Most wedding feasts of the early 1980s in the northern part of the country—think Punjab, Haryana, and thereabouts— would typically have a set of flavours in common: that of Rajni Bector’s ice creams, puddings, and salads with her signature dressings.

As she proudly proclaims, in the catering business world of Punjab and Haryana, she was the sole supplier of Western desserts and salads.

“I was catering to thousands of weddings in Ludhiana, Jalandhar, Amritsar, Ambala, and even Delhi, Dehradun, and Saharanpur. Back then there were no caterers who could provide these items to weddings and parties,” says Rajni Bector, founder and non-executive director, Mrs. Bectors Food Specialities Limited.

Four decades later, the biscuit-and-bakery firm started in her home kitchen in Ludhiana, Punjab, is India’s leading supplier of buns to quick-service restaurant (QSR) chains such as McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC, and Carl’s Jr. To boot, the company’s ₹541-crore blockbuster initial public offer (IPO) on the bourses (BSE and NSE) last December was oversubscribed by 198 times on the final day of bidding on December 17, reveals stock exchange data.

It reported the highest subscription among IPOs last year, outpacing the subscription figures of defence company Mazagon Dock Shipbuilders and Burger King India.

The company is also the second-largest exporter of biscuits in the global market, says Sagarika Mukherjee, vice-president at Elara Capital. “The fact that they are contract manufacturers for Oreo biscuits [owned by snack-food giant Mondelez] is a testament of their quality,” she says. Mrs. Bectors Food manufactures Oreo biscuits and Cadbury Chocobakes cookies on a contract basis for Mondelez India Foods which owns brands such as Cadbury, Bournvita, Halls, and Tang.

Image : Graphics by Rahul Sharma

How did a family-run business from Punjab become a national player, and make it to No.363 on the Fortune India Next 500 list this year? The answer lies in the intrepidness of its founder, Rajni Bector.

To start with, Bector was an outlier, defying many stereotypes. Back in Ludhiana in the late 1970s, a woman running a business was not encouraged in society. “People thought I was mad. I am just wasting time. But I never bothered. I had the confidence and the support of my husband and father-in-law,” the 80-year-old entrepreneur tells Fortune India. She was married at the age of 17 while still in her second year of college at Miranda House, New Delhi, and her husband worked in the family business of commodities trading.

Before marriage, though Bector wasn’t yet an expert at cooking or baking, she was no stranger to the kitchen either. “Cooking is in my genes,” she says. “My mother was a very good cook. I have learnt many recipes from her.” And she learnt well, considering that she has received a Padma Shri, India’s fourth-highest civilian award, in 2021 for her contribution to trade and industry.

It helped that Bector had a flair for food. In fact, after her children went to boarding school, she made use of her spare time to innovate on recipes. “My favourite pastime was to try out new dishes and feed people,” she laughs.

As her passion for cooking grew, she signed up for short-term vocational courses at the Punjab Agricultural University (PAU) including a dairy technology course to learn ice-cream making. While the college taught her how to make a basic vanilla flavour, she experimented with different toppings and developed about 40 flavours such as fresh mango, toasted almond cracker, mixed-fruit, and cherry on her hand-churning machine. “The Dean [S.C. Jain, who was a guiding force during her initial years] then from the home science college at PAU, who was a triple doctorate in ice cream production, was amazed to see my innovations,” Bector says.

Soon, her kitchen could no longer support her innovations. Her husband, also her sounding board for business advice, told her to set up a small unit in the backyard of their house and start a commercial business. “Since I was making everything with cream, I named it Cremica,” says Bector, who started Cremica in 1978 with an investment of ₹20,000, an amount gifted to her by her mother.

Image : Graphics by Rahul Sharma

Her business (of ice-cream manufacturing and baking at the time) started booming by the mid-1980s and she kept adding to her production capabilities in Punjab. By then, Bector’s two sons—Akshay and Anoop— had joined the business. Her eldest son, Ajay, joined in the mid-’90s.

Mrs. Bectors Food, which today commands a market capitalisation of over ₹2,300 crore, exports biscuits (under its flagship brand Mrs. Bector’s Cremica) to over 60 countries. The company has a pan-India distribution network across 23 states with about 644 distributors and a presence in over 458,000 retail outlets. It manufactures and markets a range of biscuit products carrying the Cremica brand, and breads and bakery items under the brand English Oven.

