Company Man

CompanyMan Salil Tripathi in Caravan:

[Sanjiv] 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.