A Yoga Master, the King of ‘Baba Cool,’ Stretches Out an Empire

A Yoga Master, the King of ‘Baba Cool,’ Stretches Out an Empire

- in Yoga News

Mr. Balakrishna, as the managing director, runs day-to-day operations. “Without him, nothing would be possible,” Mr. Ramdev said of his partner, who paced in the office as the interview with the loquacious swami spilled over its one-hour allotment.

The two men met in the 1990s, when they studied at the same gurukul, a residential school that was the norm for Indian Hindus before the British arrived. Both the sons of farmers, they went on together to study in the Himalayas, Mr. Ramdev focusing on yoga and Mr. Balakrishna on Ayurveda.

In 1994, they founded the first of three charitable trusts, to run a hospital and a university dealing in Ayurvedic medicine, and an ashram. There, they held yoga camps and free health checkups at which they dispensed Ayurveda treatments, which are largely herbal. Before long, they had set up a manufacturing plant for Ayurveda products.

Around the same time, Mr. Ramdev began his televised yoga classes. Lean and muscular, Mr. Ramdev proved to be a telegenic tour de force, bringing yoga to India’s poor and the growing middle class.

He gradually ventured beyond yoga to become a public critic of government corruption, leading a mass protest in New Delhi in 2011 and later endorsing Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the election in 2014.

Mr. Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party swept to power soon after, unleashing a strong Hindu nationalist sentiment that Mr. Ramdev says has created “an ideal ecosystem” to support his business. Mr. Modi pushed the United Nations to create International Yoga Day, and he inaugurated it last year, with Mr. Ramdev by his side, in a nationally televised ceremony involving 35,000 people.

Few people noticed when Mr. Ramdev and Mr. Balakrishna founded Patanjali in 2006, and then, in 2009, began building factories on a 150-acre campus about 20 miles from Haridwar.

Patanjali now has 28 factories at the campus that make more than 800 products that are sold at around 20,000 franchised outlets around the country, company officials said. Twenty-five technicians in a dozen glass-walled labs use computers to test ingredients for contaminants, from pesticides to heavy metals.

Mr. Ramdev, given to raucous laughter and bouts of giggles that make him seem disarmingly humble, can just as suddenly overflow with bravado, as he did when asked about the source of Patanjali’s popularity and power.

“People buy our products because they believe I will only sell them good things,” he said.

Beyond Mr. Ramdev’s appeal, Patanjali products are attractive because they are high quality and prices are about 20 percent lower than the competition, analysts said.


Patanjali expects revenue of $750 million from the last fiscal year.

Kuni Takahashi for The New York Times

It is not clear how Patanjali is able to charge such low prices, given that its profit margin of 13 percent is within the industry range of 13 to 16 percent. Mr. Ramdev ventured that, with his fame, his advertising costs are much lower than his competitors’, who spend as much as 15 percent of their revenue promoting their products.

The faces of Mr. Ramdev and Mr. Balakrishna adorn most every building, billboard and truck connected to the company, which is expanding so fast it is striking fear into its current and potential competitors. The company expects to report revenue of $750 million in the fiscal year that ended in March, more than double the previous year’s $300 million, the two men said.

Credit-Suisse Securities, in a report early this year, said Patanjali’s “meteoric rise” had hurt Colgate-Palmolive (India) Ltd., which is majority owned by the United States-based Colgate-Palmolive. Sales of Colgate’s toothpastes slowed from growing at about 10 percent annually to just 1 percent in the quarter ending in December, in the face of competition from Patanjali, Rohit Kadam, the analyst who wrote the report, said in an interview.

The report said sales of health supplements at Dabur India Ltd., one of the country’s largest consumer goods companies, had been growing at close to 20 percent annually but began falling at the end of last year, hurt by competition from Patanjali.

In the face of that threat, Patanjali’s competitors “are working on overdrive to create similar types of product options,” Mr. Bijoor, the brand strategist, said.

Colgate has introduced toothpastes containing the extract of neem, an Indian tree, and charcoal, both still used by villagers to clean their teeth. Spokesmen for Colgate and Dabur did not respond to requests for comment.

Experts say that, for the foreseeable future, the only danger signs for Patanjali are the enthusiasms of its founder, Mr. Ramdev.

If he takes it “a bit too far, he’ll lose new customers,” said Sunil Alagh, a business consultant and formerly chief executive of Britannia Industries Ltd., an Indian company famous for packaged cookies.

In the past, Mr. Ramdev has dived into controversial conservative causes without hesitation. Last year, for example, he claimed that he could cure homosexuality by treating a person with yoga.

Mr. Ramdev was also outspoken in his condemnation of a student at a New Delhi university who faced sedition charges after the authorities accused him of participating in a pro-Pakistan campus rally. “The traitors,” Mr. Ramdev said, “must be arrested.”

Controversy aside, Mr. Bijoor has predicted that the “Baba Cool Movement” will eventually outsell both multinationals and top Indian companies alike.

“It’s about a good connect,” he said. “It’s about becoming the umbilical cord connecting the past to the present.”

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