Mahashay Dharampal Gulati: How a horse-cart driver became India's spice king with MDH

A man ahead of his time, the ever-smiling nonagenarian who passed away on Thursday, built an enviable brand and ended up becoming the highest-paid CEO in the FMCG sector in India in 2017

Published: Dec 3, 2020 05:56:57 PM IST
Updated: Dec 4, 2020 12:32:57 PM IST

mahashay dharampal gulati_bg

Mahashay Dharampal Gulati, the chairman and subject of many of MDH's marketing campaigns, died on Thursday at 97, from a cardiac arrest.

Photo courtesy: MDH

India’s spice king is no more.

Mahashay Dharampal Gulati, the nonagenarian chairman of spice maker MDH Spices, who for long enthralled millions of Indians with his rather unique marketing campaigns, and even became the subject of many memes, passed away after a cardiac arrest on Thursday. He was 97. 

Gulati, often sporting a turban, hook moustache and spectacles, had been the group’s brand ambassador, appearing on every pack of masala sold by the company, and on television commercials for long. His smiling face, perhaps was also key in giving millions of Indians a much-needed assurance to buy the company’s range of products, making it the country’s second biggest company in the packaged spice market, after the Everest Group.

Today, MDH sells through some 1,000 stockists and over four lakh retailers across the world.

“He was three things rolled into one: Brand mascot, brand icon and brand ambassador,” says Harish Bijoor, who runs his eponymous brand consulting firm. “An icon who led from the front through every age. He stepped into the shoes of being a brand ambassador in an era when the phrase was yet to be coined and minted.”

MDH, short for Mahashian Di Hatti, offers 62 different spice products, ranging from turmeric powder to black pepper and biryani masalas, according to the company, and exports to countries, including the US, Canada, the UK, and regions like Europe among others. In 2017, with Rs21 crore as salary, he was also the country’s highest-paid CEO in the FMCG sector.

“He ended up being one of the most endearing and likeable brand ambassadors,” Jagdeep Kapoor, founder of Samsika Marketing Consultants says. “What worked for him? His ethnic wear, welcoming smile, family feeling and serving style as an excellent host. His face spiced up the life of the joint Indian families then, and later on lingered when the concept of nuclear families started gaining steam. He worked on one priceless insight about the Indian tradition: Grandfatherly figures are respected and loved by seniors, adults and children. This helped build the MDH brand strongly, and turned out to be a unique differentiator among other competing brands. One keeps remembering his face every time you see the ad and feel like saying MDH, MDH.”

But long before he became an icon, particularly in kitchens across the world, Gulati was also a victim of the bloodied Partition in 1947.

From Pakistan to India

Gulati was born in 1923 in Sialkot, then part of undivided India.

His father, Mahashay Chunnilal, ran a small spice shop in the city, named Mahashian Di Hatti, popularly known as Deggi Mirch Wale. By 1933, aged 10, Gulati dropped out of school to try his luck in business that included selling mirrors, manufacturing soaps, and doing odd jobs, including carpentry, cloth merchant, hardware business and rice trading before finally deciding to join his father’s business.

“I expanded the business to Lahore,” Gulati says in the book, Divided by Partition: United by Resilience, written by Mallika Ahluwalia and published by Rupa publications. “From Lahore, we expanded to Sheikhupura and after that to Nankana Sahib, then to Lyallpur and then till Multan.” Over time, business grew rapidly with the Gulatis clocking between Rs 500 and Rs 800 per day.

By 1947, as business thrived, India was to be divided and the family had to leave Sialkot to take refuge in India. With Rs1,500 in his pocket, the 24-year-old Gulati landed in Delhi, despite numerous hardship along the way, that even included his uncle being hit by a truck as the family slept near railway tracks in Amritsar. In Delhi, Gulati joined his sister, whose husband was a government employee and registered himself as a refugee before moving into an abandoned house.  Soon enough, he bought a Tonga, a horse-driven carriage for Rs650 and drove it from New Delhi Railway Station to Qutab Road and Karol Bagh for two annas.

