AT HIS RATHER MODEST office in the commercial district of Navrangpura in Ahmedabad, Adani Wilmar’s MD and CEO, Angshu Mallick, shows a packet of ready-to-consume fried rice mix. “All you need to do is micro- wave it for a couple of minutes and it will be ready to eat. It also has a six-month shelf life,” he says excitedly. Though the partly cooked fried rice mix is still a while away from launch, Mallick’s portfolio already has an array of convenience foods such as Punjabi khichdi mix, pav bhaji khichdi mix as well as Bengal’s famous bhog khichdi mix.
“Unlike earlier, when my mother or wife spent hours making these goodies in the kitchen, my daughter wants to be out of the kitchen in minutes. It is this generation of consumers who don’t have time and seek convenience that I want to target. In my pav bhaji khichdi, for instance, I have fortified it with nutrients such as flax seeds and jowar, which are not readily available in one’s kitchen,” says Mallick.
Mallick intends to do the same to other staples such as dal, besan and atta in the near future, but this is the tip of the iceberg for the ₹51,879 crore food business of the Adani Group. India’s largest edible oil company processes 2.5 million metric tonnes of oil every year (soyabean oil, palm oil, sunflower, mustard, groundnut, cottonseed and blended oils under the Fortune brand), and is now targeting branded sugar, atta, dal and besan.
Despite a flurry of advertising of atta brands on various media platforms only 11%-12% atta is branded. Among other staples, 95% of sugar and 92% of pulses are sold loose, while only 5% of the total rice (mostly basmati) sold is branded. “This is where India needs a change,” points out Mallick.
He believes with GDP growth likely to be stable at 7-8% for the next few years, Indian consumers will earn enough to afford healthy and branded food products. With hardly any national player barring ITC in the staples business, the opportunity is huge. After all, the per capita consumption of rice in India is 55 kg and for wheat it is 60 kg. An average Indian consumes 24 kg sugar per year and 22 kg pulses, but none of these categories has brands of scale.
The Ahmedabad-headquartered FMCG company, which reported a 45.50% year-on-year increase in total income in FY22 and a 10.33% rise in net profit, entered the Fortune 500 list after 2011, thanks to a public issue in February through which it raised ₹3,600 crore.
The key ingredient to run a successful staples business is a sharp understanding of scale. “We don’t talk kilos because we have grown with an understanding that volume is what we can play well. That is why we talk only in metric tonnes,” says Mallick, who expects Adani Wilmar to grow 40% year-on-year on the back of staples.
Scale is important even while choosing categories. The company has ventured into multiple categories (atta, besan, rice, sugar, etc.) since a basket of products, especially in a category like staples, gives a company better economies of scale. “The same buyer who buys soyabean for me also buys wheat. He buys wheat from March to July, and from September it’s the time for soyabean. Similarly, October to March is paddy time in Punjab and Haryana, so buyers who are buying paddy can also buy wheat. This reduces cost of operations significantly.”
The company has set up integrated production facilities as well. “We process oil, besan, rice and dal in the same facility. The same factory manages everything, we have the same security guards, same laboratory and same quality control people for all the products. It reduces the cost of production since it eliminates many common costs.”
Cost efficiency becomes extremely important since the goal is to offer good quality products at value-for-money pricing. “We always think how to supply the wheat flour cheaply, where can I buy wheat cheap and where should I put my factory so that I am nearer the consumer. These are the ways we can save. When I charge more, I am increasing my price against the local price. The idea is to fight with the locals at their price, but with better quality,” explains Mallick.
Costs can be controlled not only at the procurement and manufacturing levels, but also in the supply chain. Adani Wilmar has the same supply chain for all its products. “When my retailer and distributor are the same, the distributor’s salesman is also the same. The salesman cost is divided, it’s the same truck which transports all the products and this reduces the cost of distribution and transportation. When all these costs come down, I can pass it on to my customer. She gets better quality, consistent products at the cost of the chakki. That’s the rule of the game.”
Consistency Is Key
Adani Wilmar has 5,500 distributors across the country, and rural India contributes 35% of its sales. Over 40% of branded besan and 15-20% of branded atta sales come from rural India. One of the key reasons, says Mallick, is consistency of products.
“The hallmark of commodity business is consistency. In India, consistency is a challenge. Most players have little inventory, they buy from different markets, process and give it to consumers. The atta or besan you buy from a local brand may not taste and feel the same when you buy it the next time round. I have already bought 80% of my annual requirement this year. The remaining 20% I buy on the spot, blend it and give. Therefore, my quality will remain the same throughout the year,” he adds.
“In food, the game is your ability to understand the grain,” claims Mallick. “The reason why you have not seen any national brand in the staples category is because they don’t have the resources to buy wheat or rice during the season and keep it for 12 months.”
Though the Ahmedabad-based food major is upbeat about staples, it continues to get its bread and butter from the 24-year-old edible oil business. That part of the business hasn’t been particularly easy, thanks to the geo-political crisis and the subsequent inflation.
“One can’t predict the geo-political environment or exchange rates. Also, the government pushed us to reduce prices since we are market leaders. Sometimes you have to forgo profits for the larger interest of the country. However, we are confident of coming back. October and November have been extremely good months,” says Mallick.
As far as disruptions caused by the Russia-Ukraine war are concerned, Mallick finds himself better off than peers, thanks to the joint venture with Wilmar. “It has large palm plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia. Nobody has a better understanding than Wilmar as to how the palm production is shaping, how much oil we will get. They are also the largest soyabean buyer in the world and largest processors of soyabean oil. They have factories in Russia and Ukraine, so they knew the status of the oil. Thanks to Wilmar, we got to know early on that from Ukraine the stocks have gone to Romania and our buyers have got it from there.”
Mallick is relieved that market shares have remained intact even though P&L had to take a hit. “It is market share which will take you ahead and not P&L. It’s better to hold on and not make too much profit one quarter rather than lose market share.” Consumers may have slightly reduced stock-keeping units (SKUs) in the rural areas or downgraded their brand, but Mallick claims they haven’t drastically cut down on consumption. “Around 29% have downgraded to a less expensive brand of oil.” But Wilmar’s mid-market brands such as Kings and Aadhar, which earlier grew by just 8-9%, have witnessed a 18-20% growth, he adds.
“There is nothing called recession in the staples business. There is no demonetisation or inflation impact.” If properly managed, staples are the safest businesses to be in, he signs off.