Over the ages, people have been obsessed with the quest for beauty and eternal youth. It is said Cleopatra bathed in the milk of asses. And Mary Queen of Scots washed her face with white wine. And in India, Ayurvedic beauty company Forest Essentials buries dates and litchis under a banyan tree to ferment to make its Eternal Youth anti-ageing cream. Ancient Ayurvedic wisdom says that under the shade of the banyan tree, the fruit ferments at a certain pace. If there is too much sun, it will ferment too quickly; if it doesn’t have enough, it ferments slowly. And while workers at the Forest Essentials factory are mixing the ingredients for the cream—described as an ancient formulation from the early 17th century—they chant special mantras. “It’s for positive vibrations. I have been asked over the years, ‘Do they really do this chant?’ They really do. It imbibes the energy into the product,” Mira Kulkarni, chairman and managing director of Mountain Valley Springs, the parent company of Forest Essentials, tells me in an interview at her home in Panchsheel Park, an upscale New Delhi neighbourhood.

Sceptics might dismiss the chanting as nothing more than mumbo-jumbo. But the soft-spoken Kulkarni has clearly cracked the magic formula. The 63-year-old fine arts graduate started the company at the onset of the millennium with just some handmade soaps first given to family and friends. It was a small personally funded project that went back to the roots of Ayurveda with a manufacturing unit in a remote village called Lodsi in the Tehri Garhwal region of Uttarakhand. One of the first things she did was buy an old-fashioned oil press which, she says, no one knew how to use. All of the processes were driven by hand, including traditional pounding of herbs, pressing of oils, and rolling of incense sticks. In 2002, Forest Essentials received its first small institutional order from the Hyatt Regency, New Delhi.

Today, Kulkarni has a huge portfolio of carefully curated creams and lotions made from natural ingredients such as roses shipped from Kannauj, lemongrass from Ooty, and sandalwood from Mysuru. Her products, ranging from the date and litchi cream to a 24-carat-gold-based Soundarya Radiance cream, are sold across 70 stores in India. And her list of clients includes big hotel chains like Taj Hotels, The Oberoi Group, The Ritz Carlton, and The Four Seasons. A lime, tulsi, and narangi range is specially blended for The Oberoi Group; Taj Hotels has a special aloe vera and neem range; and the Marriott uses a bitter orange and cinnamon collection. Forest Essentials also supplies to the Rashtrapati Bhavan. Mountain Valley Springs posted total revenues of ₹177 crore in 2017-18, up from ₹137.4 crore the previous year, according to financial data from business intelligence platform Tofler. “Forest Essentials has an emotive appeal and an emotive quotient which is very distinctive, which is very related to the earth. Anything that has to do with the water, forest, earth, mud, green, organic, handmade has got fantastic potential,” says brand expert Harish Bijoor.

As it’s grown over the years, New Delhi-based Forest Essentials has been shipping its cosmetics to more than 120 countries. And now it is readying to go global by opening stores abroad and partnering with high-end department stores such as Harrods and Selfridges. It is in the process of getting EU and USFDA certification and sewing up partnerships for countries where it cannot open standalone stores. It plans to launch its global operations next year. Samrath Bedi, Kulkarni’s son and the company’s executive director, is confident the brand will work overseas. Bedi cites online sales as a vote of confidence in Forest Essentials: “There are lots of repeat customers. And it is not just the usual suspects like Japan, the U.S., and the U.K. We are getting orders from Nigeria and all kinds of places. There is a market out there. These are countries we haven’t marketed in.”

The fact that Forest Essentials already has a partnership with luxury giant Estée Lauder will help its global expansion plans. In 2007, Estée Lauder picked up a 20% stake in the Indian firm, its first investment in India. Daniel Rachmanis, president, Latin America, The Estée Lauder Companies, who sits on the Indian firm’s board, says his company has collaborated with Forest Essentials to ensure the brand equity, identity, and operations are on track for international expansion. “To help grow the brand and to propel it on the international stage, we are working together to ensure that the brand is prepared from a global regulatory perspective, and preparing plans for expansion into foreign markets. Forest Essentials’ Ayurvedic roots are aligned with global consumers’ preferences for health and wellness,” Rachmanis told Fortune India in an e-mail. “We have already identified potential distribution opportunities by leveraging our global network of partners in international markets... We believe that we can help in even more ways to leverage our global go-to-market capabilities, which have helped our brands such as Estée Lauder, Clinique, Bobbi Brown, La Mer, MAC, and Jo Malone London become global powerhouses.”

But how did an Ayurveda brand started by an entrepreneur with no business degree or experience become one of the most popular Indian luxury skincare brands? Kulkarni attributes it to her instincts: “It wasn’t a business, it never started as a business. It never even evolved as a business until much later.” Soon after she set up the company, Kulkarni opened her first standalone store in Delhi’s Khan Market, one of the world’s most expensive retail locations. She decided to take the leap despite the high rent. She remembers the first time the store ran out of its stock, they had to shut it down for two days to replenish. “We had no idea of the supply chain, we didn’t even know how to outfit the store. We didn’t know how to replenish,” she says.

