Tuesday, December 30, 2008

As old as the hills

This is one business that began as a sort of 'mail-order' trading and then went on to become one of the best known department stores of the Bangalore-Madras circuit. The mail-order part of it was incidental. In the early days of the postal system in India, the postmen were called "runners" - some of them traversed a route so long that the postmen must have had to run nonstop to do it all in one day. One such route was the Mettupalayam-Coonoor-Ooty trip. Sometime at the turn of the 19th century, the 'runner' on this route was Muthusamy Mudaliar. Earlier runners had no dobut fulfilled the requests from the houses on the hillsides to bring butter and other dairy products up from Mettupalayam, but Muthusamy Mudaliar went a step further and opened shop at Charles Villa, Coonoor, in 1905.

With the demand for products like butter being greater from British households (the Indians presumably churned their own), the first plains location for Nilgiri's Dairy Farm was Bangalore, in 1939. By 1945, the store had expanded under Muthusamy's son Chenniappan and was offering a range of products, including ice-creams and confectionery, apart from the flagship dairy and bakery products. With a pasteurising plant in Erode, it was not too difficult to service both Bangalore and Madras, so in the 1960s, Nilgiri's products began to be sold by the Madras Farm Agencies. It would be another two decades before the first full fledged Nilgiri's store was opened in Madras, in 1981.

That store on Radhakrishnan Salai still remains the only Niligiri's run operation in Chennai, along with the Nilgiri's Nest hotel; the other stores in the city are all franchises. Actis, a PE firm took a 51% stake in Niligiri's two years ago to help the chain expand from its current 30-odd stores (in 2006) to about 500 stores by 2011. Not bad for a runner's business-on-the-side!

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