By Venkatachari Jagannathan
At P. Jeevanantham's chain of retail outlets selling Indian spices and other food items in Russia, Russians are his major customers and not Indians.
No, his Russian customers are not cooking Indian food at their homes, but buy the spices for their medicinal properties. "When I started the Indian Spices Shop in early 1990s, my customers were largely Indians-students and others-who bought the items for cooking. But with the reduction of Indian population due to economic reasons, the ratio of Indian-to-Russian customers reversed," Jeevanantham told this visiting IANS correspondent.
"The Russians do their research on the internet on the natural remedies for some ailments and come here to buy the spices. Recently, a Russian asked for gymnema leaves having anti-diabetic properties which were shipped to him from India," he added.
Born and raised in Madurai, Jeevanantham owns and runs a chain of seven Indian Spices Shop outlets-five of them in Moscow, one each in St. Petersberg and Tver. He has also promoted a hotel by name Amil in Rajapalayam in Tamil Nadu. "The retailing business growth is good. We clock around 20 percent annual growth. The Indian hotel is also picking up business with occupancy going up at a steady pace," he said.
Jeevanantham landed in Moscow then the capital of undivided Soviet Union for a masters in agriculture.
"As the education was in Russian language we had to study the language for a year and then join the main course," he recalled. According to him, vacations were spent in London working in retail outlets there.
"I used to see many Indians in London buy spices and other things at the retail outlets. Though at that point of time there were many Indians living in Moscow and in other parts, there was no outlet catering to our needs," Jeevanantham said.
During early part of the 1990s there used to be around 12,000 Indians in Moscow. Indians also lived in other parts of the then Soviet Union. "It was then I wondered about the business opportunity for selling Indian spices and other food items for the Indian community in Russia. In order to cook our food we used to bring the ingredients in bulk from India. At that time there were other Asian nationals in Russia apart from Indians and other foreigners," he said.
According to him, at that time India mainly shipped pepper and curry leaves to Russia for industrial/bulk users and not for retail customers. The idea of starting an Indian store started gaining roots in his mind and partnering with his friend M. Athimoolam set up his first store in Moscow at the People's Friendship University in 1994. The initial investment was around $300 and the outlet catered to the Indian and other Asian students.
While the break-up of the Soviet Union impacted the business initially with the size of the Indian community in Russia going down, the sales started to pick up after some period.
"Russians turned out to be our major customers now. Post the break-up of the Soviet Union, many Russians started going out to other countries and started tasting different cuisines. And on their return to Russia they started looking out for ingredients," Jeevanantham said.
But life was not easy for Jeevanantham after the Soviet Union break-up, the following ruble devaluation in 1998.
"My bank collapsed and along with that went my savings. I also suffered a big loss due to burglary at my home," he said.
Focussing his energies he stabilised the operations and started expanded his product range by including items bought by Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Mexicans and others. Along the line the number of outlets too started to increase.
Looking back, Jeevanantham recalls fondly his first full container load import from India that got sold out immediately. "That was a big event in my life. I was bit tense," he recalls.
While he imported assorted items earlier, today at times he imports a container load of single item. After selling third party brands, Jeevanantham last year started selling products under his own brand called Amil.
Speaking of business dynamics, Jeevanantham who is cagey in sharing financial figures said an outlet similar to his would need an investment of around $300,000 and would break even in around three years time. Agreeing that there further growth potential, he is bit reluctant to expand his chain or opening a departmental store. Jeevanantham follows a strange policy of being debt free and expanding the outlets through internal accruals and own funds.
"Somehow I do not like to borrow from the banks. I had to resort to borrowing only for the hotel project in Rajapalayam as the cost exceeded the expectations," he said. The 52 room star hotel in Rajapalayam a field that is entirely new to him. "I hired a consultant who chalked out the path. I wanted to have a hotel and decided to venture into this segment," he remarked.
The hotel involving an outlay of around Rs.20 crore opened last December and is fast picking up.