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April 27, 2008

Pakistan’s King of Masalas spins his own magic


April 27, 2008

KARACHI: It is the love for food and a strictly religious upbringing that Sikander Sultan, the man behind the internationally famous Shan Foods, calls the magic blend that has made his business what it is today.

Spices may have come naturally to Sikander Sultan, Chairman Shan Foods (Pvt) Ltd, but the principles on which he ran his trade were anything but the recommended route to business success. Shan Foods has operated without any bank loans, financing or conventional insurance. Its advertisements do not feature any women.

While his brand is one of the most sought by lovers of Pakistani and Indian cuisine both in the country and abroad, the Shan brand came into being by circumstances and not any business plan.

It happened some 30 years back when SikanderÕs mother paid a personal visit to Lahore from Karachi and prolonged her sojourn there for about two months.

In her absence, the masala provisions she had left behind were exhausted, causing a near family crisis. As the family cook was also on leave, the brothers and sisters decided to take things into their own hands.

ÒMy sister started cooking but nobody liked it. So we had to bring food from restaurants but my father soon got fed up with that too,Ó Sultan, 53, recollected in an interview with The News. ÒSo we ended up buying spices from a shop in Saddar.Ó

That experience turned out to be bitter for the family and all the spices had to be thrown out. As a final step, SikanderÕs father asked him and his sisters to try making masalas. ÒI came from a family that loved food. I was interested in cooking too. By five, I knew how to make Gulab Jamuns.Ó

For the gourmet siblings it was no rocket science to prepare the blends. Garlic, onions and other ingredients were mixed into shape of small patties and left to dry in the sun.

Finally, the spicy blend was ready and stored in glass jars. Food was cooked using these blends and it tasted better than anything

tried before. The only problem was that after four days, the masala patties were spoilt by fungus. ÒWe knew how to make it but did not know how to preserve it,Ó recalls the Shan man.

Then, Sultan says, he thought of making it a little differently. ÒThat was the first time I made a spice in the form of dry powder,Ó he reminisced. ÒAnd that night, when the powder was used for the food dish and tasted fine, everyone stood up and clapped for me at the dinner table.Ó

The appreciation he received from his family motivated him to try making more spices. He would ruminate and long as to what brought out flavors in Daal and Biryani and then experiment with ingredients and dry them. Till then it hadnÕt occurred to him to turn his interest into a commercial enterprise. Not until worldly glitter and glamour came in the modest way of life he preferred.

Born, brought up and educated in Karachi, Sultan chose media as his first profession. He would make commercial films, advertisements and arrange exhibitions. ÒBut at one point I realized I was not satisfied with the environment prevailing in media business.Ó

So in 1981 he turned to making masalas. He converted the servant quarters of his 2,000-yard home in Karachi into a small office and did test marketing just before Eid-ul-Azha with three spices-fried meat, tikka seek kabab and hunter beef.

The response was overwhelming. In a few days, orders started pouring in and the Sultan was making spices day and night, a routine the company follows to date. ÒAfter three months we had more packages printed but I donÕt think we made profit initially as I had no idea of costing when producing at such a scale.Ó

Two years later, he started commercial marketing of 13 products and in 1985 started exports. The ÒShanÓ brand has never looked back since then. With over 100 products being exported to 52 countries, the brand had become synonymous with the Pakistani food industry. Annual revenues amount to Rs1.5 billion and the company controls 50 per cent of domestic market.

Dressed in a modest Shalwar Kameez, wearing a beard and a prayer cap, the jolly-faced Sultan told The News that the name ÒShanÓ was recommended by his mother in dedication of GodÕs magnificence.

Though born into a relatively affluent family, Sultan says he did not take a penny from his parents for his business venture. Whatever he earned, he reinvested in the business. ÒI had a Sheaffer pen which was very dear to me,’ he said about the time he needed capital for his business. ÒI had to sell it for Rs6,000.’

His strength and the commitment, he says, comes from a 10-point charter, which he, his mother and fiancé who later became his wife, signed before starting the business. One of points was never to overcharge a customer.

ÒA word we coined for ourselves was value, value for money,’ he said and described how a practical demonstration was conducted to gauge that consumers are not able to make the blend at a price less than ShanÕs. ‘Otherwise we will be out of business.’

Sikander says ÒWe were selling a pack at Rs4. We gave Rs100 each to 10 people to make two kilograms of Korma. They were able to make the blend at Rs16 and Rs24 so I was convinced that 2kg of that dish made in our product at Rs8 was cheaper.Ó

But while Sultan might credit his success as a blessing of God, there is a niche he always found in market. After all, it was no coincidence to launch Shan right before Eid. He also knew that retail margins were too high in the country where too many unregulated middlemen mint money, swelling the end cost of a product.

So when he marketed Shan spices at Rs4 a pack, he knew very well that an individual buying all the ingredients separately would always end up paying more.

Another of his marketing endeavors came in 2004 when he launched Shan in India. He had called in best cooks to compete and make dishes using Shan spices. A prize money of Rs100,000 was awarded to the winner.

Still Sultan is reluctant to adopt the most used marketing method, advertisements. In more than 25 years of its existence, Shan has not paid much heed to advertising. Three years back, when Rs80 million were allocated for the purpose out of the company budget, he insisted that the money be given to the poor instead.

But for how long he will continue to resist, only time will tell. ÒI do stick with my philosophy,’he said, but added ‘When you have a team, an individual philosophy doesn’t matter. I know trends have changed.’

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