Foreign venture cos fund medical retail chain’s back-end business


August 26, 2008

MINT (Exclusive Partner The Wall Street Journal)
DELHI, 26 August 2008

Since India bars overseas investments in a retail venture selling multi-branded products to consumers, the two foreign funds have invested in MedPlus’ wholesale arm

Two venture capital firms have invested $25 million (Rs109 crore) in Hyderabad-based pharmaceutical retailer MedPlus Health Services Pvt. Ltd in the first publicly known foreign investment in a medical store chain.

NEA-IndoUS Ventures, a Santa Clara, California-based venture fund, and an unnamed fund from West Asia have jointly invested the amount in MedPlus for an undisclosed stake, a person close to the transaction said, asking not to be identified ahead of a formal announcement.

A top MedPlus executive, too, declined details. “It’s confidential,” said Madhukar Gangadi, chief executive of MedPlus. “At this point of time I am unable to tell you anything.”

Since India bars overseas investments in a retail venture selling multi-branded products to consumers, the two foreign funds have invested in MedPlus’ wholesale arm. India allows up to 100% foreign investments in so-called wholesale cash-and-carry retail ventures that sell only to other retailers and businesses. Such ventures are not allowed to sell to end consumers. NEA IndoUS has, in the past, funded Microqual Techno Pvt. Ltd, a firm that makes telecom components and chips, and mortgage solutions provider ISGN Technologies Ltd.

In a bid to gain access to India’s more than $300 billion retail market that is growing annually by 7%, the world’s top three retailers Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Carrefour SA and Tesco Plc. have announced wholesale ventures in the country and let local firms manage the front-end stores that sells to consumers. Such branded retail businesses account for just 3% of the market today, but are expanding at about 35% annually.

Pharmaceutical products are retailed in India through 800,000 mom-and-pop stores and less than 1% is operated through organized ventures. In recent years, hundreds of branded pharma outlets have mushroomed nationwide operated by Apollo Pharmacy, Medicine Shoppe, Guardian Lifecare Pvt. Ltd, Subhiksha Trading Services Ltd and MedPlus among others. Guardian Lifecare is also looking for private equity (PE) investment, according to Ashutosh Garg, the company’s chairman and managing director.

MedPlus operates more than 500 drug stores in Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat and Rajasthan and plans to double that number by March 2009. Last year, MedPlus received $5.2 million funding from Mauritius’ iLabs Management Llc. (currently called Peepul Capital Llc.), a PE fund co-founded by Satyam Computer Services Ltd’s former chief operating officer Srini Raju.

Though the MedPlus funding is the first of its kind in drug retailing, foreign PE funds have backed retail ventures in other businesses in the past.

In 2006, for instance, UK-based Actis Capital Llp. invested about $65 million for a controlling stake in the back-end operation of Nilgiris Dairy Farm that through a different company operates a chain of supermarkets.

A retail expert predicted the MedPlus model may be copied in other retail niches. “That’s the kind of strategy everyone seems to be getting onto unless someone wants to retain control,” said Devengshu Dutta, chief executive of retail consultancy firm Third Eyesight. “That’s what has happened with Bharti-Wal-Mart, that’s what happened with Tesco and Tata.” Wal-Mart owns 50% in a cash-and-carry venture with Bharti Enterprises Ltd, the company that controls phone firm Bharti Airtel Ltd. Tesco, on the other hand, plans a wholly-owned unit in the back-end business that will supply to a Tata-owned supermarket chain, Star Bazaar.