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MAY 20, 2007
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Business Today,  May 6, 2007

Wafting Scent of Success
The next time you spray Poison from Christian Dior or Eternity from Calvin Klein, remember, some key ingredients may have come from the Mysore-based NR Group.

NR Group’s Arjun Ranga: Has beaten a path from Mysore to global canvas of fragrance

Roll in: Bamboo reeds being cut to size


The royal city of Mysore-so called because of its numerous palaces, mostly built by the Wodeyars-has, in the last couple of decades, lived in the shadow of Bangalore. But before the it industry put the latter on the global map and turned it into a brand and a pejorative verb (getting Bangalored), it was Mysore that was more famous; think yoga, silk, sandalwood and incense. Yes, incense. Most of the agarbathis that people burn before portraits and idols of gods and goddesses come from here-and even those that don't, have "Made in Mysore" stamped on them. "The incense industry in India has come a long way but is growing at a pace of just 3-4 per cent. And the fragrances we produce provide the base for several related industries," says R. Guru, Chairman, of the Rs 325-crore N. Ranga Rao & Sons, the largest player in the Rs 1,200-crore industry.

The production of agarbathis is no rocket science, admits Arjun M. Ranga, Managing Partner and a third generation scion of the nr Group. Entry barriers are low and the business is trade-driven. But it was one man, Narayana Ranga Rao, the founder of this group, who modernised this low-tech, manpower-intensive industry and put it on the global map. His company now has a 40 per cent global market share in tuberose (rajnigandha) extracts and a 30 per cent share in jasmine extracts.

The creation of a fragrance is part art and part science, says Kiran Ranga, Arjun's cousin and a partner in the business, who has taken a four-year perfumery course from the University of Plymouth, London. Unlike in the West, which uses a number of synthetic chemicals, Indian players like the nr Group are known for their use of natural materials. Kiran says that to get the smell of jasmine on to an incense stick is actually a difficult task. "There are 60 different chemicals which finally give us the olefactory feeling of having smelt a jasmine. Recreating that in the lab either through solvent extraction or other methods is a complex process. That is our key strength."

Several herbal substances are mixed to get the right fragrance

There are more than 5,000 synthetic and natural compounds available that help perfumers create various fragrances. Says Arjun: "Our fragrances are used not just in incense sticks, but in everything from high-end perfumes, deodorants, eau de toilettes, to more humble things like bars of soap and toilet cleaning liquids." Internationally, there are just 6-8 major players, called flavour and fragrance houses-to whom nr Group sells its floral extracts-that control the $15-billion (Rs 64,500 crore)-plus market for fragrances. All perfumers buy the basic blends from f&f houses like Givaudan, Quest International and iff and then brand and market them.

Traditionally, consumers in the West have favoured fragrances like lavender and rosemary. Kiran claims that the nr Group convinced these F&F houses to include Gundu Malle (scientific name: Jasmine Sambac), tuberose (Polianthes Tuberosa), Mimosa, white and pink lotus and even fragrances extracted from coffee beans in their basket. Jasmine extracts sell for $3,500 (Rs 1,50,500) per kg. These F&F houses then create "blends" that they sell to the likes of Christian Dior, Calvin Klein and others. "We are experimenting with a number of new fragrances. Since our focus is on natural products, the condition of the soil and the use of pesticides and fertilisers have a major impact. In order to have control over the quality of flowers that go into our products, we have entered into contract farming arrangements with more than 800 farmers in and around Mysore and Munnar," says Kiran. In the domestic market, the company supplies floral extracts to players like Himalaya Drugs, CavinKare and Dabur, while globally, it supplies to the likes of Givudan, IFF and Quest, among others.

Floral extracts find use in various products-from agarbathis to perfumes and toiletries

Incidentally, these fragrances are a closely guarded family secret, known only to five senior family members at any point in time (a la the Coke formula), and is a trade secret that is passed down from one generation to the next.

But the bread and butter of the group remains incense sticks and it is this market that it really dominates. Its Cycle brand agarbathi is easily the leader in a market where ITC is the only other large player. Earlier attempts by Hindustan Lever (now Hindustan Unilever) and Reckitt and Benckiser to enter the market ended in failure and both have now largely withdrawn from it. The Rangas are confident that they can beat off the challenge from the cigarettes-to-hotels conglomerate as well. Says Arjun: "We hold ITC in the highest esteem, but this is a tough market to crack." What gives him confidence is that the business is a high volume, low value, low margin one. "My most expensive incense stick sells for Rs 2.50 and the cheapest for just 30 paise. We have 600 sales personnel, 3,000 distribtuors and reach 300,000 retail outlets," he adds.

That, however, hasn't stopped a number of other players like Nirma, Gopal Zarda, mdh Masala Group and Jyothy Laboratories (of Ujala fame) from trying. They have launched their own brands recently, says Arjun Ranga.

Meanwhile, the group is building on its expertise in fragrances. It has floated a company called Ripple Fragrances that has launched deodorants and perfumes under the DNA brand name. Arjun admits that while the group has proven product development expertise, the distribution and logistics chain for personal care products is a different ball game altogether. "We are in the process of putting it in place," he says.

It won't be easy as, logistics apart, it will have to fight the HULs and the Godrejs on their home turf. But it will have to make the effort and climb that next step up the value chain. And the Rangas are hoping that the scent of success will remain as sweet as it is at present.


Incense sticks are made of a thin sliced bamboo reed (the stick) on which is rolled a dough (made of charcoal and the powdered bark of the Lauraceae tree), which when lit, gives out a pleasant scent. Neither the bamboo reed nor the dough have any kind of inherent fragrance. Called "neutral" bathis in industry parlance, these sticks are dipped into various fragrances to create various types of agarbathis. Sometimes, though, the fragrance is added to the dough before it is rolled on to the bamboo sticks, creating what are called masalabathis. Women are mainly employed for rolling agarbathis. Companies such as NR Group supply sliced bamboo sticks and the dough to several low-income households in and around Mysore and collect the finished product later. On an average, a woman can roll around 3,000 bathis a day and earn Rs 60 in return. More than 20,000 women are estimated to be rolling bathis in Mysore.