The empire strikes back

Set up in 1600, The East India Company at its peak employed a third of the British labour force, controlled half of the world’s trade and was the symbol of the British Empire’s global reach. After a 131-year hiatus, Indian businessman Sanjiv Mehta has resurrected the iconic brand and the Middle East is set to play a vital part in its rebirth
The empire strikes back
By Shane McGinley
Sat 04 Oct 2014 01:55 AM

Some companies, like Microsoft, Coca Cola or Google, become a part of our collective heritage, while others help write the history books and actively participate in creating the world we live in today.

One such iconic name is the East India Company. Created nearly half a millenium ago, it was a trading phenomenon and epitomised the driving force behind the global expansion of the British Empire.

Resurrected in 2005 by an aspirational Indian businessman, it is currently masterminding its comeback after a hiatus of over 130 years and, unsurprisingly, the Middle East is set to play a pivotal role in the company’s resurgence.

“Without the East India Company our world would not be as it is today. It changed the world’s tastes, its thinking, and its people,” Mumbai-born businessman Sanjiv Mehta, the company’s chairman and new owner, says modestly. “I have not created this brand, history has created it. I am just the curator of it,” he adds.

In order to understand the influence this mammoth brand holds in the minds of the Indian population, a quick history lesson is needed. After the English defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588, a group of wealthy London merchants decided to set sail around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope to the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean in search of wealth to help build what would become the British Empire.

After a successful scouting mission, the adventurous founders were rewarded with a Royal Charter from Queen Elizabeth I in 1600. After tremendous growth, at its peak the company reportedly employed a third of the whole British workforce, accounted for around half of the world’s trade and dominated commodities such as cotton, silk, salt, tea and opium.

It introduced tea and all sorts of fine goods to the English dining table and effectively ran the Indian subcontinent on behalf of the British crown. To solidify its size and influence, King Charles II in 1670 gave it powers to acquire foreign territory, to mint money, to command fortresses, operate armies, to negotiate war and peace treaties and exercise legal affairs on behalf of the crown.

The trade routes it established are credited with setting up the global hubs of Hong Kong and Singapore and its dominance lasted until India began to rebel against British rule and the company was dissolved by Queen Victoria’s government. Fast forward to 2005 and this is where Mehta enters the frame after a gap of 131 years.

While Mehta does not specify exactly  how much it cost to acquire the brand, it was reported that in the first few years his wealthy backers ploughed nearly $20m into the development of the company and when Indian conglomerate the Mahindra Group bought a minority stake in 2010, it said the partners planned to invest at least $100m expanding the brand within five years.

The first move was to open a flagship store in London’s upmarket area of Mayfair in 2010. The 2,000 sq ft premises is stocked with 350 luxury products, including 100 varieties of tea, chocolates, spices and mustards developed by the company from across the world.

Today, the company has outlets in the Harrods department store in Knightsbridge, as well as stores in Covent Garden and Oxford Street. It has also expanded into Norway, Finland, Austria, The Netherlands, France, Spain and Germany, as well as other  countries across Asia and Australia.

The stores claim to offer everything that is quintessentially British, with products that have been crafted by artisans and specialists from around the world using ingredients that have been carefully sourced by expert hands. For example, each tea in the range is personally selected by the East India Company’s tea master and a direct relationship with the tea estates enables the company to stock some of the freshest teas available because they arrive in store within 28 days after the leaves have been picked.

Focusing on the Middle East, Mehta says Kuwait was where it launched its franchise model and the region is set to be a focus for rapid growth over the next five years.

“In the GCC we just opened our flagship store in Abu Dhabi inside [shopping centre] Avenue at Etihad Towers. We also opened our flagship store in Doha six months back at Lagoona Mall. We already have a store in Kuwait, which we opened over one year back and our store in Riyadh is under construction and will be opening before the end of this year.

“These are the main cities in each of the GCC and each of them are flagship stores. We should be coming up to 20 stores [within five years] and next year we will open four more stores,” he says excitedly.

Late last month was the official opening of the Abu Dhabi store and to mark the legacy of the iconic brand, the opening was hosted by British ambassador to the UAE Philip Parham.

Organisers at the event pointed out that the East India Company played a major role in the development of the Trucial States — the group of emirates what would eventually become the United Arab Emirates — and helped to establish the strong links trade links that now exist between the Gulf and India.

“The UK has a reputation for providing quality products that few, if any, other countries can match. We have iconic brands of which we can be justifiably proud and the East India Fine Foods Company certainly belongs in that category. I welcome this opportunity to congratulate all those involved in the launch of this magnificent new store, here in Abu Dhabi. It will undoubtedly create a remarkable connection between an iconic company based in Britain, now to be seen and experienced in the UAE,” Parham said at the launch in the UAE capital.

