East India Company: Still brimming with life and spice

Asian Affairs, May 2013

David Watts meets Sanjiv Mehta, chairman and managing director of the reborn East India Company, who has big plans for this global luxury brand with an outstanding pedigree.

Sanjiv Mehta
EIC Chairman Sanjiv Mehta

You can almost smell the juniper berries in the heart of Mayfair. Just as representatives of the East India Company (EIC) used to enjoy sipping their stengahs as the sun went down over the Far East in Elizabethan times, so their modern descendants will soon be drinking in the same spicy floral aroma.

For three years EIC experts have been re-creating the original for the delectation of modern palettes.

‘It’s all developed through the history of the EIC, the ingredients, the processes, the botanicals, the spices, the woody flavour and flowers from EIC territories,’ says Sanjiv Mehta, chairman and managing director of the resuscitated company that created the British Empire, drew the parameters of the modern Commonwealth, originated the concept of globalisation and brought tea and exotic spices to the tables of middle England. At its height it controlled the global trade in indigo dye, cotton, silk, opium and tea before it ceased trading in 1874.

Or, as The Times put it in January of that year: ‘It accomplished a work such as in the whole history of the human race no other company has attempted and is ever likely to attempt in the years to come.’

Mehta has made it his life’s work to create a new international luxury brand on the basis of this remarkable commercial pedigree of which he is now the guardian.
The attention to detail in the re-birth of the company’s gin marks out the degree of responsibility that now resides in him and it is typical of the man whose watchwords are authenticity, quality and homage to history.

Unfazed by the company’s not always salubrious history as an opium trader and oppressor of his fellow countrymen, he points to the EIC’s propagation of the English language, the creation of extensive railways, ports and other infrastructure, the civil service and the ‘huge relationship to all walks of life’ in India. ‘It’s not just food products.’

The EIC’s role in the history of his motherland has to be seen in the round, he says: ‘There’re a lot of good things the EIC has done and in doing those things there were some things it did for its own greed that are considered wrong today.

‘It’s very difficult to judge history by the present. Probably 200 years from now some of the activities we do today will be deemed as wrong as we deem the activities of the EIC now.

‘When the press in India heard that an Indian had bought the EIC, there was a complete reversal of the mood and 4,000 press articles have come out, all of them rejoicing at this fact. Since the re-launch I have had 40-45,000 emails from people from all across the world congratulating me.’

Seated beneath a portrait of Sir James Lancaster in Skinners’ Hall, London, Mehta looks entirely at home as the scion of the resurgent firm. He was there to celebrate the 400th anniversary of contacts between Britain and Japan organised by Japan400 (www.japan400.com), which is marking the anniversary with a year-long series of events throughout the two countries. As a plain captain, James Lancaster made the first voyage of the company in February 1601, financed by the Worshipful Company of Skinners. His flagship was the Dragon, along with the Hector, the Susan and the Ascension. The fleet carried £28,472 of bullion for purchases and £6,860 of goods which included wrought iron, crockery, pistols and spectacles. The good captain knew the value of lemons in warding off scurvy so his men enjoyed the use of their teeth for the rest of the voyage. His fellow commanders took no such precautions so most crewmen lost their teeth and, indeed, 105 lost their lives altogether.

Thwarted in legitimate trade for spices by the Dutch, Lancaster had to resort to piracy to seize a large cargo of pepper and Indian cottons from a Portuguese ship. That did not bar him from receiving a knighthood on his return.
But the company learned some valuable lessons, not least the strength of the opposition they were facing in the shape of the Dutch East India Company, which not only had muscle behind it but greater capital, £540,000, against the English company’s £68,373.

But if Lancaster was apt to use muscle to further the company’s aims, Mehta has proved along the way to re-creating the EIC that he has guile and determination in equal measure. Trading coffee into Russia as communism was collapsing, his shipments kept on disappearing though they were sealed into containers. Having lost three shipments worth $270,000, he determined to find out what was happening to them as they traversed from Kotka in Finland to Moscow.

It was a project worthy of Sherlock Holmes himself — and Mehta looks not unlike a Gujarati personification of the great sleuth. It was uncanny because when the paperwork was completed, the containers were padlocked and sealed in Kotka and the keys sent separately to the buyer in Moscow to prevent pilfering along the way. And yet when the containers arrived in Moscow, they were empty though the locks and seals were intact. There was no sign of forced entry and no fingerprints. The insurance company refused to settle: without evidence of any damage Mehta could not prove that his coffee had been stolen.

