Success, in India, is always followed by an inevitable box of laddoos. But for the Mittals of Sujatnagar, a small hamlet near Jaipur, it has been the other way around. The laddoos came first and dizzying success much later. Even today, as owners of the Lovely Professional University (LPU), with a staggering 24,000 students on its rolls, and a slew of business ventures across Punjab in the pipeline, they are best known as the Lovely ‘halwai’ family—and proud of it. The latest arrivals in Punjab’s exuberant world of big business make no secret of their modest origins; indeed, they delight in telling you how they rose from the ranks by seizing every opportunity that a developing India tossed at them. And as they like saying, it all started with a box of sweets.
Started, to be precise, with Lovely Sweet Shop in Jalandhar cantonment’s Sadar Bazaar. The brainchild of Baldev Raj Mittal, a small-time military contractor, it began life in 1961 as a modest hole-in-the-wall operation. But there was nothing modest about Baldev’s ambitions. A boy of 16 at Independence, he helped his father run a small canteen for jawans in an infantry battalion at Sialkot in West Punjab, and moved with the battalion to Ferozepur after Partition. Watching thousands of refugees rebuilding their lives, restless Baldev wanted to reinvent himself too. But his family, which had been forced to flee the harshness of rural Rajasthan not so long ago, was loath to help. A loan of Rs 500 from the commanding officer of the battalion gave Baldev his lucky break. Soon, Lovely Sweets was up and running—the first ‘proper’ sweet shop in these parts—and dispensing laddoos from 5 to 7 pm every day.
Baldev’s elder son Ramesh Mittal, now the chairman of Lovely Group, remembers how he had to drop out of school to help his father run the precarious business. A few years later, younger son Naresh Mittal, now vice-chairman of the group, joined too, after completing his schooling at a small Hindi medium school. “We worked like mazdoors through the ’70s and ’80s,” Naresh now recalls, sitting at the newly renovated shop in Sadar Bazaar. The work paid off, eventually enabling the family to set up a second shop-cum-manufacturing centre in 1986 in Jalandhar city. Their sweets, now hugely popular in Punjab, began travelling across north India, army units among their loyal patrons. The family’s unfailing mantra was: low margins, high volumes. “From 1970 to 1980, we sold our laddoos for just Rs 4 a kg,” recalls Naresh with a smile.
While Baldev and his two elder sons were selling laddoos, another dreamer was getting ready to try out his wings, or rather his wheels. As the economy opened up in the early ’90s, Indian businesses found their monopolies giving way to a fiercely competitive environment, and needed dynamic dealers. Ashok, the youngest of Baldev’s sons, set his heart on a dealership with Bajaj, the leading manufacturer of two-wheelers. The family, jittery about diversifying in this direction, did not encourage him. Rather, despite being a good student, he was drafted into the sweet shop right after school. Rebelling, he attended law classes in the evening, ended up topping his class and eventually found himself trying for a break with Bajaj Autos—and getting it. “They initially rejected our application—I later learnt that a manager had said Bajaj was not so badly off that it needed to take halwais as dealers—but we got a personal interview with Rahul Bajaj and managed to convince him that we knew how to do business,” recalls Ashok, now chancellor of LPU. Indeed, they did. After establishing that first Bajaj dealership in 1991, the Mittals set up two more in Phagwara 1994 and Kapurthala in 2004. Lovely Autos now sells 14,000 two-wheelers annually.
Around 1996, Maruti too was looking to expand its dealership network in Punjab, and the Mittals, with two successful Bajaj dealerships under their belt, didn’t have to fight for this one. (Today, they sell 4,000 cars annually from two dealerships in Jalandhar and Nawanshahr). And having made money hand over fist from their old and new businesses—no, they won’t say how much—the family was ripe to leap into the private education boom of the late 1990s, undeterred by the fact that the head of the family had never set foot in a college.
The Lovely Sweets shop in Jalandhar Cantt
At first, their past was a barrier: “It took us two years to get approval from AICTE to start a management college because of our ‘laddoo-peda background’,” recalls Ashok. But the Mittals steamrollered their way in, starting an engineering college too, in 2000. Baldev Raj, who died in 2004, lived to see his sons diversifying into these completely unexpected businesses, but not their giant leap forward with LPU, in 2006. It came into being through a special law—one that insulated the university from government interference in many areas. It was passed by the state assembly, with the support, surprisingly, of both the then ruling Congress and opposition Akalis, setting tongues wagging about how the Mittals knew how to use their sweets well. Spread on a 600-acre campus on the outskirts of Jalandhar, LPU claims to be the largest single-campus private university in the country, attracting students from across the country as well as abroad, and housing 10,000 of them on the campus. When recession hit India’s private sector, the Mittals saw the opportunity to hire IIT graduates as faculty and today have more than 200 on their rolls! Their own Gen Next too is busy pursuing the path of higher education denied to its halwai fathers. Two sons have management degrees from the US and UK, two others are currently studying engineering and management in the US.
The Lovely Sweets shop in Jalandhar Cantt in its current, polished avatar. (Photogaph by Narendra Bisht)
At LPU, meanwhile, the high volumes mantra clearly applies still, even if the margins are way beyond those for the laddoos. Its 24,000 students (a scale of operation criticised by others in the education business as unmanageable) pay around Rs 1 lakh each annually, and the Mittals are using the fees to complete their campus—which will have its own shopping mall. And since they can see mithais going out of fashion as gifts, they are also all set to unveil ‘Imaginations by Lovely’, a mall exclusively for marriage and celebrations catering.
Yet each morning, Ramesh still carries out the ritual of personally opening the Sadar Bazaar sweet shop at 8 am. And while there’s a fleet of cars to travel in, Mercs and Beemers among them, the family of 17 still lives in the old house in Sadar Bazaar they bought in 1972. Success, for Ramesh, is all about “staying united and working very hard”. He is dead on. The clan works together as a single entity, and is the heart of its diverse businesses. Where no one returns from work before 10 pm!