Anand JC, Economic Times
13 October 2023
Once the butt of jokes in Dalal Street circles, 113-year-old ITC has turned a new leaf in recent years, as its strategy to derive higher revenue from its consumer business is bearing fruit, bit by bit.
Registered in Calcutta as the Imperial Tobacco Company, the FMCG major has always relied on its cigarettes and leaf tobacco business for a major chunk of its revenues. ITC’s true diversification move might have begun with the launch of its hotel in Chennai in 1975, including a failed attempt at the financial services business, but it wasn’t until August 2001 that the tale of the FMCG behemoth came to be.
Having relied on its cigarette business since 1910, ITC has increasingly sought to earn more from its ‘cleaner’ consumer goods products. In a 2018 interview, CEO Sanjiv Puri admitted that while the journey to diversify the company started a long time ago, it only got traction around 2008. Under Puri’s first term as the ITC chairman, the company embarked on the ‘ITC Next’ strategy. The first decade was focused on preparing the company for the transition, he said. ITC now can innovate products, create brands and allow “pro-neurs” or professional entrepreneurs to build businesses in FMCG.
The plan has worked
ITC, a darling of dividend-led investing lovers, has always been a long-term growth story in the making. Nearly two decades after entering the food business, the company holds a leadership position across categories.
As per the company’s latest annual report, it holds the leadership spot in the branded Atta market through Aashirvaad, cream biscuits segment via Sunfeast, bridges segment of snack foods via Bingo!, notebooks via Classmate and dhoop segment via Mangaldeep. Its Yippee noodles trails Nestle’s Maggi, as the latter continues to lead in a highly consolidated market. However, Yippee has managed to gobble up Maggi’s share at an enviable pace. Capturing these positions, this quickly is no easy feat either.
One of the things that worked for ITC is their understanding of the distribution of products, stemming from their strength in the tobacco business. ITC started exploring aggressively diversifying away from the tobacco business around the 90s, says Devangshu Dutta, head of retail consultancy Third Eyesight.
ITC’s foray into the food business was supported by its presence in the hotel business. “Some of the marquee products that used to be served in their hotel restaurants, packaged dal and so on, they packaged and sold but it was not a humungous success. It was marginal at best.”
“But they started understanding the distribution aspect because those were sold through traditional distribution channels,” Dutta says.
ITC also put in a lot of financial muscle behind the brand building, given no dearth of resources, Dutta says. This helped them grow rapidly in product categories in which they didn’t have a presence earlier on.
“Starting from scratch, particularly on the foods side, ITC has been one of the most successful companies in the last 15-20 years. Their overall revenue this year has been roughly Rs 19,000 crore, out of which Rs 15,000-16,000 is purely from foods segment,” Amnish Aggarwal, Head of Research, Prabhudas Lilladher told ET Online.
“For a company which started this business, maybe, say, two decades back, this is a very big achievement,” he says.
Unlike its commanding position in its cigarette business, ITC’s ‘other-FMCG’ ambitions faced stiff competition from local and national companies in categories including soaps, shampoos, atta, snacks, biscuits, noodles and confectioneries.
Supporting ITC’s ‘other-FMCG’ ambitions is its core competency, the cigarette business. ITC’s consumer business’ growth has weathered storms, in part, thanks to the cash flows generated by its cigarette business which has helped it create stronger brands, an essential part of any consumer-centric business. Through its cigarette business, ITC also gets unparalleled access to a network of brick-and-mortar stores that have a diverse presence across India.
Also complimenting its growth is ITC’s agri-business, a segment which has also grown in strength over the years. From 10 per cent in FY14, the agri-business in FY23 contributed around 24 per cent to the company’s revenue from operations, as per ET Online’s calculations. ITC over the years has invested in building a competitive agri-commodity sourcing expertise. Some of these structural advantages have facilitated the company’s sourcing of agri raw materials for ITC’s branded packaged foods businesses, be it towards its atta, dairy or spices.
Like its peers, ITC too has given a fair deal of importance to its digital push, with more and more companies launching their D2C platforms. These platforms help customers buy products directly from the company website without the hassle of dealing with channel partners, and at the same time, the companies get their hands on first-party data. Such access can help the company market its offerings better. ITC, like some of its other peers, has also been investing in start-ups to diversify its product portfolio. It recently invested in Yoga Bar and Mother Sparsh.
The numbers behind ITC’s consumer business behemoth
Built to engage in the tobacco business, ITC got into cigarette packaging nearly 100 years ago. Another intent in recent decades has been to focus more on the non-cigarette business.
Puri saw it coming.
Upon being asked about the FMCG business overtaking cigarettes, Puri had said “We do not give guidance. But it will certainly happen because the other businesses are growing faster.”
After contributing nearly 62 per cent to the overall revenue in FY14, the cigarettes business in FY23 contributed only around 37 per cent.
ET Online calculations show that the other-FMCG business contributed 17 per cent to the overall revenue in FY14, which grew to 25 per cent in FY23.
Data confirms the claims made in the above segment. ITC’s non-cigarettes businesses have grown over 31-fold and currently form over two-thirds of its net segmental revenues. The company’s other-FMCG business didn’t start turning consistent profits up until FY14. Since then, it has gone from strength to strength.
ITC’s Other FMCG segment (the second largest contributor to sales) is also witnessing strong earnings and growth momentum, unlike most consumer staples peers.
The segment clocked a revenue of 19 per cent YoY while Nestle and Britannia saw 21 and 11 per cent growth each. FMCG EBITDA performance was even better, with the margin expanding by 430 bps YoY to 13.3 per cent & EBITDA growing 2.1x YoY.
Laughing stock no more
For years, the cigarette business has funded the growth of ITC’s other businesses like non-cigarette FMCG products, sometimes to the ire of shareholders who weren’t happy with the slow growth in financials and scrip value.
A slower growth in scrip value meant that for years ITC was also the laughing stock among social media circles. The stock often remained elusive during market rallies in the previous decade, offering poor returns in comparison to FMCG peers. Between 2014 and July 2022, ITC rose with dividends rose 53 per cent while Nifty50 rose 200 per cent, as per moneydhan.com, a SEBI RIA. ITC’s shares trailed the Sensex for five out of eight years through 2020.
“In the last ten years, HUL has done far, far better than ITC. And if you look at other companies in the same universe, say Dabur, it has also given superior performance. ITC has actually underperformed many of the large consumer names,” Aggarwal said.
But fast forward to 2023, not only is it among the best performers within the benchmark index, ITC has even trumped it. While Nifty50 has gained around 17 per cent in the last year, ITC has grown nearly 40 per cent. The ITC scrip in July crossed a market capitalization of Rs 6 lakh crore, beating HUL to become the largest FMCG company.
Prompting a move away to other segments is the nature of the cigarettes business. Tobacco is toxic, and investors are increasingly recognising it as such. Sin stocks are shares of companies engaged in a business or industry that is considered unethical or immoral.
While Environment, Social, and Governance (ESG) investing may be at a nascent stage in India, it is a serious parameter for global investors. Asia’s largest cigarette maker ITC cannot ignore it.
“The company sustained its ‘AA’ rating by MSCI-ESG –the highest amongst global tobacco companies– and was also included in the Dow Jones Sustainability Emerging Markets Index,” Puri noted in the company’s 2022 sustainability report.
Cigarettes, a bitter but essential overhang
For all the accolades for its gains in its other-FMCG business, ITC is nowhere close to ending its love for cigarettes, not that we are claiming it wants to. The Gold Flake-maker currently controls nearly 80% of the cigarette market.
The numbers in recent years suggest that the segment is flourishing more than ever before.
On an annualized basis, the return on depreciated cigarette assets is approaching a staggering 240%, three times the level two decades ago, as per a Bloomberg report. The entire legal cigarette industry was bleeding in the recent past due to punitive and discriminatory taxation on cigarettes. Taxes on cigarettes in India are multiple times higher than in developed countries viz. 17x of USA, 10x of Japan, 7x of Germany and so on, data shows.
But, companies are now recovering due to stable taxation. ITC’s three four-year cigarette sales CAGR are at their best levels since FY15 despite the company not taking material price increases over the last 13-14 months, as per a Motilal Oswal report.
ITC, which accounts for three out of every four cigarettes sold in the white market in the country, is currently seeing its best growth levels in over a decade, and is far superior to the flattish volumes of the past ten and twenty years.
(Published in Economic Times)
Writankar Mukherjee & Sagar Malviya, Economic Times
Kolkata / Mumbai, March 28, 2022
The war for instant grocery delivery is going to intensify with Reliance Retail entering the segment with its JioMart platform. The company will start the trial in next 2-4 days in Navi Mumbai for ‘JioMart Express’ which will sell and deliver around 2,000 stock keeping units (SKUs) in a few hours, two senior industry executives aware of the plans said.
Reliance has plans to take instant grocery sales to over 200 cities and towns where JioMart is currently operational by end of next quarter and double the reach in next few months to make it India’s largest instant grocer. The company will also tap its network of kirana stores for such fulfillment, apart from its own chain of grocery stores, the executives said. It is testing a separate app for express grocery deliveries as well as integrating it into the JioMart platform.
The plans of India’s largest brick-and-mortar retailer to enter quick commerce is to further grow its e-grocery business and Reliance will compete against Tata-owned Big Basket which will launch it in April, Zomato-funded Blinkit, Swiggy’s Instamart, Walmart-owned Flipkart Quick and Zepto. Earlier this year, Reliance had led a $240 million funding round in quick commerce hyperlocal firm Dunzo owning the largest 26% stake.
“JioMart Express will utilize Dunzo in the markets where it is strong like the metros as well as its own delivery fleet. JioMart Express can be quickly scaled up since Reliance has onboarded lakhs of kiranas under its B2B programme ