William Bissell's War Against Junk Food

Fabindia's Managing Director is expanding his organic food business in a scale never seen before

Prince Thomas
Updated: Oct 8, 2012 01:14:09 PM UTC

Despite the seemingly royal linkages of my first name, I like to see life from the back bench. While studying it helped when lectures were unending but later I realized it also worked as a corporate reporter. It gives a clear view of both the performer and the viewer; of the 360 degree perspective and the minute detail. Now while tracking the world of business for the pages of Forbes India as Senior Assistant Editor, I will use this space to share what I observe from that rear seat.

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William Bissell, managing director of FabIndia, feels strongly about the food on the shelves of modern retail.  “Our body is not designed to eat most of the junk food that is passed on today by companies. Some of the products on the shelves of supermarkets have a two-year expiry period! Our body is designed for fresh food, produced locally,” says Bissell, who has been selling organic food, with varying success, for seven years.

Better known for selling ethnic clothing, he is now looking at expanding the food business on a scale never seen till now in India. Industry grapevine says that he is busy sewing up a deal, that will give him direct access to about 100 acres of agriculture land in Uttar Pradesh. This will not only add more products to the 450 items of organic food that he already sells at Fabindia outlets, but will also see him bring fresh food to the shelves.

With the scaling up, Bissell is considering various formats, including exclusive organic food outlets or selling them under Fabindia brand in supermarkets- which would be a first for the company. This tie-up would be to sell fresh organic food products like vegetables and fruits.

For his food business, Bissell has a cardinal rule. “We will never sell a food product even if it has high margins and makes good business sense but is harmful for the body. Fabindia, with its social mandate, has remained profitable for 50 years and can continue to do so,” says Bissell, who is a converted vegetarian. “We waste a lot of grain in feeding cattle,” he says.

 Though the organic food segment contributes to only 5 per cent of Fabindia’s turnover now, at 40 per cent every year it is the fastest growing. The company now has about 25 vendors who work with the present community owned-companies, or CoCs (to understand more about them, read this story from the latest issue  ), to supply food products ranging from pulses, tea and ghee, to 167 Fabindia outlets.

But he doesn’t want to completely depend on the present vendors on future supply and this is where the access to 100 acres of farmland will become crucial. That might also be a necessity with Bissell also hoping to restart his organic Fab Cafés that he experimented and shut down 10 years ago. Though loyalists still swear by the cafes spread of salads and other organic food items, the concept didn't scale up as customers preferred "fried items" while venturing out of their home. With healthy food more in vogue now, Bissell hopes to fare better.

While Sunil Chainani, Executive Director of Fabindia, credits Bissell for “always thinking before the rest,” the organic food space is gaining traction and Fabindia's steps will be closely followed in the industry. Damodar Mall, a retail veteran with Future Group that has invested in another organic player Mother Care,agrees that the space lends itself to Fabindia’s brand. “At the same time, very few households in India exclusively eat organic food. The segment is nascent and will remain niche for the next five years.”

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