Another example of the legacy the brand brings is the fact that its local partner in the UAE is the well-known retail group BinHendi Enterprises, and its chairman, Mohi-Din BinHendi highlighted the company’s links and impact to the wider region while helping to launch the store in Abu Dhabi.

“It is our pleasure to bring the East India Company Fine Foods to the UAE, one of the world’s finest purveyors of tea and coffees and exquisite edible items. Our collaboration with this remarkable British brand represents our commitment to identifying partners that will bring quality and a real sense of heritage to the UAE, catering to the region’s growing numbers of connoisseurs and food enthusiasts,” BinHendi said.

Each franchise store requires and investment outlay of in the vicinity of about $800,000 to $1m, Mehta reveals, but the stores are not the end of the story and he has big plans to expand the brand into many other sectors.

“In terms of fine food retail in the next five years we hope to achieve somewhere in the region of 70 retail stores globally… But, at the same time, we have our restaurants and tea lounge opening in Riyadh by the end of this year. We will also open Jeddah, Kuwait and Dubai next year and hopefully that will continue. They will be high tea lounges.”

There are also plans to diversify into the jewellery trade and don’t be surprised if you see an East India Company Tower unveiled at a Cityscape event in the not too distant future. “We are looking at mixed-use developments and hopefully look at moving towards hospitality serviced apartments… that is the next area in which we want to focus. We don’t know the timeline as they are highly intensive deals and you need the right partner so we are in the process of putting that together… But each business will operate separately from each other.”

Flicking back through the history books, in the early 17th century the East India Company was one of the largest gold bullion traders at the time and in 1677 Charles II granted the company the right to mint its own coins in the territories it adopted, which led to the establishment of 14 mints across India between 1716 and 1835.

Bringing the story full circle, this year the company announced the issue of a legal tender coin to celebrate the 200th and final Test appearance by legendary Indian batsman Sachin Tendulkar. Only 210 of the coins have been issued and are valued at around £12,000 each. Such an honour is rarely offered and previous sporting recipients include icons such as Muhammad Ali and Nigel Mansell.

At the launch of the special Tendulkar coin earlier this year, it was pointed out that it was particularly befitting that the commemorative piece was issued by the East India Company as the company and the sport are inextricably linked in India.

It is claimed that the East India Company was the means by which cricket was introduced into India; and consequently in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.

Historians also claim that the first definite reference to cricket being played anywhere in the subcontinent is a report of English sailors of the East India Company written in 1737.

It refers to cricket being played at Cambay, near Baroda in 1721, while the Calcutta Cricket and Football Club was known to be in existence by 1792.

“Historically precious metal formed an important part of the company’s trading activities. We have been issuing our own gold and silver coins for centuries and began to do so again in 2010. The East India Company originally introduced cricket to the Commonwealth, then the British Empire, and it made immense sense for us to issue a coin for this special occasion. We feel honoured to have been given the opportunity to pay tribute to one of the greatest cricket players of all time,” Mehta says.

Mehta describes how when he announced he was taking over the company he received over 14,000 emails from Indians all over the world wishing him well with the venture.

“It was there at an emotional level,” he says of his reason behind the venture. “But at a commercial level, the brand has a massive connectivity to people in the Commonwealth and it is a name that is recognised by more than two and half billion people around the world. These are the reasons I invested in and acquired this brand and company.”

Mehta believes it is the Google of its time, but many would argue that Google is in fact the East Indian Company of its modern era. Let’s see if Google is still around and having the same impact in 400 years’ time.

History in the making: Key dates of the East India Company

1600: Britain’s Queen Elizabeth I grants a charter to ‘The Company of Merchants of London Trading into the East Indies’, bestowing her royal patronage and empowering them to trade exclusively in spices, tea, coffee and other luxury goods from the East.

1669: King Charles grants control of Bombay to the company. Later, the company gains the right to mint currency, have its own army, and hold judicial and administrative power over all parts of India under its control.

1757: The East India Company is a powerful multinational corporation with its own army, navy, and treasury. It virtually controls the international commerce of China, India, Japan, Far East, West Indies and American East Coast. Bombay, Calcutta, Madras, St Lucia and many other cities are formed by the entity.

1800 – 1842: At the pinnacle of its success, it is employing one third of the workforce of England, and controlling half of the British Empire’s trade. Hong Kong and Singapore are founded as outposts.

1858: The Government of India Act transfers the company’s powers to the British Crown.

1874: the UK parliament passes the East India Company Stock Dividend Redemption Act dissolving the company and Queen Victoria becomes Empress of India.

2005: Sanjiv Mehta becomes the sole owner of the East India Company.

2010: The brand is re-launched and the first ‘Fine Food’ Flagship store in Mayfair is opened.

2012: The East India Company releases its first legal tender coins since 1874.

2013/2014: The East India Company expands into the Middle East.

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