Dharti Desai : First Lady of Imported Wines

Entering her spacious office in Mumbai, you'd  think you have entered the wrong place. Full of state- of -the -art print production equipment, laser printers and bundles of paper, it reminds you of a printing press. It's only when you enter her cabin that an array of wine bottles, books on wine and pictures of visits to vineyards behind her desk give a clue that she also deals in wines

Meet Ms. Dharti Desai- the charming Founder and CEO of FineWinesN More, the 'More' part of the partnership firm in more ways than one; the first lady of wine imports in India (there are not many in the business!), a true donna del vino.

Known as D to her family and friends, she has a very effervescent personality. But don't mistake her- she has a nose for wine and a nose for money!

Born in Ahmedabad and spending early years shuttling between Chennai, Mumbai and Ahmedabad she went to France for the first time on an assignment when she was the Assistant Director at Alliance Francaise at Ahmedabad.

She was lucky to get a job at the Alliance Francaise as a French Professor when she decided to move to New York in 1993. While being a translator for a client in direct marketing, she was enamoured with the concept and she joined the NYU in the evenings and got herself a diploma in the subject.  

Direct Marketing…

During a visit to India in 1996, she came to India and discussed with her family the idea of starting her own company by introducing proven DM concepts from the West in to India. Encouraged by their support, she founded Regency Direct Marketing India Pvt. Ltd. the following year.

It was a tough going initially till she got a break with Standard Chartered Bank for "Insert media". 'I had to work on the people explaining them the concept, since the idea of promoting products through direct contact with the buyer was relatively new in India then,' explains Dharti. 'It took us four years to make the company profitable and sustainable,' she says, adding confidently, 'I believed in the concept, in myself and in India.'

… And More

'Our printing costs were very high and we started looking at how to control them. We realised we were overpaying by 50-60%. That's when we decided to start a printing firm in 2001 and thus was born Mail Order Solutions, in 2001. This was a profitable venture from day one as we had our own business as the captive client. Today, we are printing and mailing to 160 countries worldwide.'

And what are the revenues from these two companies? 'Rs. 55 crores ($ 13 million),' she discloses unabashedly.

So does she live in India or in the US? 'I spend most of my time in India, though I shift to New York with my daughter in the summer for 2 months and go for short visits, when needed.' She has her offices also in New York, Vancouver and London, being managed by the local staff.

No Business like Wine Business

Why did she think of getting into the wine business especially with her hands already full with the two businesses and being a single mom on top? Phir bhi Yeh Dharti Mange More

'I became passionate about wines when I went to France for the first time years ago and the passion carried on during my stay in New York. I had tucked this dream of passion away for the practical life. After moving back to India in 2005 and with the market opening up in India, I figured the time was right to get into this business. Also my brother was such a big help in encouraging me and by doing everything in the other businesses, even if it meant putting in 13 hour days so I could pursue my dream of selling wines to consumers directly in India. Little did I know what I was getting into!', she adds with a grin.

But you had no previous knowledge of wine marketing? 'True, but I knew marketing and I loved wines, so with a vision and with the financial strength needed to make a success of it, I just went for it and threw caution to the winds. I guess I have the right personality for taking risks'

And how did she start the company? 'Well, I kept on asking people about leads and their opinions about the wine business. Most of them discouraged me for many reasons, including the fact that I am a woman in a man's domain. This wouldn't deter me, I knew. So I kept searching for the right answers till someone introduced me to Sumedh Singh Mandla, who in my mind, knows wine better than anyone and definitely better than some of the so called experts in our country!

Sumedh has great domain knowledge because of his F & B background in J W Marriott. He even carried a small but pretty good portfolio of imported wines in his previous company, but was financially overstretched dangerously. So I made him an offer which was a win-win for both of us and FineWinesnMore was born in January of 2007. 

While building the company, I have met some not so wonderful and some wonderful people like you, Magandeep Singh, Alok Chandra, Kapil Grover, Satyam Savla of Juben Wines in Mumbai, Reva Singh, Shiv Singh and others, who guided me, gave free advice and helped me firm up a strategy for my company. Some of them are my friends now and watch out for me and encourage me so much.   

Innovation and Credibility

'I have established my company to be an innovative and a credible player in a short time. I went to customs and excise offices where women normally do not enter and went totally hands on into various parts of the business. With Sumedh efficiently handling the customers, I had it easier to learn and in turn train people which I think is most important. And if I know my job, I can manage people well,' she says with a look of confidence in her eyes.

'It is most important that all the people with us understand the image and philosophy of the company and be completely in tune with it. I have zero tolerance for people who don't'.

Top 10 wine importer

FineWinesNMore (FWM) has been on the fast track and in a short span of less than two years has become one of the Top 10 wine importers of India; the partnership was started only in January 2007. How did she do it? How many cases of wine did she import last year?

'I can tell you that, without any hesitation. We imported about 7,500 cases last fiscal year. We were left with about a 1,000 cases that were unsold. It may not be a lot when compared to the top player in the imported segment, but for us it's been a great start. Plus the challenge was that I was still building my portfolio, my team and markets across India and that needed a lot of cash.' she volunteers.

