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The bhujia king: Haldiram’s’ Shiv Kishan Agarwal

The 79-year-old chairman of the Nagpur-based Haldiram’s on how managing a family business isn’t always easy, his punishing schedule and what keeps him going

Shiv Kishan Agarwal
Shiv Kishan Agarwal

Despite my turning up at his office on time, it’s nearly 2 hours before Shiv Kishan Agarwal grants me an audience. It’s 4.30pm on a Saturday but the chairman of the Nagpur-based Haldiram’s is apparently in the thick of things, barely looking up as I walk in. His attention is on his assistant, who is peeling the many boxes of soan papdi lying on a broad wooden table between us. The mild scent of ghee and pistachios of the crisp, flaky confection is starting to take over. Shiv Kishan checks the papdi’s texture, occasionally pressing it with his thumb. Finally, he jots down the names of three of six contractors in charge of manufacturing them.

The assistant takes his leave. Shiv Kishan, surrounded by portraits of five generations of the Agarwal family and an assortment of Hindu deities, finally turns to me. What does he intend to do with these contractors, I ask. “Ab main unhe tight karunga (I will turn the screws on them)," he says blandly.

It’s a rather severe take from a man I had imagined as the Willy Wonka of the sweet, snack and namkeen business. But the quality of his products, he would tell me later, has always been non-negotiable. Shiv Kishan is 79 years old but continues to put in nearly “20 hours" of work a day. “Even when I am sleeping, I am thinking of work," he says. Naturally, he expects the rest to keep up.

The Haldiram’s brand in India, overseen from Delhi and Nagpur by members of the Agarwal family, generated close to 5,000 crore in annual revenue last year. Its legacy is traced to Ganga Bhishen Agarwal, fondly called “Haldiram" by friends and relatives for his pale, milk-and-turmeric complexion. The Agarwals of Bikaner made a living selling bhujia sev in a corner shop in the Rajasthan town before expanding to Kolkata in 1957.Shiv Kishan, Ganga Bhishen’s grandson, turned it into a food empire that sells 400 other varieties of namkeen, sweets, baked goods, fresh, frozen and dairy products in franchisees, food malls and corner shops across 100 countries.

It all started with a slight tweak to the traditional bhujia. “Haldiram" Agarwal, born in 1904, had joined his father’s bhujia-making business at a young age. Always the enterprising one, he had modified the traditional mothi bhujia sev into finer bariksev. It proved to be surprisingly popular. Haldiram set up his own shop in 1941—the year Shiv Kishan was born—and soon become a sought-after bhujia seller in Bikaner.

Shiv Kishan is the eldest of nine siblings, only six of whom survived. He studied until class VI, learning Marwari and basic math. Never too big on books, he was asked to help at the shop at age 11. He had learnt the art of bargaining during trips to the local grocers. “If they asked for 2 paise, you offered one and a half. If they stood their ground despite haggling, you paid up but asked them to give some more. Or took some yourself."

In 1955, Haldiram had a tiff with his family and decided to move to Burra Bazaar, a popular marketplace in Kolkata, with one of his sons Rameshwar Lal and a grandson Shiv Kishan, then 14. Being in a big city was thrilling. Shiv Kishan would sample food from the local shops—samosas, namkeen, Bengali sweets—and try replicating them. “But my uncle would stop me. They would say it’s not worth the trouble."

At 17, Shiv Kishan married a girl of his parents’ choice (“Ladki kaun dekhne jaata hai? Dekhne nahi dete." I wasn’t even allowed to see her). At 26, he was sent to Nagpur to help set up a bhujia shop for his brother-in-law Banshilal. In 1968, as now, Nagpur was a sleepy town, best known as the capital of oranges and saffron (not the edible kind). “There was nothing here," he recalls. “The roads were empty, a couple of buildings were being constructed..." But the locals were fond of a good snack. “A local Jain shop which stocked Rajasthani items would sell 100kg bhujia in 15 days. It was a big amount then."

Shiv Kishan went with two workmen, taught them the basics of bhujia-making, waited until the shop started turning profits and returned to Kolkata. Months later, he would return to Nagpur, this time with his wife and four children, after his uncle in Kolkata accused him of fudging the ledger books. His brother-in-law was happy to see him again. In Shiv Kishan’s absence, his business had nosedived.

“At 28, my life began," he says. For the first time, Shiv Kishan could work without interference from his elders. He started experimenting, introducing Bikaneri rasmalai and Bengali rasgulla alongside his grandfather’s bhujia. “Every other month, I would go to Kolkata, taste some samples," he says. “I didn’t know (how to make) the sweets but I knew the taste." His culinary memory and willingness to experiment served him well in introducing other cuisines like Chinese, Italian and south Indian in the chain of restaurants he would go on to launch.

