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Sanjay Sharma of Orkla India: Convenience Creator

The CEO of Orkla India talks about 100 years of MTR, changing food behaviours, and why he thinks the ‘grandmother’ is their biggest competitor

Sanjay Sharma, the CEO of Orkla India, finds business sense in being a big player in India's regional markets (Illustration by Priya Kuriyan)

By Mahalakshmi Prabhakaran

LAST PUBLISHED 12.04.2024  |  07:00 AM IST

On a balmy Saturday morning in March, a team of 75 chefs and students of the MS Ramaiah College of Hotel Management stood in front of a customised induction stove at MTR Foods’ factory in Bommasandra, Bengaluru. As chef Regi Mathew, head of MTR’s Centre of Excellence (an in-house set-up that researches and archives Indian recipes and innovates food products for the brand), gave commands over the microphone, the team carefully flipped a dosa that was turning crisp on the stove. Loud cheers rang out when it was announced that the 123ft-long dosa had won the Guinness World Record title for the Longest Dosa ever made. The culinary event was part of the year-long celebrations being held to mark the 100-year-long journey of MTR. 

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Started in 1924 by brothers Parameshwara Maiya and Ganappayya Maiya as a restaurant called Brahmin Coffee Club, and renamed Mavalli Tiffin Rooms (MTR) in 1951, MTR is a household name for Kannadigas everywhere. While the original restaurant on Lalbagh Road in Bengaluru continues to be a major draw for food enthusiasts of all stripes, the brand is also a multi-million dollar company in the packaged food business. Its basket of 140 products includes ready-to-eat meals, breakfast mixes, traditional spices and masalas and sweets, among others. 

“Hundred years is not a common milestone and we are thinking of a range of celebrations for the entire year," says Sanjay Sharma, 57, CEO of Orkla India, sitting in his spacious office in Koramangala. 

This is probably a good point to rewind to 2007 when MTR Foods, the packaged foods’ division of the parent company, was up for acquisition, allegedly due to a family split. In February of that year, it was bought by Orkla ASA, a Norwegian industrial investment company, for $80 million (around Rs.664 crore now). The restaurant business though continues to be owned by the Maiya family.

As part of the reorganisation of MTR Foods, Sharma was appointed the CEO in February 2009. “It (the role) was about delivering sales, profits, growing the company and building a team," he says. In 2020, Orkla picked up a majority stake in Kerala-based spice maker Eastern Condiments Pvt. Ltd. Last year, Sharma was appointed CEO of the newly restructured Orkla India, which comprises three business units: MTR, Eastern Condiments, and international business (set up to scale up exports in 42 countries).  

As the person leading the charge of established regional brands, Sharma is conscious of the magnitude of responsibility his position carries. If MTR is 100 years old, Eastern Spices turns 41 this year. “Running legacy brands comes with a tremendous amount of responsibility. It’s not just about taking the vision of the promoter ahead, it’s also about carrying the responsibility of the people who have dedicated their lives to work for these companies," he says. 

As a combined company, Orkla India ranks among the top 50 largest FMCGs, and 15 largest food companies in India. But the organisation’s vision, in Sharma’s words, is to focus on their core markets. “We are counted as the sixth or seventh biggest FMCG player in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Kerala. So, our vision for the next few years is not to become a national brand in India. Instead, it is to become a national brand in these four states."

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This strategy of focusing on being a big player in the local/regional area, according to Sharma, gives Orkla a competitive advantage with regard to consumers, suppliers and the trade itself. “Today, I do over Rs. 600 crore of business annually in Karnataka alone. Can you imagine the size of the potential we have to build the brand even further?" 

Food, understandably, is the central subject of the hour-long interview. But the keenness with which Sharma speaks about it, peppering the conversation with data and insights, indicates his personal fondness for food. “I am completely mad about food," he confesses. Born and brought up in Mumbai, Sharma owes his love for food to his father’s itinerant job in the railways. “My father was passionate about food and courtesy his job in the railways, we got to travel the length and breadth of the country. This exposed us to cuisines from all over India," he recalls. A believer in the credo of “pick a profession that you love", Sharma’s career trajectory has, for the most part, been in the packaged foods industry.  

