By Shevlin Sebastian
When M. Ramachandran was growing up in Thrissur, he noticed that his father always wore a white shirt and mundu. One day, Ramachandran resolved that he would also wear white. And now, for decades, he always wears a white shirt and trousers. “In fact, I don't have clothes of any other colour,” says the Mumbai-based Ramachandran, the Chairman and Managing Director of Jyothy Laboratories, while on a recent visit to Kochi.
In fact, this propensity to wear white resulted in him making a product, Ujala (named after his daughter) that has become an enduring bestseller for the company. “When I was working in Mumbai, I found that while washing my clothes, the original white was not returning,” he says. “So I wanted to make a whitener that was extraordinary and far better than all the other products in the market.”
During this time, the drug manufacturing company that he worked for as an accountant closed down. So he decided to start a business. “But I asked the chemists in the company whether they could come up with a top-class whitener,” he says. They did, but it took two years of trial and error.
Ramachandran started with a base capital of Rs 5000 in 1983 and began making the product in a shed on a property that belonged to his father in Thrissur. However, despite hiring a few girls, the sales were slow. Ramachandran felt despondent. After a few months, he was about to close down the business, when he got an order for a thousand bottles from a businessman in Mallapuram district. “That was the turning point,” he says.
Ujala went from strength to strength. And it was able to take on the powerful Robin brand of the multinational Reckitt and Colman and take a major share of the market. “There were also about 150 look-alikes of Ujala, but they could not succeed,” says Ramachandran. “These businessmen formed an association and complained to the Excise and Income Tax departments. There were a lot of raids but nothing could be found. I have a principled business, so I did not feel scared.”
Today, the company has a turnover of Rs 2000 crore and has other whiteners like Mr White, insecticides like Maxo, soaps like Margo and Neem toothpaste. The company has also acquired Henko.
“My method is simple,” says Ramachandran. “Through our market surveys, we identify a niche market, and our R&D team at Mumbai will work for more than two years to develop a unique product. The aim is to provide the highest satisfaction to the consumer.”
To ensure quality, the company manufactures its own products. “We have 32 factories in 16 states,” he says.
At the moment, Ramachandran is very excited about T-Shine, which is used for toilet bowl maintenance. “There are no safe products in the market,” he says. “They are all hydrochloric acid-based. This is highly corrosive. You can see the effects because of the yellow stains that appear in the bowls. That is nothing but a sign of corrosion. When you use these products, you also experience an acid smell. It can affect your respiratory system.”
These were the reasons why Jyothy Laboratories decided to make a 100 percent organic product. “That is the need today,” says Ramachandran. “Old technologies should give way to the new. We took two-and-a-half years to create this product. Instead of corroding the surface, it protects them. We provide a film so that when water falls on it, it is like falling on a lotus leaf. It just slides away. So the shine remains forever.”
Meanwhile, when asked about the business environment in Kerala, Ramachandran says, “Politicians and ministers have a desire to encourage business. But the bureaucracy has a negative approach towards us. That has not changed. They say, 'You are going to make money, so give me something'. There is a delay in getting permission to start projects.”
For those who have manufacturing facilities, they have to contend with the high wages. Added to that is the menace of Nokku kooli (organised labour unions who charge money just to watch other people lifting loads). “It is one of the most dampening things about doing business in the state,” says Ramachandran. “People in Mumbai say, 'Don't go to Kerala, there is Nokku kooli'.”
Finally, when asked to give tips to youngsters who want to be entrepreneurs, like him, Ramachandran says, “First of all, join an organisation or a career for which you have an aptitude. Work for a few years and gain experience. In my own life, I had 14 years of experience while working in a medium-scale industry.”
Ramachandran learnt about purchase, sales, R&D, product development, distribution, controlling the field staff and financial management. “So that reduces the chances of failure,” he says. “Most people jump into business thinking that the aim is to make money. But that attitude will ensure failure. Your attitude should be, 'I want to make a very good product'. And you should be able to work very hard. The success will come your way.”
(Published in The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)
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