The first year—1968—returned bumper profits of nearly 35,000. The brothers-in-law bought the six shops next door, brought in more workmen and introduced products like pedas, kaju katli, kalakand and assorted Marwari sweets. Their business soared.

So far, I remark, there doesn’t seem to be any female protagonist in the story.

“They would work hard as well," says Shiv Kishan. “But at home."

Having established himself in Nagpur, Shiv Kishan was itching to set up operations in the national capital. In 1983, his brother Manoharlal and he set up house and a factory a couple of storeys above a Sikh baker’s shop in Chandni Chowk. Just as they had started breaking even, the bakery was set afire by a mob in the 1984 anti-Sikh violence, destroying the Agarwals’ factory and the house above as well.

It took a few months to repair and rebuild their home. Undeterred, the brothers started afresh, setting up a new factory, working double shifts, breaking even and finally, reaping profits. The IT raids on their shops in Delhi and Nagpur too prompted them to change the way they did business, switching from cash transactions based on verbal agreements to maintaining accounts and filing taxes. “Tab se humne do number ka kaam karna band kar diya (We stopped problematic transactions)," says Shiv Kishan.

Shiv Kishan and his brothers gradually expanded across the country, launching more factories in Delhi and Nagpur, each supervised by family-led teams. By the 1990s, they had also started doing rounds of food expos abroad and exporting their products. It was a conscious decision to stick to vegetarian food in sync with their Marwari ethos, says Shiv Kishan. “The idea was, make such delicious food, even meat eaters turn vegetarian." In the financial year 2013-2014, a press release on the Haldiram’s website claims, their revenue stood at 3,500 crore—more than the combined revenue of Domino’s ( 1,733 crore) and McDonald’s ( 1,390 crore) in India. “It just goes to show that popularity of foreign culture cannot beat a good Indian product," the release adds.

As Haldiram’s expanded and diversified, rifts started emerging in the Agarwal family. In the early 1990s, the Agarwal siblings divided their Indian market into zones of independent operation: the north India markets to be overseen by brothers Manoharlal and Madhusudan from Delhi, the ones in the east by Prabhu Shankar Agarwal and Ashok Agarwal from Kolkata and those in the south and west by Shiv Kishan Agarwal from Nagpur. Around the same time, a bitter copyright battle began, concluding only in 2013 after a court ruling forbade the Kolkata-based operations from using the name “Haldiram’s Bhujiawala" any more. They rebranded to “Prabhuji: from the house of Haldiram’s". Their relations with their counterparts in Nagpur and Delhi, however, remain strained.

Managing a family business isn’t always easy, admits Shiv Kishan. Once his children joined the operation, there were suddenly seven more members of his family, at least three of whom work as directors, to take into confidence. “I work by my convictions," says Shiv Kishan. “When I started a dairy, my children were sceptical. It worked. Same thing happened with bread. They think too much, so they lag behind."

The namkeen business, Haldiram’s traditional forte, has faced stiff competition over the years, mainly from Balaji Wafers, the 2,000 crore snack giant from Rajkot. Shiv Kishan’s own relatives, who earlier manufactured for Haldiram’s, have started independent companies. The Delhi operations too have eclipsed Nagpur’s revenue, posting revenue of 2,619 crore in March 2018 against Nagpur’s 2,413 crore. “Our marketing was weak," confesses Shiv Kishan. “My children didn’t pay as much attention. I have now told them to get more professionals on board."

Apart from turf wars, the brand’s commitment to quality, something it pitches as its USP, has also come under scrutiny. In 2015, the US food and drug administration (FDA) rejected 17 of its exported products saying they “appear to be adulterated because (they) contain a pesticide chemical". Shiv Kishan, however, rejects the charge. “Those were Delhi’s (products)," he claims. “Ours were passed." Within a month of the controversy, the Maharashtra FDA had given a clean chit to the Haldiram’s group, finding “clinically no problems in its products".

Haldiram’s exponential rise hasn’t escaped its international ready-to-eat counterparts looking to grow in India. In 2019, media reports suggested that US-based Kellogg’s was looking to buy a 51% stake in Haldiram’s Delhi and Nagpur operations. The deal never came through though. “They took too much time," says Shiv Kishan. “Initially, they had offered 2,000 crore. Then they waited for two years, during which time our business grew. When they returned, we asked for 2,300 crore. They weren’t ready for it."

Shiv Kishan doesn’t regret it, nor does he plan to retire anytime soon. Work is the reason he wakes up at 5am every day, six days a week. A day after our meeting, he will be visiting Palghar, Maharashtra, for a wedding. A couple of weeks after, he is scheduled to go to Germany for work. The itchy feet and restless energy, far more evident now as we near the end of our 2-hour conversation, is what keeps him going. “All I ever wanted," he says, “was to do good work and grow."

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