“I was wondering what I should do… One day, while roaming around, I reached Chandni Chowk. People were selling tangas (horse carriages) there,” Gulati told Rupa publication. “I asked them how much they were selling for. I bargained a little bit and finally got a tanga for Rs 650. I used to wait near the railway station and say “two annas sawari, two annas”. I would observe the other tangawallahs and then shout out neighbourhood names, like “Karol Bagh, two annas, Karol Bagh, two annas”.

But, Gulati wanted more.

With his reserves, Gulati bought a small wooden shop in the Karol Bagh area of New Delhi in 1948 to restart his family’s business, and set up Mahashian Di Hatti of Sialkot.He also put out an advertisement in the popular Hindi newspaper, Pratap, which helped rake in customers.

By 1953, he also set up another shop in the Chandni Chowk area of New Delhi, before deciding to start large-scale manufacturing in 1959.

“Several decades ago housewives used to grind their spices manually at home and made their own blends for use in their cooking,” the company said in its annual report for 2018. “To make this process easier to the housewives, Mahashian Di Hatti (MDH) visualized the concept of ready to use ground spices. It has set up state-of-the-art plants for meeting the ever growing demand. The company procures the raw material directly from the centres of produce to maintain uniform taste and quality. The raw material is first cleaned, dried and tested with the help of special machines.”

MDH was formally incorporated in 1965. “With his vision, perseverance and devoted honesty in business, Mahashayji led the venture to the heights, which have inspired others to follow,” a profile of Gulati reads on his company’s website. “Very few people know the success and hard work of Mahashayji behind the success of the super brand MDH. Mahashayji doesn’t have any secret formula behind his grand success. He just follows a traditionally established principle of honouring the commitments and serving his customers through pure and quality products.”  

Today, the company has 18 manufacturing facilities, the first of which was set up in 1959 in Kirti Nagar, an area known for its furniture market. In 2018, for which the company has filed its returns with India’s ministry of corporate affairs, the company’s revenue’s stood at Rs 1095 crore, as against Rs 978 crore in the year ago period. Profits meanwhile, stood at Rs 315 crore, compared to Rs 247 crore in the year ago period.

“Now cement is a brand, so is wire, and switches and whatever you can think of,” says Ashita Aggarwal, marketing professor at SP Jain Institute of Management and Research. “But decades back, who would have thought of making a brand out of masala? He did it. He was one of the first to realise the importance of a brand. People buy commodities but they love brands. People shift commodities but they stick to loved brands. One doesn’t need to have a marketing degree to come up with such insight. The MDH man had the foresight as well as audacity to think way ahead of times.”   

Meanwhile, despite being a school dropout, Gulati set up some 20 schools, including the MDH International School, Mahashay Chunnilal Saraswati Shishu Mandir, Mata Leela Wati Kanya Vidhayala, Mahashay Dharmpal Vidhya Mandir and a 200-bed hospital that treats the poor for free. Last year, the government bestowed upon him, India’s third highest civilian award, the Padma Bhushan.

“Dharampal Gulatiji represented an idea,” adds Bijoor. “An idea whose time had come well before brand-ambassadorship as an idea in itself was recognised. In many ways he was the brand himself. The category of spices was a commodity in itself and the company actually made a commodity and packaged it for the masses. Gulatiji recognised there was something missing, and he added the brand zing with his persona. Gulatiji in many ways was the brand masala in the generic commodity. A man much before his time for sure.”

Today, Gulati’s son and six daughters look after his empire, worth some Rs 2,000 crore.  “We ourselves are responsible for our victory or defeat, so rather than blaming fate, we should focus on cultivating our strengths and reducing our weaknesses so that this God-given mind and body can be put to full use, so that we know that all our talents and energies are doing some good in the world,” Gulati wrote his in autobiography.

Clearly, he lived his life to the fullest.

(With inputs from Rajiv Singh)

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