Since she was in a mood to discuss so openly, I was tempted to ask her for an opportunity to look at her passport and also ask her new company's turnover. But, it would be rude to ask this thirty-five year old looking donna del vino her age or finances directly, though forthright as she is, she perhaps won't mind disclosing.

Distribution Strength

'I don't mind sharing with you that it is our strategy to be present nationally as fast as possible. We are already present in 13 cities, with a support office in Delhi and the head office in Mumbai, of course.'

'Initially I want to leverage my marketing experience and reach the people directly. I have a data base of 285,000 gold, sliver and platinum credit card holders across 13 metros. Therefore, we have formed a wine club we call fwmclub.
FWM Club

'Our concept of the club is different than the model adopted by your Delhi Wine Club or the Wine Society in that we do not plan on ground events. We have three types of memberships in Mumbai, no membership costs but the per shipment costs are 3 tiered - Platinum at Rs. 22,500, Gold at Rs.12,500 and Silver at Rs. 7,500. This would entitle a member, 6 bottles of wine every 2 months. In Delhi, the shipment charges are lower at Rs. 17,500, Rs.10, 000 and Rs. 6,500 only due to lower excise duties.

The members will also get invited to various launch events, tasting sessions, and winemaker dinners, as well as participate in a draw for trips to vineyards.

We plan to open these clubs in 10 cities, within 3 years,' says Desai adding that 'these clubs will be centrally connected through our portal www.fwmclub.com.

Maharashtra Excise

'The 200% excise has killed the fine wine market in Mumbai. Trashy, cheap wines are going to come to Maharashtra. We have a niche market for our well selected wines. We do not plan to downgrade our product mix. We shall continue to increase our market share gradually.'

It is a tribute to the vision of her company that 13 out of the 13 labels submitted for the first-ever India Wine Challenge won some medal, with the Forrest Estate Pinot Noir winning the Great Gold. 'We have a very progressive outlook about such events and we believe that they must be encouraged as it would improve the quality of wines coming in. We do have some entry level wines to be used as house wine that we shall offer in this market along with our existing portfolio,' she admits.

Italian Wines Galore

'Partly because of the earlier dealings of Sumedh's Brandwagon and partly because of my personal preference and business choice, we continue to deal in fine Italian wines in a big way.' 40% of the wines they sell are Italians, 20% are Australian with wines from France, New Zealand, Spain, Chile and Germany forming the rest of their portfolio.We are very proud of our partners and their support in understanding the real potential for this market, and not rushing us by pushing volumes. India will be huge in 5 years in wine consumption", she adds. 

'55% of our wines are sold in Mumbai. We have our own arrangements in Delhi. In Bangalore, we sell to KSBC. We do not have a distributor yet in Rajasthan where we are selling mainly through 5-star hotels.
Do you know our German wines are getting very popular in Chennai where we are also present?' she exclaims.

How much staff do they have to carry out their sales nationally? 'We have a total of 19 persons  at the moment in our wine business though I have a total of 150 people in the Regency and Mail Order businesses that provide an incredible resource to give us fantastic strength.'

Strategic Planning

'With his F & B contacts, Sumedh can look after the sales and I can concentrate on the overall strategy planning in consultation with my partners and family', says Desai.

So what is in store in the near future? 'To start with we are concentrating on the retail market that is opening up. We are already supplying to Nature's Basket, Spencer's, and Hyper City. Chateau Indage is opening a wine bar in Bandra. I believe they will open many more. We are supplying to them as well.

I have also stressed focus for this financial year on the "More" part of the business by bringing in a luxury natural fruit juice brand from Australia called Sunraysia Five Star, which caters only to the five star hotels, Michelin starred restaurants and First Class on international airlines like Emirates, Qantas and British Airways. We launched this brand in early June and the
 product is already available in Mumbai at the Grand Hyatt, Lake Chalet and an order is being processed as we speak for The Four Seasons'.  

Indian Wines

'With about 5000 imported labels in India and with consumption not keeping pace, it is going to be very difficult to keep the business of imports very viable or lucrative unless we take appropriate action. With the new wave of importers like Berkmann Wine Cellars coming in from England, the competition is going to hot up even more. We intend to broad base ourselves to thwart competition

We also plan to add Indian wines to our portfolio. Within this year we plan to partner with an Indian producer and market their products exclusively.'

Will she be able to find the right partner? 'It is not going to be an easy task. Our partner should have a philosophy like ours to produce quality wines and should have faith in our capabilities of marketing the products and not just trade or offer logistical support. I am sure we shall find the right partner soon.'

Having made an impact fairly quickly, there should be no doubt that Dharti Desai, the Founder & CEO of Regency Direct Marketing Services, Mail Order Solutions and FineWinesNMore and the first lady of wine imports, should have no problems in meeting her clearly defined objectives.

Passion has no gender but if you look up the Italian dictionary, the equivalent la pazione is feminine. Dharti Desai is the embodiment of la passion. personified in whatever she does, be it direct marketing, printing or marketing wine. Dharti means earth. This Dharti has her feet on the ground and sights in the skies.

Subhash Arora





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