Wealth Issue 2017: Comeback Kids

Sohrab Sitaram, 41, CEO, Keventers

Page 1 of 1

‘Everybody was scared it wouldn’t work,’ says Sohrab Sitaram

How do you bring a company that is more than a hundred years old back to life? A company whose frothy milkshakes had satiated generations of Delhi residents, their flavours trapped within wide-mouthed bottles to be chugged back in the sweltering city heat. A company that slumped against the city’s newfound ostentation and lost out to glamourous fast-food outlets, heaving its last breath, one Rs 75-glass bottle at a time. Ask Sohrab Sitaram. Sitting across me at his office in Delhi’s South Extension, Sitaram, CEO and director of Keventers, the aforementioned milkshake company, toys with a gold-painted Keventers bottle while listing out his earlier job stints—from setting up restaurants for the Taj Group over six years to ambient establishments such as No Escape, Tabula Rasa and Chi Asian Cookhouse. This was until Agastya Dalmia, third-generation scion of the Dalmia family that owns Keventers, and his partner Aman Arora approached him to run the company that was in dire need of a revival. This was back in 2014. He signed on.

Sitaram, it turns out, was once a musician. He was with a blues band called Estranged. “When you play alone, you don’t have much, maybe a song or two in your pocket. But in a band, you learn everything,” says the 41-year-old, his hands rising to air guitar the point, “from timing to tempo, to suspended chords. You play the same song a little differently. You even improvise on stage so that the audience doesn’t catch that chord or two that you missed.” Keventers’ revival story is one that has had its own tuning and fine-tuning, creating a fusion appeal that stirs nostalgia among the old while grabbing millenial interest with its classic aura. From ‘that milkshake my dad told me about’ to a hip, with-it brand, Keventers has stormed retail zones, rising from a handful of outlets in Delhi to almost 200 across India. “In fact, we are growing by 20 outlets a month,” says Sitaram.

The story of this brand goes back to 1925 when Swedish dairy technologist Edward Keventers established a dairy company in India, starting with farms in Aligarh, Delhi, Calcutta and Darjeeling. In the 1940s, industrialist Ram Krishna Dalmia of the Dalmia-Jain Group acquired the Delhi plant, then located in Chanakyapuri, and set up 48 distribution outlets across the city. In the 70s, the Government requisitioned land in the area for diplomatic enclaves, leading to the closure of the farm. The business slowly began to trail off. A relaunch attempt was made in 2014, but it did not achieve much.

That’s when Dalmia and Arora struck a partnership deal with Sitaram, who took a small stake in the venture and threw all his entrepreneurial energy into turning the brand around. The relaunch of 2015 saw Keventers expand its retail footprint to cover some 160 outlets across the country.

The story might be the stuff of a business fairytale, but for Sitaram, it has changed the direction of his life. The son of an army aviation officer, he grew up in many parts of India—from Ranchi and Srinagar to Gangtok and Bagdogra—experiencing a wide range of cultures. “This has been my biggest advantage,” says Sitaram, whose family hails from Dehradun. He briefly contemplated a career as a fighter pilot, but weak eyesight nipped those dreams. His grandfather, who was a businessman, made him look at career options that could be pursued closeby and he joined the Institute of Hotel Management, Aurangabad.

Once in that arena, his first professional role was at the Taj Group. “I always thought that India lacked good restaurants. At the Taj, my job was essentially to go and set up new restaurants; not conceptualise them, but operationalise and set them up. I oversaw about 15-16 properties at Taj across India and Sri Lanka,” he says. While Taj properties catered to an upscale clientele, he saw a market gap in ‘regular’ dining. “Stand alone restaurants were hardly on the scene back then. There was nothing for youngsters either. I remember coming back from Colombo and realising that Delhi has none of the life and advantage that the port city had. Even Mumbai and Bengaluru were booming,” he says. And so came No Escape in 2000, a night club that introduced Delhi to House music (“People only listened to Bollywood back then”). It ran for three years before Sitaram moved on to his next venture, a lounge bar called Shalom in Greater Kailash I, following it up with Laid Back Waters, Tabula Rasa, Chi Asian Cookhouse (where he is still a partner) and Chatter House, among others. It was Tabula Rasa that was his biggest risk. “Everybody told me that ‘You can’t open a lounge-cum-night club in a mall’. We did exactly that. Now everybody is doing that and a lot of sales come from there,” he says. In 2010, Sitaram went on a month-long project with Armin van Buuren, a globally renowned DJ, for a company that wanted to float nightclubs across Europe and India with Buuren. Before Keventers, Sitaram’s reputation was essentially that of a ‘collaborative food entrepreneur’ with a sharp eye trained on the food and beverage industry.

Keventers was primarily a Delhi brand. People said, ‘If it goes to Bengaluru, God knows what will happen.’ In Mumbai, nobody had even heard of it

Keventers, then, would be no different. Or would it? When Dalmia and Arora approached him with an offer to take charge of the business, he hadn’t even heard of the brand. “I had to do some research and that’s when I realised that it’s a formidable company,” he says, “I was always into the alcohol business, so I initially introduced them to a few consultants. But that didn’t work out either.” Dalmia and Arora’s Pitampura relaunch in 2014, which had them serving milkshakes in plastic cups, did not last even a year. “The branding was bad. The product itself wasn’t nice,” says Sitaram. He was approached again, this time with the offer that he could head the company and pick up an equity stake. Sitaram eventually joined as a partner with shares in it.

