More than 130 years ago in the mid 19th century there was an Ayurvedic doctor named SK Burman who lived in Calcutta (now Calcutta). He often spent his days at home preparing medicines with various herbs and plants. Daktar (or Doctor) Burman, as he was affectionately called, worked tirelessly to produce Ayurvedic medicines to cure diseases such as malaria and cholera.
The success of these medicines, which were affordable, helped the poor a lot. There was a common belief in Ayurveda. Its herbal formulations, recorded in ancient texts, have been handed down orally for several generations. Daktar SK has taken it to another level by making it his calling. As his medicines began to treat more and more people in the city of Calcutta (now Kolkata), he thought of ways to reach patients in remote villages and towns. He came up with the idea of mailing his remedies to them. It worked.
He used the first two letters of the word Daktar and the first three letters of his last name to name the company he founded in 1884, and called it Dabur.
Over three decades later, in 1919, his son, CL Burman, created a unit to carry out research and development for drugs. CL also introduced machines to produce them. The business began to grow. More and more people have started using the products.
Gradually, CL Burman’s two sons Puran and Ratan Chand took over and divided the work. Puran took care of the manufacturing side, while Ratan made sure that the medicines sold well. Dabur started making amla hair oil in the 1940s, one of the first such products in the country. The business grew and so did the family. Three generations of the Burman family lived together in one house. There were seven families in total living under one roof. Although the families had different living spaces, they ate together every day. They often discussed ways and means to improve their business.
Each elder in the family groomed the younger ones to run the business. For many years this practice continued. Unfortunately, in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, Calcutta became a hotbed of political and social turmoil. The Naxalite movement was gaining momentum in West Bengal and the trade unions were becoming very assertive and sometimes aggressive. Workers began to view businessmen as their class enemies. Industries began to shut down. Many companies, such as the famous Birla Group and the State Bank of India have moved their headquarters out of Kolkata.
The Burman family also found it increasingly difficult to stay in the city. They decided to move north to New Delhi. Since 1972, Dabur has been based in New Delhi and the family has made the city their home.
In 1998, Dabur was being looked after by the fourth and fifth generation of the Burman family. They had started making many different products from hair oils to chyawanprash to toothpaste. The business flourished but not as fast as the family would have liked. They thought a lot about what to do to grow faster and decided to seek expert help.
They asked the global firm, McKinsey & Company, which came up with a highly unusual suggestion: the Burmese should relinquish control of the firm. This meant that the family would have to stop participating in the day-to-day running of the business. Instead, they should hire professionals from outside or inside the company to be the CEO, CFO, and so on.
Although they could not take salaries from Dabur, they would keep their shares in the company. The family would also retain their seats on the company’s board of directors and decide the overall vision for the company’s future.
The final decision on which new products to launch, in which towns or new cities to sell, in which locations to set up production facilities, and what quantities to produce would be made by professionals who did not belong to the family. This was a radical idea at the time. There were very few business families in India who had taken such a step. However, the Burmese accepted this suggestion.
It was difficult at first. There were teething problems with this new arrangement and many times the family’s resolve was tested. In 2009, when Anand Burman (the fifth generation) was the president of the company, he was asked to taste a new flavor of Hajmola during a meeting. Anand didn’t like the taste at all. However, he did ask the CEO, Sunil Duggal, what the candy research team thought. Sunil said the research team’s feedback was that the candy would sell well. So even though Anand didn’t like candy, Hajmola Mint was launched.
Dabur India is now headed by Mohit Malhotra and its president is Anand’s cousin Amit Burman. A management graduate from Pune University, Amit joined Dabur as a trainee in 1994 and was appointed its president in 2019.
The family has a council that acts as an interface between the Burmese and the Dabur council and management. They decide the strategy. Four Burmese family members Amit, Mohit, Aditya and Saket represent the family on the board of directors. Family members run their own businesses out of Dabur. It seems to have worked out well for Dabur, which is the largest Ayurvedic healthcare company in the world. It manufactures a wide range of consumer products in categories such as hair care, oral care, health care, skin care, home care and foods. The company has grown from a small manufacturing facility in a back street in Calcutta to 12 locations in India and eight overseas.
Dabur has over 250 herbal or Ayurvedic products in her kitty, including over-the-counter medicines like Dabur Honitus, a cough syrup, and Dabur Ashokarishta, a women’s health tonic. It mainly operates under five flagship brands: Dabur, as the main brand for natural health products; Vatika, for premium personal care; Hajmola, for digestives; Ral, for fruit juices and drinks; and Fem, for bleaches and skin care products. Its Ayurvedic products can be found in over 6.7 million outlets in more than 100 countries.
The family has demonstrated to the business community that sometimes it is best to detach from full management control by the entrepreneurial family for the greater good of running a large enterprise for the long term.
Retrieved with permission from They Meant Business: 50 Inspirational Stories From Indian Biz, Rosemary Marandi, Hachette India.
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