The Partition that tore India apart and rendered lakhs homeless also brought with it tales of endurance, grit and industry. One such story is that of India’s second largest spice provider, MDH or Mahashian Di Hatti (which is Punjabi for ‘shop of a magnanimous / respectable man’).
Founded in 1919 by Mahashay Chunilal Gulati in the Sialkot region of the then-undivided India (it is now in Pakistan), the spice shop gained fame as the ‘Deggi Mirch Wale’ (pot chilli people) place. The owner was soon joined by his son, Dharampal, who entered the spice line after several unsuccessful forays into soap, cloth, carpentry and other businesses.
The spice business was doing well when the Partition of 1947 rendered the family homeless and jobless. They chose to cross the ‘border’ into India, staying first in Amritsar and finally settling in Delhi.
Starting with struggle
The days that followed were not easy, but the family persevered. Dharampal drove a tonga (horse carriage) for some time to make a living. When that did not yield favourable returns, he decided to re-enter his father’s old spice trade and set up a small shop in Karol Bagh. He ground spices and sold them as ‘Pal di mirch’ and Pal di haldi’, (Pal’s chilli and turmeric powder, respectively). As before, the sheer quality of the products brought recognition.
As word spread and finances improved, he was able to open another shop. By 1959, he had bought a plot to establish his first factory to produce spices. The name, MDH, was retained.
The packaged spices market in India was mostly unorganised then, with most housewives preferring to grind their own spices at home. Even those who bought spices from outside insisted on the ingredients being freshly ground, right in front of their eyes.
To convince people to buy the packaged products was MDH’s next challenge.
Changing a mindset
Mahashay Dharampal, as he is known, rose to the occasion. Though a school drop-out, he had the native shrewdness to realise that mere word-of-mouth publicity would not be enough for him to sell his products — he needed to advertise the brand name.
To persuade the public about the quality of his packaged spices, he became the brand ambassador of his products — he had his own face printed on every MDH product pack, reassuring the public of the brand’s authenticity. This not only ensured that other brands did not copy and misuse the MDH name, but also made monitoring of the packing easier.
But he did not stop with this. He even took out advertisements in vernacular newspapers like Pratap (an Urdu newspaper popular among Punjabi refugees) to spread the brand name.
Growth and incorporation
The strategy succeeded and as the demand increased, manual grinding gave way to machine grinding. The packaged spices market was slowly opening up and there was scope for many brands to do well; but quality and purity stood the test of time and MDH was soon at the forefront of the packaged spices industry.
The company was incorporated as Mahashian Di Hatti Private Limited in 1965. Today, the company posts sales of over ₹900 crore and has five main factories in Delhi, Gurugram (Haryana), Nagaur (Rajasthan), Ghaziabad (Uttar Pradesh) and Amritsar (Punjab).
It has about 1,000 stockists and 4 lakh retail dealers. Mahashay Dharampal remains the largest shareholder, with over 80 per cent stake.
MDH now manufactures, distributes and exports about 60 products (ground single spices and blended spices) in different pack sizes — from 10g to 500g. It is said that about 30 tonnes of spices are produced every day.
Sourcing raw materials
The raw material is sourced directly (from places like Kerala and Karnataka in India, and Iran and Afghanistan abroad) to maintain uniform taste and quality. It is then cleaned, dried, tested and ground in fully automatic machines (for the sake of hygiene, human touch is avoided). The end products are then tested again at the quality control labs.
Its R&D labs create new spice blends and, depending on local communities’ region-wise preferences, make changes in the masala composition. No artificial preservatives and flavour enhancers are said to be used, and the focus is on giving the public tasty, high quality, safe and convenient products.
But though there are so many new products, more than 70 per cent of the sales reportedly come from mainly five to six masala s: Kitchen King (mixed spices), Deggi Mirch, Chunky Chaat Masala, Garam Masala and Chana Masala.
The brand ambassador
The day-to-day operations are closely monitored by Mahashay Dharampal, who still makes it a point to visit his factories, markets and dealers every day. He continues to be the exclusive brand ambassador for MDH even today. He is the sprightly 94-year-old in the distinctive red turban with a three-layer string of pearls on his neck, around whom the slogan “Asli masale – sach sach! M-D-H - MDH!” revolves.
He remains, quite possibly, the oldest brand ambassador ever. His reasoning for not hiring celebrities is simple: since he is the man behind the success of his brand, he feels he is the right person to promote it!
Even though the company concentrates more on television ads today, it has not hired any outside agency for advertising and keeps all categories, like packaging, designing, promotions and advertising, in-house.
Interestingly, the packaging has not changed much since the early days, keeping the focus on ‘tradition’ strong.
Loyatly and exports
While the company says its success is due to its supply chain, and product purity and quality, experts point out that brand loyalty has played a huge role in instant recall, thanks to the owner-cum-brand ambassador! But they also warn that the modern consumer might want a more youthful presence to promote the product.
MDH has offices in Dubai and London and exports its products to countries like Switzerland, Japan, Canada, Saudi Arabia, the UK and the US. Mahashay Dharampal’s son reportedly manages the overall operations now, while his daughters are said to handle region-wise distribution.
MDH has recently forayed into the manufacturing and sales of incense sticks, tooth-powder, mehendi , soya, kesar and havan samagri (for Hindu rituals). Reports say it is planning to enter the ready-to-eat foods segment too.
Mahashay Dharampal believes in giving back to society. Being the highest paid consumer products CEO — taking home about ₹21 crore last fiscal — he maintains that 90 per cent of it goes to charity. Apart from the hospital named after his mother, he has also invested in several educational institutions and research foundations.
He has helped many poor girls get married and provided free education and books to children. The Mahashay Chunilal Charitable Trust that he started in his father’s name runs hospitals, educational institutions and dispensaries for the poor. There is also a magazine from MDH called Sandesh , a magazine from the company, focuses on tradition and values.
The respect that MDH commands in India can be gauged by the fact that it is a member of several different committees of the Bureau of Indian Standards. Awards that Mahashay Dharampal has received include the ‘Arch of Europe’ for excellence in quality, the Dadabhai Naoroji award, and the ITID Quality Excellence Award.