Our thrust will be on expanding Boroline, Suthol’s retail penetration: Debashis Dutta
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Does your flagship Boroline cream have a market outside West Bengal?
Boroline has always had a strong market outside West Bengal. But previously, say around 20 years ago, 60% of our revenue came from West Bengal. But now at least 65% of our revenue comes from outside West Bengal.
Which are the states where your products are doing well?
In the past 4-5 years, some states such as Maharashtra and Gujarat have done phenomenally well for us. In Mumbai alone, for instance, we have some 45 distributors now, up from just 10 six years ago.
The market for our products is spread across the country now, though there are still some states such as Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Telengana which are not doing as well as they should.
In nearby Kerala, we are doing very well. Also in Tamil Nadu, we used to have a very strong market previously—say in the 1970s.
What kind of distribution strength do you have now?
We have around 28 SKUs (stock keeping units) now. We don’t sell all of them nationally, but for our key products—the Boroline cream and the Suthol liquid—we have close to 2,400 distributors across the country.
What is the cream’s contribution to your revenue?
For years, we have been a one-product company. So clearly, the Boroline ointment’s contribution to our Rs150 crore revenue is still quite high at about 60%. But Suthol, which was launched in 2003, is fast gaining traction, and now accounts for about 30% of our revenue. Suthol sales are growing 20% year-on-year, while Boroline sales are growing 8%.
The balance 10% of our revenue comes from our other products—Eleen hair oil, Penorub pain reliving lotion and Glosoft face wash—most of which are sold only in West Bengal.
Within these categories, the Boroline cream sold in the tube is still the biggest. But our fastest growing SKU is the cream’s Rs10 tub.
What led to the launch of Suthol?
Around 2001, the company’s then chairperson, my mother, the late Bela Dutta, was bed-ridden. Soumitra Pal, one of our directors, suggested that we develop our own antiseptic liquid for her. What he came up with turned out to be very effective. So we decided to launch it commercially.
But when doing so, we decided to market it differently because the space for multipurpose antiseptic liquid was already taken by strong brands such as Dettol and Savlon.
We called Suthol an antiseptic skin liquid and positioned it as a solution for heat rashes. There were prickly heat powders in the market, but no liquid. So it took off immediately. Though Suthol has a wide variety of uses—you can, for instance, splash it to ward off mosquitoes—its sales are seasonal and are still dependent on how bad the summer is.
We are expanding the Suthol range: apart from three different fragrances, we have launched an alcohol-free variant. The response is very encouraging. So, we shall have more Suthol variants going alcohol-free.
At least two other product lines—Eleen hair oil and Penorub—have high brand recall, at least in West Bengal. Why are these not sold nationally?
It is by choice that we are not selling them nationally. Eleen was launched in the late 1990s and was our first diversification in many years. The product was designed keeping in mind the preferences of consumers in West Bengal in terms of texture and fragrance.
Penorub is not new to our portfolio—we used to have an ointment by that name previously. It was in demand but we had to phase it out in 1987-88 because of problems with procuring ingredients. In 2006-07, we re-launched it as a gel and towards the end of 2014, as a roll-on. We are working on other forms of packaging so that the lotion could be applied more effectively to relieve pain. To my mind, it will start to get traction in about one-and-a-half years, when we will look to launch it nationally.
What to your mind are your key strengths?
Our products and our people. We use natural ingredients in all our products—nothing synthetic at all. Add to it our ability to develop new products in-house. We have a team of 14 led by my wife Mahashweta Dutta dedicated to product development. And we have made sure that our successful products are consistent—they don’t change.
Detractors say Boroline is a sticky ointment. We agree Boroline is ultra rich and will always be so. And because of its thick texture, it is so effective in treating dry skin. We advise people to use it at night.
Consistency in quality is so important to us that in the early 1990s—in 1998 or 1999—we had to suspend production of Boroline because our fragrance supplier was not being able to supply ingredients of the same quality as it previously did. We suffered an outage of at least three months before we could find a new supplier who could produce the same fragrance. Most of our suppliers today are family owned enterprises. The common trait between us and our suppliers is our commitment to product consistency.
Our people are just as important to us as our customers. We have around 250 employees now, and on average, they have put in 10-15 years each in our company. If you consider the people in senior management, that number is going to go up manifold. Our directors, for instance, have worked in this company for over 30 years.
What is your experience of dealing with labour unrest in West Bengal?
Yes, we have had issues with workers in our unit here, which was commissioned in 1988. And even previously, when we used to operate out of a rented facility in north Kolkata.
But our policy has been very simple: never reach out to people outside the company to resolve labour disputes. Because we believe that our workers have the same goal as the management—for mutual benefit, the company must prosper. Sometimes, it took time, but we have settled all our disputes internally.
To be fair, labour issues started to come down at the turn of the century but overall industrial environment improved significantly only since Mamata Banerjee came to power in 2011.
You have led the company for 15 years. Where do you see this company headed in the days ahead?
We enjoy a great deal of goodwill in consumers’ mind. But market dynamics are changing, and the art of marketing goodwill is changing with every passing day. Our thrust going forward will be on expanding retail penetration. Whereas previously, we would deal with say one or two distributors in a whole district, we now need to reach out to several distributors even in villages.
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Alongside, we would also want the export market to open up and launch new products. Our products are sent overseas by traders, but going forward, we would want to do it ourselves.
Homoeopathy may turn out to be an interesting opportunity in the future as we are looking to position ourselves as a healthcare company.