An MBA graduate from the Savitribai Phule Pune University, he started his career in 1990, as a management trainee at Voltas Ltd’s consumer products division, handling the Mealmaker and Volfruit brands. “That’s where I went through the grind, I did all my sales stints out there," says Sharma. In 1992, he moved to Pepsi, which had a JV partnership with Voltas and Punjab Agro Industries and had stints as area sales manager in Delhi and manager, dispense operations, in the Fountain Pepsi dispensing machines business in Mumbai. “I quickly realised in Voltas that food is the business I wanted to be in," he says of those initial years. 

After Pepsi, Sharma spent four years at Colgate Palmolive India, as senior product manager. But the pivotal, career-defining moment came when he decided to join Dabur Foods in 1998. The company’s annual turnover that year was all of Rs.6 crore, but Sharma’s decision to join the place as head of marketing was fuelled by his desire to return to the food business. “I dived into the position, got a lot of learnings and eventually, became business head of Dabur Foods." By the time he left the company after nine-and-a-half years, it had clocked in earnings of Rs. 250 crore.

The success at Dabur endowed Sharma with the confidence to take on bigger targets. “When I joined MTR Foods in 2009, it was already a Rs. 200-crore company. My job was to take it from Rs. 200 crore to over Rs. 1,200 crore. After the acquisition of Eastern Condiments, the size of our business is close to Rs. 2,500 crore."

A 2023 report by market research company IMARC Group forecasts that the Indian food processing market is expected to reach Rs.61,327.5 crore by 2032, at a growth rate (CAGR) of 8.8% between 2024-32. Rapid urbanisation, customer preferences, evolving retail landscape and government support are seen as the key drivers behind this growth. 

“There are two things happening in terms of food behaviour among consumers today: the level of knowledge of cooking is coming down. At the same time, the level of convenience they are seeking is going up," says Sharma about how consumer behaviour has evolved over the years. For companies in the processed and packaged foods industries, the opportunity lies in how they tap intuitively into these behaviours. You also need to question what “convenience" means to your consumer, he says. 

“Does convenience for the customer mean adding just hot water to make a dish? Is it about giving them a spice mix that they can use to cook in 15 minutes? Or does it mean they are willing to spend half-an-hour preparing their meal?" Sharma follows this up with an example to explain how interpreting the different definitions of “convenience" has helped them tailor their products. “If you like gulab jamuns, MTR has got ready-to-eat gulab jamun cans that can be enjoyed immediately. But if you know how to make the sweet, you can also buy the mix," he laughs.

The conversation moves on to discuss the company’s real competition. Is it restaurants; D2C instant food brands one sees on Instagram; or is it the “grandmother", who stands as the custodian of her family’s culinary traditions? “We compete with everyone but my biggest competitor is the grandmother," says Sharma. The reason is closely tied to the traditional product offerings of MTR and Eastern Condiments: spices and spice mixes. “When you are looking at the dishes that occupy the centre of the plate, rice, rasam, sambar and sabji, the grandmother is proficient in making them, and so she stands there as the purveyor of what the family eats," he says. 

The other new competitors are the food delivery apps. “The Swiggys and Zomatos of the world are another big competition because the more you order food online, the less you buy me," he notes. But like a savvy marketer, Sharma says this behaviour has prompted the brand to update its advertising message. “MTR’s ready-to-eat products actually say, ‘if you order (online), you have to wait for half an hour. But if you buy our ready-to-eat packs, you can get food in minutes’," Sharma adds. 

There’s one more elephant in the room that needs to be discussed: of how processed foods are painted as the bad guys in conversations around health. Sharma concedes that a lot of the packaged products available in the market are unhealthy. “In processed foods, there are three evils: sugar, fat and salt, and there are products that are full of the three." Yet, his objection is with the extreme generalisation of things. Sharing data of the penetration of packaged foods in India being less than 5%, Sharma feels that putting the entire blame of rising health issues in the country only on processed foods is skewed.

But this is a subject that can be debated endlessly and so, Sharma sees sense in giving consumers what they want. “Sometimes, you stop fighting these questions and see how you can deliver to consumer perceptions. This is the reason we started the MTR Minute Fresh breakfast range comprising idli and dosa batters and heat-and-eat akki roti and Malabar parota packs." The company is also running a programme that’s looking at reducing the level of sugar, salt and fat in the products. “Our promise is to reduce the amount of these three ingredients in our offerings by 5% over the next three years," Sharma signs off. 

Quick 3
A dish I can cook perfectly: Tandoori Chicken
A recent movie I enjoyed:  Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani 
A CEO who inspires me: My former boss, Ninu Khanna

 

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