Vikaas Gutgutia is not the sort of person who likes working from home. For a large part of 2020, the founder and managing director of gifting company Ferns N Petals (FnP) missed the whole process of getting ready, putting on his shoes and stepping out, “like going on a mission, instead of sitting at home in shorts”, he says.
On a mid-week afternoon in February, Gutgutia is satisfactorily seated in his Delhi office, which has been open since June. He is probably wearing his shoes, but what’s visible on an erratic Zoom screen is a dark jacket over a dark T-shirt, round-rimmed glasses, and a thoughtful manner of speaking.
Like several other businesses, Ferns N Petals took a hit last year—particularly because there were no lavish weddings and gifting was perhaps not high on the priority list amidst a virus scare. Their shops did minimal business for about six months; by year-end, though, they had started recovering, recording 50-60% of the previous year’s figures. Online sales compensated for the losses to a certain extent, growing because that was the only way people could order, and account for about 80% of their retail business now.
In 2019-20, the FnP group posted a turnover of over ₹330 crore, having extended its reach to 375 stores, and e-commerce in places such as the United Arab Emirates and Singapore. They have forayed into segments such as wedding planning, packaged mineral water, funeral services, a content production house—and a pet products brand is to be launched in March. An initial public offering is on the cards to fuel their expansion plans even as Gutgutia’s 24-year-old son, Udyat, joins the online business.
For the 54-year-old who once sat in a shop selling flowers, the growth of e-commerce is just an inevitable turn of events. “The reason why FnP has done well is because florists are (traditionally) supposed to be cheaters,” he says. “That’s the impression you have had—if you ordered without checking, they would send you old flowers or something. It’s not a trusted fraternity. As a businessman today, I feel one word that’s our mantra is trust.”
Gutgutia grew up surrounded by flora—his parents had a flower cultivating business in Vidyasagar, near the Bengal-Bihar border (now Jharkhand). His school had classes only up to VIII, so for two years he had to travel about 20km to the neighbouring town of Jamtara, now better known for a web series by the same name. High school and a bachelor’s degree in commerce followed in Kolkata, where his uncle used to sell flowers from a small retail outlet; Gutgutia would help him after classes.
He didn’t consider it a good business and didn’t think his family was happy with it either. They were in it, he says, because there was nothing else to do. He was not particularly fond of flowers and didn’t see it as a career option. “My aspirations were big—I never thought flowers could make a difference to my life,” he says.
On a visit to Delhi in the early 1990s, Gutgutia sent his then girlfriend, Meeta (they married in 1995), some flowers through a local florist but found that they weren’t of good quality and had not been delivered on time. For someone used to selling them, it smelt like a business opportunity. He briefly scouted the market, identified a shop in a building under construction and started a wholesale business selling flowers while waiting for the building to be completed.
That first outlet opened in Delhi’s South Extension in 1994, with a friend investing ₹2.5 lakh. The initial response was overwhelming—the personalised service, the concept, and the way they sold flowers worked like a charm. It was a new experience for Gutgutia, his first foray into entrepreneurship, and Delhi was exciting. But the business didn’t stay rosy for long—running a boutique store was not economically viable. Debts increased, some suppliers stopped providing, and sales drooped.
A regular customer came to the rescue, insisting that Gutgutia do the decoration for his daughter’s wedding at the Taj Palace hotel. For FnP, the scale presented a challenge and an opportunity. They used bamboos, got green moss in wire meshes and had flowers hanging from them—“a lot of research and innovation which ultimately looked beautiful”.
Beautiful is a word Gutgutia uses often, perhaps a by-product of his work, which is centred around appearances—gifts, flowers and weddings. He made ₹50,000 from that wedding, a huge leap from his daily sales of ₹2,000-3,000, and it opened another window of opportunity. Gutgutia’s business partner, Manoj Chopra, moved on in 1996, leaving him to manage the store and the wedding business. He built a team, his wife pitched in after his partner left, and “we started our journey of survival”, Gutgutia says.
He realised that families, particularly nuclear families, struggle with the rituals for funerals—and stepped in to provide professional help for a smoother experience. He wants FnP, which has 750 employees in offices across India, to be “a part of peoples’ lives from birth, through marriage and death”.
“The space that suits me is one that’s probably small for big businessmen and big for small individuals. I fill the space in between—neither too small nor big. That works for me because I am not too organised or unorganised—a beautiful mix of both,” says the nature-loving traveller whose favourite destination is the Andaman islands.
His strength, Gutgutia says, is that he plans well. But he is a poor executor who cannot do the day-to-day things. “I will make a mess of it because I will get too involved. If you water a plant too much, it will not survive. I do the smart calculations well. I am a people’s person. I have been able to handle talent well and used their strengths—that has helped my career.”
Along the way, there were some missteps, which have helped to keep him grounded. There was a time when his shop was sealed by the municipal corporation and he had to sell on the roadside outside the building, nurturing those perishable products in the heat. In another instance, their warehouse got burnt on Diwali day because of a firecracker; they lost wedding set-ups, props and linen just before the season kicked in.
The worst was when recognition led to overconfidence—he had bought a house, a couple of cars, and thought he had arrived because “whatever I touched turned into gold”. He started a business, Chatak Chat, to bring the roadside snack into a boutique shop. It was perhaps a hasty decision or a quick expansion, he feels. It led to the worst three years of his life, from 2007-10, as the food venture turned sour.
“I learnt a lot—whatever I am today, I owe it to that failure, that hardship. The biggest learnings were that you must have a driver in place before you buy a car, you must know the market and grow gradually.
“I was young, easy-going, making money from weddings, but was not a cultured, organised businessman. Those three years were like going to a school called struggle. It taught me to handle manpower, what it means when people talk well of you…. I rediscovered myself, made weddings and flowers my core business. I have never deviated from it since.”
Their website, launched in 2002, allowed them to become aggregators, thanks to the many shops in many cities. It was a move that has borne handsome fruit nearly two decades down the line.
“I was a florist for a long time, sitting in a shop and delivering. I knew the pulse of the client and what she expects. Because we were online-offline together, it helped us because we had the people who knew the culture of delivering,” says Gutgutia, whose teenage daughter Mannat has also shown interest in some of their brands. The most significant day of sales for them is, quite obviously, 14 February, which is equivalent to adding another 20 days to the year, followed by Rakshabandhan.
The 26 years he has spent in the field have come with quirky experiences, like the time when a customer bought everything in the shop, Gutgutia laughs, because he got emotional and could not decide what to get. They have dealt with shy male customers who would send flowers without disclosing their identities, assuming for some reason that it was a subtle way of attracting a woman’s attention. On some occasions, girls’ parents have stormed the shop, demanding to know how FnP could send flowers without the sender’s name. “We are delivering emotions and emotions are of all kinds,” he says gently.
He likes to write, whenever he has the time, little nuggets for inspiration or poems that find their way into his social media accounts. Spending time by himself was “new fun” he discovered during the lockdown. But he is not a romantic, he states clearly. “My decisions are ruled by my head.”
Over the next two years, he hopes to invest ₹30 crore in technology and become “the Uber of gifting”, with one app that works across the world, delivering gifts anywhere. Their gifting repertoire has expanded to include, among other things, accessories, stationery, clothes, soaps, cakes and musicians on call. “My desire is to be the biggest gifting portal,” Gutgutia says. “Secondly, I want to spend my older days in a place which is the ultimate for destination weddings. That can be anywhere—depends on how you design it and make it.”
Arun Janardhan is a Mumbai-based journalist who covers sports, business leaders and lifestyle.