The advent of the company coincided with massive changes in the Indian market. In the first decade post-liberalisation, the purchasing power of Indians started increasing. As disposable incomes increased, people could splurge on small luxuries such as premium cosmetics. It is not to say Indians didn’t have money to spend on luxury before that. There were always rich businessmen, maharajas, and wealthy landowners. But there was a new consumer in the market. So when Kulkarni decided to sell her handmade soaps for ₹100, a huge sum for soap at the time, there was no shortage of takers. She explains that there were always Indian women who would go abroad and spend a hefty ₹25,000 on a cream. “You still have those women and will always have those women, but the interesting thing is that a lot of the people who are buying our creams are people who were buying La Mer,” she says.

Bedi, who joined the business in 2003, says that in the early 2000s, the consumer was mostly attracted to Forest Essentials’ luxurious looking cream-and-gold packaging. However, today the consumer is a lot more aware and demanding. “From just looking at the product to smelling the product, then to understanding the product, today it’s actually what’s going into the product. [We are asked] ‘who are you, where do you make your products, who makes the product for you? Where is it coming from, are you using xyz ingredients in your product?’ ” he says.

The market for luxury has accelerated in the last decade. A Bain & Co. report says that since the beginning of the journey of liberalisation in 1991, the average Indian consumer has witnessed exponential growth in options available in every consumption category. Big malls have opened across cities; and luxury brands like Chanel and Gucci or departmental stores such as French cosmetics retailer Sephora have made their way to India.

A Deloitte report titled Global Powers of Luxury Goods 2019 says the luxury products market in India continues to experience a high growth rate. It says the market beyond major metros and a rise in the number of HENRYs (High Earners, Not Rich Yet) spending on luxury goods are largely responsible for the growth. “The income-earning capacity and the per capita income of a lot of people has increased. The scope of the luxury market is not necessarily with the rich but it is also with the high-earning, not so rich community,” says Anil Talreja, partner at Deloitte.

Image : Forest Essentials
What we have created as a category, it has a huge appeal worldwide. I think we have a billion-dollar brand in our hands.”
Samrath Bedi, executive director, Forest Essentials

Forest Essentials has definitely capitalised on the trend. With just the skincare market in India estimated at $1.8 billion, it has expanded beyond the metros to open shops in smaller cities like Indore, Bhubaneswar, Lucknow, and Kochi. It has thrived despite stiff competition in India’s around $4-billion Ayurvedic cosmetics market with newer players like Kama Ayurveda grabbing market share. Puig, a Spanish fashion and fragrance company, recently invested ₹100 crore for a minority stake in Kama.

As demand has grown, Forest Essentials has stepped up the pace of bringing out new products and increased R&D. Kulkarni says that earlier the company did not launch new products regularly, but now there is more pressure to keep reinventing the brand and a need for constant innovation. Bedi adds that the company has pumped up its R&D spends and team, which consists of Ph.Ds, doctors, and chemists who help with the formulations. “We do it based on trend; everything is based on an old Ayurvedic system but it is tweaked to put in a modern delivery system. That’s what we invented, that whole niche was to modernise Ayurveda. You get away from that old time-consuming process but keep the benefits. And then be able to use in a modern, easy-to-use method,” Bedi says.

Forest Essentials has also begun a project to create gardens for herbs across India. Anupam Kapoor, head of supply chain and manufacturing who joined last October, says the company is trying to aggregate land holdings so it can get a consistent supply of quality raw materials. The project, still at a nascent stage, will make the process of acquiring raw materials easier. “We don’t want to go to someone who does en masse, then we get mixed with the crowd and our essence gets lost somewhere. The solution to this is to work with small landowners, and see if at some level we can do an aggregation,” Kapoor says.

The global beauty, skincare, and cosmetics industry has undergone a sea change in recent years. Apart from Korean beauty fads and reality television star Kylie Jenner becoming a makeup mogul, there is also increased interest in natural products. The eternal hunt for the ultimate elixir for skin has also brought the West to the doorstep of the East. Coconut oil, Moroccan oil, and such products are now commonplace. That’s what Forest Essentials is hoping to cash in on. “The [products make up the] high-end market in India because these are expensive from an Indian standpoint, but when you use the same price point in U.S. dollars or British pounds, then it doesn’t appear to be that expensive for the consumer of that country,” says Talreja.

The competition will not be easy. There are already big brands selling natural and organic products in the same price category. Korean brands like innisfree are established players in the global skincare market, touted to be worth close to $220 billion by 2025. The consumer in the Western and some premier Asian markets is spoilt for choice. But Forest Essentials is unfazed. “What we have created as a category, it has a huge appeal worldwide. I think we have a billion-dollar brand in our hands,” says Bedi.

This story was originally published in the June, 2019 issue of the magazine.

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