Tree of Life one of India’s premier importers, marketers and distributors of gourmet, ethnic and specialty foods in India is gearing up to celebrate its 10th anniversary in April 2018. The brand, which has been in the business of helping retailers – from the largest supermarket chains to the smallest independent stores – to meet the constant growing demand for international foods, offers a comprehensive collection of imported, specialty and gourmet food products to a niche audience in India.
With the help of a specially trained in-store promotions team, Tree of Life represents 30 top international and domestic food brands from all over the world, with operations in 60 Indian cities.
In a conversation with IMAGES Retail Bureau, on the sidelines of India Food Forum 2018, Harshita Gandhi, Managing Director, Tree of Life and Ajay Bajaj, Chief Operating Officer, Tree of life, talked about their brand, the journey so far, strategic collaborations and the company’s future roadmap.
How did you sow the seeds of your brand, Tree of Life?
Harshita Gandhi: Tree of Life is a distribution house. We represent International and domestic brands and provide a route to their market strategies. We take care of their inventory management, execution strategies and drive numbers for them to form a complete setup. We started 10 years ago when a couple of brands wanted entry into India. We took them on as clients and helped them set up an India strategy. We’re running a very unique model across India at this moment.
What is your brand focus?
Ajay Bajaj: Our focus is basically on treating all brands equally. We don’t believe in the idea of giving one category more importance over the others. In our 10 years of existence, all categories and companies are important, as long as they are being accepted in the Indian market, by retailers and consumers alike. We also pay a lot of attention to old brands, the same as we would to a new brand.
Harshita Gandhi: Since our work is market-based, we pay a lot of attention to consumer and retailer demands and needs. We work with brands, helping them in areas they want to focus more on, and making them strong in that area. From the Tree of Life perspective, we look for new emerging categories or trends or brands so that the consumer gets a true basket of products to choose from. Our main focus is to provide a huge variety of products to the Indian consumer, aside from what multinational FMCG companies are bringing into the country. That’s the main focus of what we try and do – educate the consumer, help their palate, consumption and table evolve.
Give us a case study.
Ajay Bajaj: I would mention the brand Teera, which is from USA. We launched the brand a few years ago and from Day One it has been accepted to another level by the consumers. The brand is basically healthy vegetable chips, which were available only at the regional level but not at the national level. We got an overwhelming response by the retailers and the consumers and the growth that we have seen in the brand on a yearly basis has been more than fifty percent on a like-to-like basis, which is phenomenal. There are very few brands that give you that sort of traction.
What’s the market size for imported food products in India?
Harshita Gandhi: We don’t like to classify the brand as imported, we see this more of a premium segment. These are all brands that have plans of manufacturing in India or doing something special for India. Most of their products are custom-made for the Indian consumer. I believe that the palate of the Indian consumer is expanding, the kitchen experiences are expanding. There is a tremendous growth in this area which is causing people to experiment at home. It’s too complicated to make some fancy items consumers see on TV from scratch and that is where the brands we bring to India come in because they give them at least a stepping stone to the “scratch cooking” scenario. This is what has spurred the growth of what we do. The fact that you are easily available and reachable helps you a lot. We have seen a lot of pull as compared to the push that we had five-six years ago. Today we get calls from different parts of India, such as Rajkot, Guwahati or Coimbatore saying that they want to source X product of Y brand to stock in their stores. This is because they have realised they are catering to an evolved consumer today.
What kind of growth has your company seen in the last five years?
Harshita Gandhi: We have been in the business for last ten years. We are involved only from the inventory management to sales point of view. We are not involved in manufacturing in anyway. Our span of expertise lies in making sure finished goods reach the consumer.
Our main function is obviously sales and marketing, that is the crux of what we do. But you can’t do sales and marketing without excellent inventory management, supply chain management, and finance and accounts management. These are the areas where we have developed our expertise, our own systems and methods. When we started, we couldn’t hire big solution provider companies, logistics companies to aid us in our work, so we solved our own problems without taking help from any third party. This approach has led us into a very strong position today and we have taken a lot of suppliers with us into this strong place.
We have regional offices in Mumbai and Delhi. Our main distribution center is in Vapi, Gujarat. The Gujarat government has been extremely supportive of small business like us. Our head office is centered in Mumbai, and we are hoping to expand into regional warehousing at this point.
Unlike a lot of even FMCG companies, we have an in-housed marketing division. We do all our last mile execution of marketing, be it sampling, shelf sales, execution of visibility, branding etc. This gives us swiftness and cost control. We have a great business development team. They understand the categories and the products really well and can explain it to retailers.
What is the process of selection of companies?
Harshita Gandhi: Some of the products that we take on are made in the other countries and some are domestic. We take on very selective domestic produced brands, which are looking for a premium consumer. We further look for a strategic alliance in terms of equity rather than just a pure vanilla distribution agreement.
One domestic brand if you take for example is Carnival, which is into nuts, dates and dry fruits. We do this together in a joint venture where Tree of Life is the production, sales and the marketing arm. We own the brand together and this is how we will take out our business across the country.
What’s your geographical reach and what are your expansion plans?
Ajay Bajaj: Currently we are in 60 cities. We intend to expand our distribution centers by creating a regional warehousing of our own. We are working through a network of distributors across the country at this moment, but by 2020 we intend to get into distribution too, wherein we would be catering to the sub-distributors, distributors or retailers directly, regionally.
Harshita Gandhi: It will take us another 20 years to even scratch the surface of India, so we really don’t have any plans to go global. In all our dealings we have realised that for all international brands, India is ‘the’ country to be in. Of course, it is possible that some of our clients may have international plans, so we will embrace that and give them a strategy. However, from a Tree of Life perspective, our ambition is to penetrate the country, treat general trade retailers and the Indian consumers with respect and help them to access what they see on TV and abroad in an understandable way.