Mrs Bector's journey from her kothi's backyard to a super successful IPO

My wife still remembers that summer evening in 1978. That too, with that special glow that all good memories get treasured with. She was in Ludhiana, visiting her aunt. At the ladies kitty that her aunt took her to, a tall, fair and rather impressive lady was that evening demoing how to make (and bake) pizzas. Pizzas were still a novelty those days. Only Nirula’s in Delhi and Hot Millions in Chandigarh retailed the Italian roundels. And that too at a steep premium. So the demo had attracted a fair crowd. The presenter was knowledgeable. She was fluent. She was deft and masterly with the pizza preparation — handling the toppings, the sauce and the cheese with practised ease. The sprinkling of basil, the olive oil — all seemed well-rehearsed. The pizzas turned out to be just right. Cheesy. Crusty. Yet, soft. My wife got a slice too. And savours its delicious taste to date. The Ma Baker of that evening, four decades ago, was no one else but Rajni Bector, whose company’s initial public offering was oversubscribed 198 times earlier this month, raising Rs 541 crore, and listing at a 74 per cent premium on the offer price.

Born in Karachi, Rajni Bector, spent her early years in Lahore till the family moved to Delhi. She briefly studied at Miranda House. Marriage at age 17, in 1957, took her to Ludhiana where she thankfully continued her studies and obtained her graduation degree. An early marriage meant young motherhood. When her three boys went to boarding in Mussoorie, leaving her an empty nester, Mrs Bector joined a baking course at the local Punjab Agriculture University, and tried monetising her new skills by putting up stalls at fetes and fairs.

She soon became popular for her bakes and ice-creams. She eventually started her business with an investment of Rs 300 by buying an oven and started to churn ice cream in her own kothi’s backyard. Soon she was overwhelmed by the orders pouring in, but was unable to make profits. Her businessman husband Dharamvir intervened. He got her to invest Rs 20,000 in a professional ice cream churner. From there on there was no looking back.

By 1990, the business was clocking a respectable Rs 5 crore in turnover under the Cremica (cream-ka because of Mrs Bector’s lavish use of cream) brand she created in the 1980s. Business grew quickly to Rs 20 crore by the mid-1990s. But the big leap forward came with McDonald’s signing up Mrs Bector to bake the buns for their burgers in 1995. Today, Mrs Bector’s business, largely run by her sons, counts ITC, Mondelez, Hindustan Unilever, Big Bazaar, Spencer’s, Taj Group, Air India, Indian Railways, Barista, Café Coffee Day, Pizza Hut, Domino’s and Papa John’s as large institutional customers, besides a vast direct-to-customer sales network that retails breads, buns, biscuits, dips, spreads and sauces, and ice-creams under her own brand names.

For all the meteoric success of Mrs Bector, she seems not to have even merited a Padma Shri award so far. Perhaps she never found the time to lobby the powers-that-be! If nothing else, just the fact that 12 per cent of all of India’s biscuit exports today come from her, should in itself have meant adulation by the government and industry bodies. But, no. She also does not feature on any of India’s Top 50 or Top 100 list of women put out by the business media or the Big Four. Those lists are dominated largely by women in banking, finance and now increasingly tech, and they too are based mostly in the metros. Mrs Bector has finally got noticed because of the incredible success of her company’s initial public offering. Otherwise, the 80-years-old Lady from Ludhiana has mostly had to remain in the shadows, inconspicuous and relatively unknown, on the outskirts of corporate India.

I have always also wondered why Mrs Bector never decided to feature in her own advertising for Cremica a la Dharampal Gulati of MDH. She has a towering personality; she is the creator of the brand and the products; and her lavish love for cream as a key ingredient would have made for such wonderful advertising. Even now it is not too late. Were she to say, much like Lee Iacocca, “If you find a better biscuit, buy it” millions of Indians would believe her.

Mrs Bector epitomises the spirit of the post-partition generation, especially those that got up-rooted from Pakistan. Hardworking. Gritty. Focused. Committed. Hard-nosed. Also, the courage that small-town entrepreneurs are still capable of. The incline is much steeper when you try to compete with the rest of India from a Ludhiana; but there is equally the determination not to fail. Mrs Bector has, on her own merit today joined the hallowed league of Ludhiana tycoons who have hit it big time in recent years: Mittals of Bharti, Munjals of Hero, and Oswals of Monte Carlo. Ma Baker tujhe salaam!

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