motors as well. It remains the United Kingdom’s largest foreign-owned employer. Tata Steel has become the second largest producer globally with its acquisition of Corus, but is still not out of the financial woods.

I will sign-off this chai-pe-charcha by noting that Tata Tea’s pioneering public service campaigns, jaago re and power of 49, are especially refreshing in this election season, and two recollections. As children, we were offered tea as inducement for our monthly de-worming with castor oil. A lifetime later, I cannot shed that not very savoury association and drink tea without holding my nose. About the same time, the Tea Board plastered railway compartments with posters extolling the virtues of tea. It kept you cool in summers and toasty in winters, they said. The first should please Mr Mani Shankar Aiyar, while the latter should warm the cockles of Mr Narendra Modi’s heart. Anyone raising a cuppa for this even-handedness?

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First Published: Fri, February 21 2014. 22:40 IST