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Close to three decades after his trend-setting sale of his soft-drinks brands to Coca Cola, Ramesh Chauhan is set to repeat the trick. This time, it will be his packaged water business, led by category leader Bisleri, which will change hands. And both times, the buyer will be getting a dominant share of the market along with the brands.

The first time around, the winner was the Coca Cola Corporation, which picked up Chauhan’s soft drinks business for what now looks like chump change — $60 million. This time around, the winner is most probably Tata Consumer Products Limited, the beverages arm of the Tata Group which appears set to acquire Bisleri International, India’s largest packaged water company, for a reported 6,000 to 7,000 crore. Chauhan has confirmed that he is selling, but says the suitor hasn’t been finalised yet – talks have been on with the Tata Group for over two years, but others have been in the fray, including Reliance and Nestle.

Regardless, whoever bags Bisleri will be bagging a winner. The bottled water market in India was valued at $2,970.61 million in 2021, and is forecast to reach $8,923.84 million by 2029, according to the Trade Promotion Council of India. Chauhan’s Bisleri, the oldest packaged water brand in India – it was launched 27 years ago – is the market leader, with a share of over 40 per cent of the 35 billion litres per year market. For the Tatas, who are currently an “also ran" in the bottled water market, paying $740-825 million for a near half-share in a market which is expected to be $6 billion in size by next year is still a very good deal.

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But getting a winner does not automatically make one stay a winner. Simply having deep pockets is not enough for sustained success in the marketplace. Ask Coke. Despite making assiduous attempts to finish off the Chauhan brands — it throttled Gold Spot and tried to de-emphasise Thums Up and Limca in favour of its global brands Coke and Sprite — it failed to dislodge arch-rival Pepsi from the leadership position for years. Until it re-upped the Indian brands.

As Coke learnt, all its global experience and resources could not counter the market knowledge and understanding of the customer that an entrepreneur like Ramesh Chauhan brought to the table. It was only after it gave in and followed the Chauhan playbook in India that it managed to catch up and pass Pepsi. Today, both Thums Up and Limca are billion-dollar brands and Thums Up alone has a fifth of the entire carbonated beverages market!

Market leadership is built not just with technology and money, but requires that certain extra that entrepreneurs bring. Ask Rajeev Chandrasekhar, India’s junior minister for Electronics and Information Technology. In 2005, when he sold his majority stake in BPL Mobile to the Essar Group (who on-sold it to Vodafone) for a then record-breaking $1.1 billion, Chandrasekhar’s entrepreneurial drive had taken BPL Mobile from rank outsider to a leadership position in India’s mobile telephony market. It was the clear leader in what was then India’s biggest and most profitable circle, Mumbai, and a strong second in Delhi. Today, Vodafone India is fighting to hang on in the race, while Jio and Airtel slug it out.

Or take R Kalyanaraman, popularly known as ‘Good Knight Mohan’, the man who almost single-handedly created the household insecticide and mosquito repellent market in India. With a constant stream of innovations, from vaporisers to the ubiquitous ‘mats’, Mohan drove the Good Knight brand to undisputed market leadership. When Godrej acquired the company for 126 crore in 1995, it also got nearly 80 per cent of the market with it. Today, its share is whittled down to around 35 per cent, with a host of domestic and MNC players snapping at its heels.

Sustaining that entrepreneurial quality of innovation and risk taking in an environment of conglomerate corporatisation is going to be the biggest challenge for the Tatas, if and when they end up acquiring it. It was not just Chauhan’s ability to spot a market opportunity – back in the 1990s, the idea of paying for drinking water was alien to most Indians – but also the ability to build the network to service a market like India.

Bisleri’s success is not just because it was the first mover in the market, although that helped. It is also due to a network of 130 packers, over 5,000 distributors and more than 10 lakh consumer touch points that he built up over the past three decades. For the Tatas, getting this network will be the easy part – all they have to do is to persuade Chauhan to sign on the dotted line. Keeping it and growing it, however, will be another challenge altogether.

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