WAGH BAKRI TEA: WINNING BLENDS
Corporate Tycoons|December 2019
A century old and going strong, this Ahmedabad-headquartered company has established a taste for its teas all over India and in many countries abroad.
Sekhar Seshan

What is the biggest thing Wagh Bakri has achieved in its 100-year history? Piyush Desai, a grandson of the company’s founder Narandas Desai, has a one-word answer: Quality. “We have successfully managed to keep our quality standards very high for our discerning consumers even though we have gone through various trade and industry upheavals and seen challenging times including significant industry disruptions,” says Piyushbhai, who is the Chairman and Managing Director of the company. “We have also kept expanding our distribution and adding new products over the years.”

For this, he explains, Wagh Bakri has created a robust supply chain to get quality teas, put up multi-location tasting facilities and invested in a new-age tea tasting laboratory -which is possibly the first NABL (National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration Laboratories) certified lab for a tea company. “Concurrently, we have invested in distribution, packaging and marketing as well, so that we can create a right impression about the quality of our products in the minds of our consumers,” he points out.

“Our current and next generations, which are a potent mix of best professionals and owners, is more than qualified to carry our legacy forward,” Piyushbhai adds. “They are also among the best tea tasters and marketeers in the industry.” He himself is an expert tea taster and evaluator, besides being the backbone of company in financial and taxation matters.

At the forefront of this generation is his nephew Parag Desai, executive director and a qualified taster who goes through the sensory examination of 700 or more cups of tea every day. While he broadly agrees with the CMD on the company’s standards that have helped it survive and thrive, he points out that the actual growth has, however, come only in the past 50 years or less. “In the first 50-60 years, none of my elders was really interested in tea – only in freedom!” Parag says. “My father and his generation were all born around 1945 and grew up in independent India. It was only after they got into the business that things started to pick up.”

Parag has his history right. Narandas Desai was one of a group of Gujarati tea planters in South Africa who took a ship in 1892 to come to India for the sole purpose of helping in the fight for Independence. “They thought the struggle would be over in five years or so and they could go back to their plantations,” says his great-grandson Parag. “They hardly expected to be fighting for more than 50 years, and to eventually settle down in Ahmedabad!”

Narandas, a devout Gandhian who knew almost nobody in the city of his ancestors, went to Gandhi, whom he had got to know during the latter’s South Africa sojourn, and asked him for an introduction letter to prominent local businessmen who could help him set up something on his own. Having left behind a 500- acre tea estate with which he had started out as an entrepreneur in 1892, he knew nothing other than tea from which he could make a living.

The leader obliged. He wrote a note on the letterhead of Servants of India Society, Poona City: “I knew Mr. Narandas Desai in South Africa where he was for a number of years a successful tea planter.” Narandas took it to a local businessman and got help to open a small shop from which he supplied tea – the only thing he knew anything about - to the workers of what was then Ahmedabad’s biggest industry, textile mills.

Business grew, and he opened more shops; then he began sourcing better varieties of tea from the plantations across the country in West Bengal and Assam, and selling good blends to better-off clientele too. That’s where the brand name came from: the concept of a middle class had not yet emerged in those days, so the rich, symbolised by the tiger (wagh), and the poor, the goat (bakri), were his only customers.

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