But ‘Sherlock’ Mehta sussed what the thieves had done: they had unhinged the door of the container, removed it, extracted the coffee and then bolted and resealed the door after setting it back on its hinges. The padlock was in place as if nothing had happened, securely locking a completely empty container.

So when the next shipment came due, he flew to Kotka and sat with the truck delivery driver all the way to St Petersburg. A cold night in 1991 found him on the dockside there outside the customs clearance house. He sat with the container aboard the vessel all the way to the Russian capital, saying not a word to anyone on board. The ruse worked — the thefts stopped.

Mehta smiles enigmatically when the question of the capital of the modern company is raised but he has been quoted as saying that some $20 million was involved and it will take five times that to take the EIC to the level that he aspires to. Having spotted the commercial potential of the dormant company in 2003, he patiently started building up his holding. It took until 2005 to acquire the necessary intellectual property rights from the Crown and the Treasury.

A trained gemologist with long experience trading tea and coffee, Mehta says: ‘I saw a very natural fit for myself. I’m an Indian living in London and here is a company that once owned India so there was a remarkable connection between myself and the company.

‘I saw that the global awareness of the EIC was more than 2.3 billion people. The title is an interesting set of words because the East looks at it as the regal West and the West looks at it as the exotic East; I also saw that wealth was moving east.

‘There were no luxury brands in the East; no global luxury brands. There were French and Italian brands and the EIC has a name which is the footprint of the Empire and the footprint of the Commonwealth.

‘I’m inspired by history, the countries that it traded with, the products that it traded with; the design influence that it’s got — a huge stretch — in terms of brand products, a huge stretch of design: right from the post-Elizabethan, early Georgian, right up to Art Deco and Art Noveau.

‘The brand is extremely powerful: most places when we knock on the door, the door is opened. The brand is a great door-opener. It brings lots of connectivity to us; it brings trust; it allows us to have narrations of the stories around the products for the customers. Retail is story-telling; brand is story-telling. The customer buys your foods when they trust; trust comes from authenticity; authenticity comes from heritage and provenance — we have all of these things bundled up.’

EIC’s modern face is a smokey-glass, discreet shop front on Conduit Street in London’s Mayfair ‘golden triangle’, where spending and quality are at a premium. The shop’s dark interior cannot be seen from the outside, adding to the oriental allure, while inside the darkness adds to the sense that you are escaping the sun’s heat in some scented far eastern trading emporium.

Here you have entered the library, which features some 100 different teas and where you’ll be introduced to specialist coffees and modern exotics in savoury biscuits and red pepper-flavoured chocolate.

Just as the original company brought exotic foods to the dining tables of middle England before selling them on to the rest of the world, so Mehta is repeating the process but with a whole galaxy of things that were not available originally, including jewellery, alcohol, fashion, porcelain and coins — it remains the only company in England with the right to mint its own coinage — and even interior design.

British royalty — he supplied the teas for the Queen’s jubilee celebrations last year — are among his customers, as are the royal families of the Gulf sheikhdoms, the al-Sauds and the management of the Japanese Isetan department store.
But who would launch such a venture into the middle of a recession? It’s the ideal time, retorts Mehta. The speed of the EIC’s evolution and his plans for the future have proved him right.
Economic slow-downs are not major concerns for his clients: ‘We are at a high price point. We are much more for people who are connoisseurs, collectors and curators and those who aspire to be. These people are not subject to economic slumps.

‘In fact, in a down-market it’s better to build a luxury brand because the resources of talent, real estate and design you require are more easily affordable. Consumers of these goods are not affected in any economic swings but the suppliers are affected by the swings (as it becomes a buyer’s market).’

Just about the time Mehta’s gin will start to delight the palettes of its first aficionados, the finishing touches will be put to the minting of a special 400-piece issue of coins marking Japan400 and the first 400 years of the Anglo-Japanese relationship which the original EIC did so much to establish.

A former Royal Mint engraver — who created the English £2 coin — is working on that project and, as with other EIC coins, they will be minted in England, at the US Mint or those of Norway, Holland or Switzerland, whichever fits the programme.

The EIC’s expansion plans are now moving forward apace with plans for new stores to be opened about once every 45 days and an eye on establishing an online presence.

An opening in Kuwait will be followed by Riyadh, Doha, Abu Dhabi and Dubai this year with negotiations underway with potential franchise partners in Malaysia and Singapore. China will follow, probably with a first presence in Hong Kong.
So far there are no concrete plans for an Indian presence. Coals to Newcastle? ‘No,’ says Mehta, ‘We will open in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. The important thing with our brand position is that we need the right real estate. Getting that right is not easy. Unless we get that right there is no point in opening at all.’

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