For a firm that had run things the same way for decades, Keventers was in a tough spot. The brand had heritage value alright, but desperately needed the patronage of the young. “These guys kept saying GenX-GenX, that ‘Everybody knows Keventers’, ‘Our dads have heard of Keventers’, and so on. I told them that they are not the market, right? We’ll have to do everything again. What we did was... forget those who already know Keventers. We looked at people who don’t know the brand. That’s how we made it aspirational,” he says. Keventer’s rejuvenation began with revising the product strategy—the flavours, not just traditional ones, but those that could woo a new generation’s palate: its extravagant Mint Oreo Crumble, for example, or Caramelo.

The next gig was public engagement. “Today, if you look at Keventers, so many people are sharing pictures of our shakes on Instagram. A lot of effort went into figuring out what it would take for people to take to social media. The problem with the younger generation is that they move away very quickly. So how do we make them stay?” The answer was to keep the packaging of the product—the glass bottle—dynamic and trendy. Every city now has its own iconography on it. For unique occasions, the brand has special limited-edition prints. Sitaram tugs at a friendship band around his wrist with ‘#Keventers’ on it: “This was there on all the bottles on Friendship’s Day this year.” The designs are customised for overseas distribution too. In Kenya, the bottles have printed animals, while in Dubai, it’s the city’s skyline or camels. “We turned it into a product that you would want to collect. You want to be global, which you accomplish by picking up a Keventers bottle wherever you go. And this is how the idea of Keventers being a global brand came up,” he says. Key to this design makeover, especially in India, was to do away with cliched imagery and iconography, such as people doing namaste. A design firm called We Are Animals and designer Som Sengupta from Zeppelin Design & Environments created the edgy look.

As an organisation, Keventers started small. It was a three- person team in a shared office space in Shahpurjat, where there were frequent tussles over the conference room. “I was doing everything, from creating training manuals to punching in the receipts when the purchase guy wouldn’t turn up,” says Sitaram with a laugh. Today, the firm has a corporate team of over 85 across India, with offices in South Extension and Okhla, and even a wing in Dubai. “Most importantly, this is the money which we have infused from our internal accruals.... We didn’t start with a large capital base, we just kickstarted it with very few people. Also, this kind of investment is huge. We thought we can put in a certain amount of money and franchise it, and then earn and raise more money without diluting the brand. In the franchise model, a lot of time the franchisee is not happy, but in this case, 95 per cent of our franchisees are making fantastic EBIDTA margins. And when you make money, you don’t mind sharing money, right? So yeah, this is our secret: we share money and people share it with us. We’ve hardly had any outlets shutting,” he says.

There were naturally fears before the 2015 relaunch at Saket’s Select CityWalk mall. “Everybody was scared because Keventers is primarily a Delhi brand. People said, ‘If it goes to Bengaluru, God knows what will happen.’ In Mumbai, nobody had even heard of Keventers. Incidentally, Mumbai and Bengaluru have had the highest sale outlets, much more than Delhi. Chennai is doing more than Delhi, and so is Kanpur. It’s surprising,” he says. Delhi has over 60 outlets, while Bengaluru has 28 and Mumbai has 14. There are outlets in Dubai, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal. An overwhelming response encouraged them to swiftly expand to Africa, with plans for the US and Europe drawn up. “Indians are everywhere,” says Sitaram, with a chuckle, “Wherever the Indian diaspora is, we will be there.” The second criterion for expansion is a tropical climate conducive to guzzling chilled beverages. Former British colonies are deemed ideal. “We have a strategy that links up the heritage of British rule with the heritage value of Keventers. It’s just common sense, or as I call it, Kendriya Vidyalaya education,” he says.

The brand is also set to make its presence felt in Tier-2 and Tier-3 cities. “Any successful model has to be a scalable model. Nighclubs and restaurants aren’t scalable. A few, like Social, are, but they are liquor oriented. But in India, liquor is such a taboo subject and with the highway ban, it’s been hit by major losses. However, casual dining or Quick Service Restaurant models, where even a chef is not required, are scalable. And that is why we have a simple model for milkshakes: milk, ice-cream and syrup. For classic shakes, we have maintained the original ingredients.” Of course, standardisation is essential to a brand such as Keventers. “The flavours will be the same across the world. They are our flavours, made in India with the help of global flavour- manufacturing companies,” he says.

The company has had an impressive jump in revenues, going from almost nothing in 2014 to 80 times the inflow this year. The Dalmias own most of the company, but Sitaram is content with his stake. “I got a new platform here,” he says. With no pre- existent models to go by, Sitaram’s dream of marketing a stand alone milkshake brand is within sight of fulfilment.

It has been challenging, but he has the satisfaction of having an unlikely brand make a significant mark in the Indian food and beverage market. “We’ve had brands [that had] shakes on their menu,” he says, but, “the format of a milkshakes-only brand was nowhere before this; it was only flavoured milk. We have changed the milkshake market.”