Scent of a man

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There is a lot of science behind it; there’s some magic and some art in your brain registering a flavour or fragrance but it is also good, solid organic chemistry.

Vinay Kamath

The regal Madras Club, on the banks of the river Adyar, is a tranquil place to be, and here I am one afternoon taking in the verdant surroundings under the huge canopy of a great banyan tree. There was just the hint of a wintry sun, or at least what one gets of it in Chennai. The reverie is soon broken as a Honda Accord zooms in and a dapper Arun Bewoor springs out, as spry as one can be at 65 years. "Isn't it lovely here?" he asks, "this is what I am going to miss the most when I leave for Mumbai - my walk on the river bank with the sun behind me and my spot of tennis."

We chat for a while taking in the splendour of the whitewashed columns and the cupola of one of the oldest clubs (founded in 1832) in Chennai - the mansion once belonged to George Moubray who arrived in Madras in 1771 as a government accountant. I am here at the invitation of Bewoor; it's a farewell lunch and Bewoor, who was the managing director of International Flavours and Fragrances (IFF), the erstwhile Bush Boake Allen, is leaving Chennai after 19 years in the city he grew to love. "It was a tough call but Mumbai is home and where my family is," he says. Nor was it easy as he and wife, Gayatri, scoured over 75 apartments in Mumbai before settling for one overlooking the racecourse in Mahalakshmi.

Flavours and fragrances

There's hardly anyone in the Club as we repair to the Adyar Bar, richly panelled and redolent of scenes of an English pub. Ensconced inside you are away from the odours the now deeply polluted river can emanate. I settle for a mug of draught beer while Bewoor plumps for a shandy and we get on to chat about flavours and fragrances and life in Chennai. "Anything that tastes nice or smells good, you can bet IFF is there," he declares. I tell him that there must have been much romance in his career, dealing with esoteric fragrances. He quickly disabuses me of any such notions. "Well, it sounds esoteric, but there is a lot of science behind it; there is some magic in it, some art, in your brain registering a flavour or fragrance but it is also good, solid organic chemistry. How do those molecules interact, what kind of flavour or fragrance will they yield and most importantly will they be applicable to that end product? So, when you say orange flavour, is it for an ice cream, sweet, biscuit, soap, soft drink; there's a distinct orange flavour for each, and each one has to meet the criteria of the manufacturing process, for ultimately the consumer eats it, sucks it, drinks it or smells it and must enjoy and like it."

IFF is the leader in the flavours market with a 35 per cent market share and with a ten per cent share in the fragrances market which has seen much competition in the past decade with global companies such as Givaudan and Symrise entering the booming Indian market. Bewoor, a hardcore marketing man, was Vice-President, Sales and Marketing, for consumer goods company, Procter & Gamble, when he got the offer in 1989 to join the erstwhile BBA as MD. He was 45-years-old then. "The biggest change for me was to move from a B2C business to B2B. In P&G it was selling Vicks Vaporub to a million mothers, or Clearasil to a million teenagers with acne. But, here, it was making a tailor-made product for an individual consumer to distinguish it from other products and make it a distinct brand."

By now the bar man, wondering whether we're going to eat anything, plonks the menu in front of us. Bewoor recommends the fried fish and tartar sauce, my all-time favourite. He opts for baked crab and I change my mind. Finally we both settle for baked crab and a bit of fried fish. During his long tenure, Bewoor recalls, he presided over much transition in the company. When he joined, the company, then already 150 years old, had many stakeholders, including beer baron, Vijay Mallya, who owned 25 per cent, and the Murugappa group, while the UK principal owned 38 per cent and some institutional stake. While BBA bought out all stakeholders and owned 93 per cent in the company, it was bought over by IFF in 2000, adding a new dimension to the Indian company.

Booming market

Soon after Bewoor took over Bush Boake, in the early 1990s, the market opened up and began to boom. More branded foods and consumer products began to appear on supermarket shelves and this meant new customers. "We were well positioned because of our experience to meet the requirements of the consumer product companies which sell to the ultimate consumer," he explains. The challenge was also to develop flavours for Indian snack foods.

IFF's customers are varied; it could range from the biscuit makers, snacks and chocolate makers, detergent companies to even agarbathis. The other `sales' channel is trade distribution which goes to the unorganised (or small-scale) market where flavours are meant for mass and off-the-shelf use. "We had to make sure the code, the formulation remained unique to that customer so there would be no infringement of trademarks; for five years we couldn't offer it to other customers," explains Bewoor.

Saying it with pride

When he joined the company its sales were a mere Rs 21 crore; by the end of 2006 when he retired it was close to Rs 300 crore while profits had increased by 24 times, he says with pride. IFF now makes 700-800 flavours for all kinds of markets from savouries, snacks, fast foods, confectionery, bakery and soft drinks and then 600 types of fragrances which go into soaps, detergents, agarbathis, floor cleaners, cleansers and air purifiers. Ask him if IFF in India looked at the perfumes market, Bewoor says, "We are in mass market fragrances, not in fine fragrances, there is as yet no market for that in India. No one has developed a fine fragrances market in India; they should and could, you know, with premium packaging and positioning but not as expensive."

Lunch is ready, informs a liveried waiter and we move to the ornate dining hall called The River Room. There are just the two of us in the large hall, so we are waited upon hand and foot. The baked crab is served first and I attack it with gusto. Bewoor, mindful of the tennis to follow, is a light eater. The conversation flows. I ask him if he takes his surname from a small town near Bagalkot in North Karnataka, which he confirms. But his family relocated to Pune and is more Maharashtrian now, he says. Bewoor's wife, though, is a Malayalee born and brought up in Jharkhand, his daughter is married to a Bengali in Delhi and son to a Kashmiri in Mumbai.

His father, Madhav, who served as a King's Commissioned Officer in the British Army died in action in Burma in 1944 when he was 15 months old. He has no memories of his father but did see his name on a mass grave at the Commonwealth War Cemetery on a visit to Burma a few years ago. Bewoor grew up with his grandfather in Pune. Sir Gurunath Bewoor was the first Indian Director-General of Posts & Telegraph and became the first managing director of Air-India post-Independence. His maternal grandfather, Raja Shamraj Rajwant Bahadur Bhalerao, a big land owner, was the only Hindu minister in the Nizam's cabinet in Hyderabad till it got dissolved after the police action and became part of the Indian state. The young Arun went on to Lawrence School, Lovedale. I jab at the fried fish that has been served now, slapping on the tartar sauce liberally, knowing I will have to pay for this indulgence.

While his mother, Bewoor says, didn't allow either him or his brother to join the Army, there are other illustrious members of the defence forces in his family. His uncle, Gen. Gopal Bewoor, who saw action in all the three wars India fought post-Independence, was chief of army staff and took over from Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw. Lunch is over; I indulge some chocolate mousse and a coffee after but Bewoor doesn't want any; he doesn't drink either tea or coffee, a thought hard to digest. Bewoor, who served as the president of the Madras Chamber of Commerce, says he has, of late, been signing a spate of resignation letters from his various associations in Chennai - Cheshire Homes, the Madras and American Chambers and some more. He shows me around the stately club, the ballroom, the tennis courts, sighing wistfully, that he would miss the city and his Club when he returns home to Mumbai

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated February 4, 2009)
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