This is the poster-boy of low-margin businesses, especially in a city like Mumbai, whose streets they say are paved in gold. For that's literally where A P Mani & Sons started.
Known for their fresh produce and packaged fruit and vegetables today, this entrepreneurial venture is a far cry from its beginnings under a flyover in suburban Chembur. It is here, many moons ago, that Pichamani Nadar began hawking vegetables on a hand-cart. Soon, his eldest son Nagesh began helping him, and a few years down the line, his younger son Suresh followed suit.
Today, A P Mani & Sons is a mini-empire of fruit and vegetable retailing via three company-owned stores in Chembur and Thane. They also supply fresh produce to restaurants and caterers, and packed produce to supermarkets in Mumbai. Their daily turnover is an impressive Rs 5 lakh, and annual turnover a healthy Rs 25 crore.
"Back in the day, my father worked hard and needed extra hands. I didn't complete my schooling and joined the business very young," reminisces Suresh. Their father died in 1983, after running a successful ‘business' for over 10 years and the brothers were determined to follow in their father's footsteps.
The first turning point came in 1995, when the brothers realised that tough competition meant they had to do more than just sell vegetables. They registered the company and moved towards value-added products. So, they bought a cycle cart and started door-to-door delivery of produce and they also started supplying in bulk to restaurants and other catering businesses.
A couple of years later, the Mani brothers reinvested their profits and bought an 800-sq ft space for Rs 10 lakh, adjoining Chembur railway station. They converted it into a mini-supermarket that sold packed vegetables, which made it easy for rushed Mumbaikars to pick up on their way back from work.
Next, they began to sell ready-to-use cut veggie mixes, and cut-and-packed fruits and sprouts… the very things that made life a tad easier for crazy-busy Mumbaikars. It wasn't long before these simple innovations made A P Mani & Sons a household name in Chembur.
"We had already begun to make sizeable profits through our supply of packed vegetables," says Suresh. Thus, in 1998, the brothers purchased an additional 1,000 sq ft and converted the back of their store into a storage and packaging unit.
"Through trial and error, we found that manual packaging is most efficient. Our products are not standardised for mechanised packaging. We hand-pick produce of different sizes and package it in different mixes. So, although we had invested in one machine, packaging by hand works best. That's how we also ensure quality."
From a handcart on the pavement to a company that employs 300 people is indeed a journey to relish. "This may be hard to believe but we are not a planned business. We did not start formally, and we have never approached banks for loans. We used our growing profits to fund our expansion plans and topped up additional expenses through personal loans," reveals Suresh, who adds that the company is a 50-50 closely held partnership between the brothers.
The latest turning point in their venture came when the brothers began receiving inquiries from other stores and supermarkets. Soon, they began supplying packed fruit and veggies to popular stores like Patel Stores in Bandra.
But the really big step came when the Nadar brothers took a proactive leap in 2000. "We noticed that Haiko (a supermarket in Hiranandani Gardens, Powai), was setting up shop on a large scale in Powai. We approached them and, today, we supply them packed fruits and vegetables," adds Surekh.
He says the largest share of profits comes from company-owned stores. As for supplying to other stores, the retailer keeps 10-15 per cent of the sales income.
Mantra For Success
The Nadar brothers may not have attended B-School but they sure know their onions. "Our mantra is to keep innovating and filling gaps. After all, it was we who started the packaged and cut vegetable revolution in Mumbai," says Suresh. "It is also crucial that we keep customers happy. That's why my brother and I wake up early every day and head for the wholesale vegetable market in Navi Mumbai to hand-pick the produce we sell. Quality is paramount."
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