The Spice Route Trail: Interview with Ashok Mani

Ashok Mani Speaks About Synthite Industries Ltd & their New Brand, ‘Kitchen Treasures’!

Synthite Industries Ltd led by its Captain, Mr. C V Jacob, started their voyage into the uncharted world of spices more than four decades ago. From a very humble beginning, the group has catapulted to a whopping 2000 crore empire that supplies spices and oleoresins to MNCs across the world with factories in India and abroad. The group recently forayed into the B2C segment with its new brand, ‘Kitchen Treasures’, which has become a household name in Kerala! RITZ is in conversation with the young businessman, Ashok Mani, the third generation of the company’s board of directors, who spearheads Intergrow Foods and Beverages Pvt Ltd.

Text: Riya Sonny Datson

Photography: Arun A Menon

From Wall Street to Beijing

With dreams of taking on the Wall Street bulls by the horns, Ashok completed his Double Major in Finance and Economics from Southern Methodist University, Texas. Soon after, he joined Karlee defence solutions in the US where he worked for a year but the US recession was taking its toll and he decided to return to India in 2010. He joined Deloitte in Bangalore and worked with mergers and acquisitions for a year after which he joined his family business, Synthite. He handled key accounts in Delhi for new projects and later took on the responsibility of setting up a 50 crore project, a wholly owned subsidiary of the company in China. “The challenges were multi-fold as it was a military controlled area close to the Afghan border. The language was a major barrier and we had to get translators to speak to even top officials. It was tough but ultimately, was a great learning process and the project took off well. In fact, we are the only Indian company with such a large set up in Xinjiang,” he says with pride. He proved his mettle yet again by setting up another successful factory close to Guntur, Andhra Pradesh.  

“To build a brand that reaches out to the 65 lakh households in Kerala, one needs to start with basic supplies”

Taking on the Home Turf

Till 2000, the company’s client portfolio was 98% export oriented and only 2% constituted Indian clients.  The group decided to set up offices in all the major metros and soon started to educate its B2B clients about the application of oleoresins. “Two chillies from a single plant may differ in terms of colour and pungency or spiciness. We subject the chilli to extraction and we get two products – the first being coloured product or paprika and the second being, capsaicin or pungency (spiciness). The extraction process offers a standardised measure of colour or pungency. This in turn helps clients to maintain standardised flavour for their products!” he explains. Demand picked up and the Indian portfolio was growing steadily. Clients soon wanted the company to supply spice powders or masalas along with oleoresins. As a backward integration strategy, they started liaising with farmer groups and soon they had a supplier base of about 15000 farmers supplying chillies. Business was booming!

Although the company had been eyeing the B2C segment for years, the B2B demand was so high that they could never really focus on setting up a new segment. After a lot of internal deliberation, in 2014, the board of directors finally decided to give it a shot and they built an expert team of people and systems for the new venture, headed by Ashok Mani. Thus was born, ‘Kitchen treasures!’ “To build a brand that reaches out to the 65 lakh households in Kerala, one needs to start with basic supplies like rice, oil or spices. Once you develop the mass reach and set up proper distribution, it is much easier to introduce value added products,” says Ashok.

The Steeplechase

Recently there have been a lot of controversies relating to adulteration in powdered Masala and Kitchen Treasures is one of the few brands that has stayed untainted by such allegations. “Masala is one of the only industries where the prices are trade driven. It is neither the supplier nor the customer but the retailer who controls prices. This is when, the supplier is forced to sell his product at a price that may not be profitable to him. Significant volumes are required to break even and in the long run, when volumes are not achieved, the supplier adds adulterants to the product to make sure his profits are maintained. This is a vicious cycle and unfortunately, it is the customer who is at the receiving end!” With export quality products and a superior success story to back them, the brand definitely garnered a lot of trust but it needed to reach out to the masses.  Kitchen Treasures decided to rope in Manju Warrier as its brand ambassador, which was a brilliant choice. The popular Mollywood actress who endorsed social causes like Organic farming and Cancer Awareness, fit the bill perfectly and she had a mass appeal – covering both urban and rural folk. The brand was welcomed by customers, distributors and retailers alike and soon, it started to top the charts.    

“I think the best part of working in a family business is the exposure one gets. When it’s family, they are willing to give you a chance to test the waters.”

Working with family…

“I think the best part of working in a family business is the exposure one gets. When it’s family, they are willing to give you a chance to test the waters. Yes, you need to show numbers but even when situations are not favourable, there is always a lot of support and faith which is what keeps you going. As compared to working outside of the family, I think this way, there is 200 percent growth and opportunities,” he says.

Cons? “The only con I can think of is that even when there are meetings outside of business, we tend to discuss work. This can also have a downside as it affects business decisions at times, simply because we are all very passionate about work and sometimes we get emotionally involved.” Ashok says his inspiration from a very young age has been his grandfather, Mr. C V Jacob, who started the spice business at the age of 40. From humble beginnings, he struggled and worked really hard to make the company what it is today.  His dad, Mr. Mani Varghese, has also been a great source of inspiration to Ashok. “My dad is also my role model. I have always been amazed at the way he manages situations with so much calm,” he smiles.

With an investment of 40 crores over a period of 3 years, Kitchen Treasures has become a much favoured brand with its popular line of spice powders, pickles and rice powders. “This year, Intergrow foods expects to enter the 100-crore club,” signs off Ashok.

Rapid Fire!

  • I enjoy: ‘Me’ time, the 7km stretch of running every evening!
  • I love: English Football
  • Best Holidays are at: Hill stations  
  • Most treasured possession: My perseverance
  • Favourite Cuisine: South Indian
  • I Hate: The heat!