Binod Chaudhary, the only billionaire entrepreneur from Nepal—who is best known for starting instant noodle brand Wai Wai—says that 2020 was a mixed bag for his group of companies which straddle construction, hospitality, wellness, and FMCG products.
Chaudhary, whose CG Corp Global is one of the largest management contract partners with Indian Hotels Company Limited (IHCL, which runs the Taj group of hotels), also operates hotels under the Fern, Zinc, and Beacon brands, with 78 properties and 4,260 keys. Chaudhary says that while the last year was particularly bad for hospitality, he had expected more resilience from the Indian market and was surprised at the downturn that ensued as fast as it did.
The group’s food division, meanwhile, has invested over ₹100 crore to expand production of its food business in Rajasthan and plans to roll out a series of products across different food and beverage categories in the coming months. Those will include the launch of Wai Wai hot sauces, which would be available in the market by February. In an interview with Fortune India, Chaudhary holds forth on business and expansion plans, among other things. Edited excerpts:
How was business for you last year in India?
We did well in one business which is the truly instant food business. Noodles, which you don’t even have to cook. Those who were locked in consumed it in large quantities and we saw at least 50% growth in sales which is close to ₹1,000 crore in the top line, up from ₹700 crore in 2019. India sees sales of around one billion packets, which is 1% of total global consumption. Our total sales are at around 3 billion packets. Hospitality was on the other hand for us a really unthinkable year. And while our partnerships are very strong (we are arguably IHCL’s largest partner globally with 10 hotels), 2021 we think, will see us survive happily.
Given that your food business has not disappointed you, do you plan to grow it further given that a one-product brand is hard to push?
We aim very shortly to launch hot sauces that include green and red, Chinese-style sauces, instant pasta, and new biscuit brands—some of which will start from February and onward. We are very keen to pursue an IPO for the food business. The timing is right and the capital markets are looking great.
As a foreign investor who has operated companies here for over three decades what is your summary analysis of India as an investment destination in the last couple years?
I was not expecting to see India decline as fast as it did and was expecting more resilience. The slowdown will continue to haunt Indian business for a while and it will lag behind its peer group in terms of perception. The thing is that you have to have measures that work and are put in place by the government so as to create and stimulate demand. That demand won’t grow unless you address the matter of jobs and incomes. India is a top priority and we would like to grow much faster here.
Are you planning further expansion for hospitality in India?
We have a concept of holistic medical wellness resorts called the Farm that we operate around the world. We have been invited by the Uttaranchal government to see if we can run one here and are also scouting other sites in Goa and Kerala—we are exploring those but haven’t made a final call yet. We remain open for anything that is compelling for the Farm concept that has worked very well in other markets.
Your home country Nepal, like Bhutan, is wedged between two large competing economic giants—China and India. What’s it like doing business in that position ?
Yes we are stuck between two giants in Asia and both have strength but we can’t thrive unless there is some harmony between the both. China makes hardware and India software, so it is like China is the factory of the world for hardware and India is the same for software. Some day politics will leave business and you will see economics rule the agenda and ideally I would like to see Nepal play the critical role of a bridge and bring in two giant strengths together.