September 2, 2011


Company Man: The firm that once colonised India is now owned by an Indian businessman. Can Sanjiv Mehta turn history on its head--and make a tidy profit in the process? (SALIL TRIPATHI, 1 September 2011, The Caravan)

Mehta's latest coveted treasure is an unobtrusive store on Conduit Street, a tiny lane which lies at the edge of Mayfair, the fashionable district in central London. The upscale Mayfair, with its fine restaurants and discreet offices of boutique consultants, connects Regent Street with New Bond Street, with Oxford Street running to its north and Piccadilly to the south. These names are redolent with imperial grandeur; any child who has played the board game Monopoly can recall them with ease, although real estate today is a bit pricier than on the Monopoly board. (At school, Mehta was also an astute Monopoly player; he beat me the few times we played.)

There are nearly 300 shops in this area, with monthly rentals running anywhere between £200 and £900 per square foot (roughly 14,000 to 65,000), making this golden rectangle one of the most expensive retail districts in the world. Conduit Street has Vivienne Westwood, the doyenne of quirky British design; Rigby & Peller, which supplies undergarments to the Queen; Belstaff, which made the overcoat worn by Sherlock Holmes in a BBC television series; Oliver Sweeney, who shod the Ashes-winning English cricket team; and Berluti, the home of handmade shoes. Jutting out of Conduit Street is Savile Row, where old-fashioned tailors, one of whom actually wears a monocle, continue to make bespoke suits for gentlemen of discerning taste. Posh restaurants and hotels like Claridge's, The Ritz and The Connaught are nearby, as are the boutiques of Burberry, Chanel, Hermes and Ferrari.

Mehta is very proud of his shop on Conduit Street. It is called The East India Company.

Yes, the same one. In one of history's ironic twists, a Gujarati man born in Bombay now owns the company that was set up at Leadenhall Street at the end of the 16th century by British traders and merchants who went around the globe looking for a good cuppa and some spices and ended up colonising half the world--including India, the jewel in the crown--before collapsing in 1873. The company has been revived, but now it sells luxury teas, coffees, chocolates, jams, biscuits and chutneys. The minimalist 2,000 sq ft shop has a staff of 35, and aims to rake in £6 million (433 million) in its first year.

To be sure, The East India Company had ceased to operate when it was dissolved in 1873, its balance sheet smeared with red ink, as its income simply could not cover the cost of maintaining the empire it had built. After setting up trading operations in India in the 17th century, it had rapidly transformed from a mercantilist trading firm into a state, taking over territory, minting currency and maintaining its own army. The Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 (as the British view what Indians call the first war of independence) delegitimised the company's political role in the eyes of the British establishment. Queen Victoria took over the governance of India in 1858; 15 years later, the debt-ridden company was dissolved.

But sometime in the 1980s, a group of British investors came together, and sought government approval to begin trading using the company's title, in effect reviving it. Few knew about it then; the investors didn't make any plans public, keeping a low profile.

One of the commodities they traded in was tea, and it was to Mehta that they turned for the trades. He saw huge potential in rebuilding the brand, even though he knew buying the company from a group of investors would be a daunting, time-consuming project. He understood the political significance of an Indian trader taking over the company that had once colonised India, and he was aware of the negative connotations the company's name suggested for many patriotic Indians. Why should an Indian revive a company that enslaved Indians and sent them to far-flung places as indentured labourers?

Slowly, step-by-step, Mehta began buying over the investors, and after nearly three years, he bought out the last investor, acquiring full control of the company in 2006. At the same time, he studied the company's history, consulted experts, talked to brand consultants and began assembling in his mind the architecture of the company that would no longer be an embarrassment, but would nurture the brand.

Posted by at September 2, 2011 6:22 AM

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