Vinita Bali, former managing director of FMCG major Britannia Industries, acknowledges the company’s growth trajectory, saying: “Cremica has, over the years, steadily extended and expanded its distribution reach, invested in innovation and quality enhancement, built both its B2B [business-to-business] and B2C [business-to-consumer] businesses, sharpened its supply chain, etc.” In other words, says Bali, Mrs. Bectors Food has worked on sharpening its business model. “It also operates in a space that is large and growing and yet has low per capita consumption, so all the ingredients for sustainable and profitable growth are in place.”

Image : Graphics by Rahul Sharma

The growth has been consistent over the last three decades but Anoop Bector, managing director, Mrs. Bectors Food, believes the turning point came in 1996, when it bagged the contract to supply McDonald’s with buns along with ketchup and toppings. This led to the company entering into two joint ventures (JVs): a 50:50 JV with Quaker Oats Company to supply ketchup, mayonnaise, tartar sauce, and other liquid condiments to the American fast food giant; and a JV with the U.K.-based EBI Foods Ltd. for manufacturing batter and breading pre-mixtures for McDonald’s. (EBI Foods was already working with McDonald’s internationally.) Less than a decade later, Mrs. Bectors Food bought out both the JV businesses, says Anoop (58).

The McDonald’s deal wasn’t a large opportunity financially, he points out, because McDonald’s was setting up their base in India at the time and the volume of business was small. “But we gained a lot in terms of technical training from the McDonald’s team in areas such as food safety, low-cost production and certification,” says Anoop. “We brought these skill sets to all our factories including bakery, biscuits, and cookies.” This gave them an edge over competition in a highly aggressive market where players can clone others’ offerings fairly quickly.

Image : Graphics by Rahul Sharma

According to an October 2020 report on the ‘Indian Biscuit and Bakery Industry’ by retail consultancy firm Technopak, in FY20, Parlé, Britannia, and ITC had a combined share of 57% in the premium and mid-premium biscuits market in North India, while Mrs. Bectors Food had 4.5% in the same segment. “The company has generated a great brand name in the north Indian market for their biscuits brand Cremica,” says Mukherjee of Elara Capital. “The word of mouth for their bread offering English Oven is strong and it is kept in all premium bakery and food outlets which also gives them high margins.”

Mrs. Bectors Food has recently started supplying its products to Swedish furniture retail giant Ikea as well as to American grocery store chain H-EB and to Dollarama, a retail chain in Canada. At present, exports contribute 22% of total sales for the company, followed by the branded bakery and QSR businesses at 17% each, while the rest of the revenue comes from the domestic biscuits business.

Suvir Bector (left) and his elder brother Ishaan Bector.
Suvir Bector (left) and his elder brother Ishaan Bector.
Image : Narendra Bisht

The growing demand is being met by Mrs. Bectors Food’s six manufacturing facilities, including three biscuit plants and three factories for bakery production. It now plans to utilise the funds generated through its IPO to finance the expansion of its manufacturing facility in Rajpura, Punjab. The company has also indicated its intent to set up a new production line for biscuits that is likely to cost ₹40.5 crore.

The management wants to give the bakery business a push as well. After all, the bread business has grown at a CAGR of 29% in the last three financial years under the leadership of Ishaan Bector, Anoop’s elder son. “In this current fiscal, we have grown by more than 40%,” says Ishaan, 31, director, Mrs. Bectors Food.

According to a brokerage report by Anand Rathi dated last December, English Oven is one of the fastest growing large-scale premium bakery brands in India. “We are innovating in bread with products such as croissants, shea butter bread, and sourdough bread. We are also exploring frozen desserts and bakery items such as chocolate lava cake and other types of cake at affordable prices,” says Ishaan, who supplies frozen bakery items to multiplex chain PVR Ltd and cloud-kitchen company Rebel Foods.

Ishaan and his younger brother Suvir, 26, vice president, exports, are part of the new generation of the Bector family that is taking Rajni Bector’s vision forward under their father, Anoop, who has led the listed entity over the last two decades.

In 2013, as part of a family settlement, the biscuits and bakery business was demerged from the condiments division. While Ajay and Anoop took charge of the biscuits and bakery units, respectively, the condiments business was given to Akshay. In 2015, Ajay sold his stake in Mrs. Bectors Food to start his own business.

Of course, continuing to lead by example is Rajni Bector, who shows no signs of slowing down. “Whenever any new product is to be launched in the market, I tell the team what is right and what is wrong in the product,” says the octogenarian. And why not? She is the one with the proven taste buds.

(The story originally appeared in Fortune India's March 2021 issue).

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