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Oral tradition

K. R. Balasubramanyam        Print Edition: June 10, 2012

Every month, the presiding deity of Kerala's famous Guruvayoor temple gets an unusual offering: several cartons of tooth powder. "We offer a 40 g container for every 10 kg we produce," says Kolathappally Bhavadasan, Managing Director of K.P. Namboodiri's Ayurvedics, Thrissur, Kerala. "My grandfather started the tradition in the 1920s." The temple auctions the tooth powder, branded Dantadhavanachoornam, and the Lord gets a share of the company's profit.

The tooth powder is better known as K.P. Namboodiri's than by its long-winded Sanskrit name. Until five years ago, its manufacturer was a single-product company. In the last four years, K.P. Namboodiri's has launched products such as toothpaste, hair oil, shampoo and fairness cream. However, the tooth powder accounts for four-fifths of revenues.

When Bhavadasan took over after the death of his father, Raman Namboodiri, 12 years ago, the company had a turnover of about 1.6 crore, one salesman and two vans. This was enough for the product, which was made manually in a tiny factory near Guruvayoor in Thrissur district. Supply barely kept up with demand. The first thing young Bhavadasan did was to increase manufacturing capacity 10-fold with mechanisation. "We had to supply everyone, because the brand had earned the trust of users and commanded respect," he says.

The company's founder, K.P. Namboodiri, was a clock merchant. Once, when he had an unbearable toothache, an ayurveda pundit gave him an herbal remedy. It helped. Namboodiri then started offering it to others, free at first and later for a price. He advertised it in the Malayalam almanac. After he died in 1957, his son Raman managed the business. Bhavadasan says: "In the 1970s, as children, my sister and I would sit in a small room and help label products. Our father would pay us for it."

The 44-year-old third-generation entrepreneur becomes emotional as he recalls how his father went around Thrissur and other towns on a bicycle laden with packets of tooth powder. As a child, he threw product pamphlets off a Ferris wheel during temple festivities, to distribute them to villagers.

Today, the tooth powder manufacturer competes in the toothpaste market, too. It launched its toothpaste in 2007, and a gel version in 2010. The active herbal ingredients are the same as for the tooth powder, so the taste - pungent rather than sweet - is similar, and the toothpaste reflects the traditional qualities of the tooth powder. Bhavadasan says the toothpaste is doing well.

The tooth powder is, however, far from being overshadowed. Company executives target foreign visitors and introduce them to its taste. "A Swiss customer paid Rs 16,318 to have Rs 3,576 worth of tooth powder shipped in April," says Marketing Manager Suresh Diwakaran. K.P. Namboodiri's products are already available in the  Persian Gulf region, and in January, the company began exporting toothpaste to Malaysia.

There is, of course, competition from other ayurvedic tooth powder manufacturers, and most major toothpaste brands have an herbal version. So K.P.Namboodiri's has capitalised on the respect its brand enjoys to extend its presence to the oral, skin and hair care segments. Products are priced within reach of the common man, in keeping with company tradition.

And although K.P. Namboodiri's cannot match multinational companies for marketing muscle, Bhavadasan is reaching out to new distributors to take his products beyond their traditional markets. In 2005, he opened a corporate office in Thrissur town (until then, the headquarters had been in the factory, 30 km away) and hired dozens of professionals. He set up a research and development unit and put a former multinational company  official in charge of it. "We are focusing on new oral, hair and skin care products," says Bhavadasan.

A leading private equity (PE) firm approached Bhavadasan a few months ago, but he declined, saying he was not ready for it yet. "There is still so much we can do on our own," he says. He does not rule out PE investors in future. He has also received enquiries from entities interested in buying the brand.

Last year, the K.P. Namboodiri Group entered the hospitality business with its Devaragam boutique hotel in Guruvayoor. This and the oral, skin and hair care business earned total revenues of about Rs. 38 crore last year, and Bhavadasan is targeting Rs. 200 crore in five years. He is cagey about financials, and mentions only that revenues and profits are growing steadily at 15 per cent a year.

R. Shankar, a health consultant in Kerala's Palakkad district, says the K. P. Namboodiri's brand is unique in two ways. "One, it started as and continues to be a `faith brand', with consumers reposing immense faith in the Namboodiris, who were known for using pure and traditional herbs," he says. "And two, anything handmade or homemade from the 'illams' or houses of the Namboodiri caste has an automatic market, from pickles to tooth powder, and liver tonics to shampoos."

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