When Jean Philippe Laborde, the Managing Director of Ebro India Pvt Ltd. first landed in the country in 2012, he thought that the market here was one entity and he could manufacture and sell a single product such as the basmati rice across the land. With the help of a few colleagues, he began the process of establishing a wing of the Spanish giant Ebro Foods, in India. On one such days, he travelled to Hyderabad to source rice from Andhra Pradesh. He asked his colleague Navjot to accompany him to help with language and cultural barriers. Upon reaching Hyderabad, Jean Philippe booked a cab and realised that the driver could neither speak English or Hindi. The only language the driver properly knew was Telugu. That was the first instance when Jean Philippe realised that not everyone understands everyone here. That was a great moment of learning for him.
He took this as the first step to understand the Indian market and all its complexities. In the years that had followed, he landed in 30 different cities of India and travelled to many remote places in the far corners of the country to understand consumer behaviour here. He finally learned that India is a very diverse country and wherever you go, you forget what you learn and need to learn something new. He settled well in the country, making dal chawal and biryani his household favourites even as he is embarking on a mission to take on the Indian market with Ebro’s rice and pasta products. We caught up with Jean Philippe for a little chat where he spoke to us about the brand and its pathways in India. Here are a few snippets from the interview:
How did Ebro Foods start and what’s the legacy like?
In initial stages, Ebro Puleva (Ebro’s older name) had two divisions - sugar division and milk products - all over Spain. The founders wanted to expand their base and enter the rice industry so they took over a rice company called Herba. The company became the market leader in Europe within a span of ten years and eventually they sold the sugar and milk products divisions and stuck to manufacture of rice and pasta alone. This resounding success in such a short span of time has also made the story of Ebro Foods a case study in Harvard University.
What is Ebro’s reach like in the rest of the world and how has coming to India been?
Ebro’s turnover today is 2.5bn Euros. We have 25 companies and are already present in 80 countries. In most of the countries where we are present, we have a leading position. Not just in Spain, where we started, but everywhere. We are the market leader of rice in the world and the second largest manufacturers of pasta in the world. India has been a great start for us in 2013 and before India we were in Thailand in the Asian market.
What are the main principles that Ebro follows in terms of product quality?
We believe that the most important is to be innovative because eating habits are changing across the globe. We are also a responsible company in terms of ethics, integrity and commitment to health and well-being of our consumers. That’s why we’re into rice and pasta as these are natural products. We try to make it convenient for our consumers to savour them through ready-to-eat standard pouches.
What are the challengers in manufacture/ sales for a company that is selling something as basic as rice and pasta?
One of the biggest threats is the fear of becoming a commoditised product. Rice and pasta are just a base, the idea is to really add value to these. There is a good chunk of consumers who are value seekers here and are not just looking at the price point. We believe we can cater to this section because we know the product and we are deeply connected to its roots. Within Ebro we have four R&D centres which are also very well connected to all the marketing departments that asses market needs. Based on these needs, we work backwards while defining what kind of product we need.
Where do you source paddy from?
We source paddy from all the states around our factory – Punjab, Haryana, UP, MP and Rajasthan. We have a lot of teams and commissioned agents who are trained to buy the right quality of paddy. We are very integrated as a system. We have our own farming programme. If we want to develop a certain kind of rice, we form different groups of farmers and guide them on what to do to improve the quality to produce the rice and we commit to buy the full produce they manage. This will also improve the livelihood of the farmers. We also run a programme called sustainability programme. We make sure we don’t put chemicals and fertilisers because it is not safe for the farmers and it is also not good in the long run.
Are there any Ebro products that are much different from the ones of other brands available right now, quality wise?
As far as premium basmati rice is concerned we have launched Puroma Vintage Collection 2014. And we make a limited series which changes every year. As far as pasta is concerned, there is a lot that can be done here. There are more than hundred shapes of pasta. We can try a lot of recipes with it.
How exactly are you planning to that with the product?
We are going to Sula Fest in February because pasta and wine match very well. You can celebrate a beautiful moment with pasta although it’s simple. Pasta should be home-made and its diversity has to be understood well. The market is small for pasta in India. However, Italian cuisine is the second most preferred cuisine in India for dining out. We want to bring that pasta into homes instead.
Did you also change names when you came to the Indian market?
Puroma, the premium quality raw rice and Ultimate, the steam rice, are new to the market.
Is India one of the biggest market Ebro has entered considering India’s staple food is rice?
India is a market of 2 MMT basmati rice. We position ourselves differently and are trying to find a unique space because there are already well established brands in the market which have deep networks throughout the country. We are trying to bring good quality rice that is affordable whether it is for daily consumption or for use on special occasions.
How is the competition from local markets?
There are two different markets - one is rice and one is pasta. Pasta is way more organised, in the sense that it is more of an FMCG product. Though rice is also shifting towards packaged food/ FMCG sector, it is still unorganised because you can buy rice in bulk, from the kirana shop and a lot of other places. The quality may not be consistent in such cases. We aim to understand the consumer and provide consistently high quality products.
Considering so much of trade has moved online, is it easier to sell packaged rice now?
Modern trade, which happens online, works better for footwear, apparel, etc. which has seen a huge shift due to the price discounts. The case is different with food where general retail trade still reigns supreme.
There are a few companies that sell good pasta in Indian market, are they competition to Ebro?
They are more expensive than our products. The level of quality that we give is much better. Most of the other brands just import pasta and put it on the shelves. We make our pasta for Indian market. Our packaging has indicators of cooking styles that are suitable for Indian taste. The quality of wheat that we are using helps it keep the shape even if it’s overcooked, which is not the case with pastas of other brands.
What is the market plan you have in India for the coming years?
We have almost tripled our volume of turnover in three years, which is very a fast-growing profile for our industry. We have introduced pasta last year and we aim to be a 1,000-crore company by 2020.
What can the Indian consumer look forward to from Ebro as a brand?
We promise quality. We directly bring European standards in terms of quality of food, which is one of toughest regulations in the world and we apply the same things we do in Europe, in India. We directly connect with the farmers, we want to be committed and contribute to the society. We believe that we have a duty to do sustainable business. We take care of the entire value chain within the company. During the initial years, we’ve not been in profit but that hasn’t kept us from investing in CSR activities. We have a division called ‘EKTA’, which stands for Ebro India Kisaan Training Programme and Awareness. It’s a one way programme where we go to villages, gather farmers and give lectures and guidance on ways to get better revenue. Handing out money is easy, the harder part is to teach them how to make money and the best out of your land and resources, we educate them on this. We also have an educational programme in Karnal in two ITI schools. We promote poor students to join these schools and pay their fees and give them practical training at our rice mills. We are proud supporters and activists of the Beti Bachao (Save Girl Child) programme. We fund the education of selected female students to achieve success in their future endeavours.
What are your favourite Ebro Foods products?
Puroma Vintage Absolute Collection 2014, brown rice and based on my diet, the Panzani pasta.