MY first trip to India was in 1985. With telex in hand and accompanied by a friend, Johnson Lim, we took the cheapest flight to Bombay (now Mumbai) which was Sri Lankan Airlines with a night stopover in Colombo. This was an important trip for me and my first business trip to secure a razor blade agency from Malhotra, one of the largest manufacturer of double edge blades in the world.
Most flights arrive at Bombay International Airport at about midnight. After taking more than an hour to clear immigration, we spent another chaotic hour looking for our luggage as the bags were piled up all over the place.
Just after 2am, we stepped out of a dimly-lit airport, and were greeted by a sea of Indians with Ambassador and Premier Indian cars parked in chaotic arrangements amidst a cacophony of horns and loud chattering.
We were greeted by a rotund face gentleman who stepped forward and enquired whether we were Mr Tan and Mr Lim. I glanced around and noted that we were the only Chinese in the vicinity. Instant racial profiling by a keen observer indeed. C L Arora was the export manager we were in contact with via telex and we were so relieved that he was there at the airport to receive us.
It was the start of an interesting business relationship between a 25-year old Chinaman freshie and a 50-year-old Indian razor blade salesman.
From that visit, I had my first distribution agreement that started my entrepreneurial journey. Though I did not make much money from my 10 years of selling Indian razor blades, I learnt many valuable lessons and these insights have been the bedrock of my management principles.
Like the importance of having loyal hard working sales people on the ground to fight the battles. More so when we were facing Gillette, the shaving behemoth that can outmaneuver and overwhelm you in the market place through their sheer distribution and financial strength.
Thirty years ago, we had to learn the hard way of avoiding direct competition with the market leader and learnt new flanking and guerilla strategies. We only gained some success when we use Yeo Hiap Seng’s extensive direct distribution fleet of trucks and loyal sales team.
But it was a tough struggle competing against a 80% share market leader.
Sales make the world go round. Everybody is selling something every day. Whether it is a product or service, the consumption never stops.
Arora told me he was a proud razor blade salesman as it enables him to put food on the table for his family and gather sufficient savings to pay for his only daughter’s dowry in the later years. Hence my later nickname of “lipstick salesman” and proudly so.
Beware of the word “sunset industries” if it is not technology based.
Thirty years year ago in India, we were discussing the rapid growth of disposable razors and the eventual shrinking of double edge market share. Production of double edge blades by the Malhotras have almost doubled since 30 years ago and it still has a 50% share of total blades produced in the world.
Cultural norms slow down the pace of change in consumption habits. Affordability is another deterrent to technological changes.
Look for the mass market in every business. That is where the volume is. Having a nice brand presentation in the premium mass setting is good for your ego but poor for your wallet.
There is no money in that segment. And I mean big money. Big money can only be found in huge broad based markets. Unless your market place is the world market. Like Apple.
Never complain about the difficulties of your market.
H L Malhotra, the founder of the business was rejected by many shopkeepers when he went round peddling blades made from his small factory and through sheer persistent hard work by him and his three sons, they managed to conquer the biggest blade market in the world.
Logistic infrastructure in India in the 1950’s and 1960’s were almost non existent then, yet they managed to build a national sales and distribution network bettered only by Hindustan Lever and the food and beverage giants. Growth was built blade by blade, sold by graduate sales representatives, shop by shop.
With a large domestic market and the economy of scale, Malhotra needed to export to earn foreign exchange to buy imported steel rolls as foreign currency was scarce and restricted by the government.
I remember Arora travelling to Malaysia on a restricted US$70-80 per day allowance without a credit card. He had to stay in small hotels in Jalan Masjid India and I made sure I paid for all the meals so that he did not run out of cash.
He would travel around the region for 30 days and he would not go home without orders/ letter of credits in his hands. Such was the pressure of a travelling blade salesman. His company needed US dollars and that was that.
So after 20 years, I was back in Delhi just 10 days ago and my first priority was a lunch meeting with Arora.
After 32 years of working for Malhotra based in Mumbai, he returned back to Delhi, his hometown, back in 2004 to spend his retirement years.
Despite being 81 years old and slightly frail, he still drove himself to the hotel. It was an emotional meeting for both of us.
He seems smaller both in height and tummy circumference but his memory was still as sharp as ever. He can still recall events in details with exact years.
We exchange stories of the last 20 years and it was really nice to hear his infectious laughter accompanied by his twinkling eyes. The only difference from previous conversations was he did not ask me for a razor blade order.
Knowing that this was the last time I would meet him in person, I gave him a big hug as we said our last goodbyes.
Long live the salesman and may he enjoy many more years of good health in his twilight years.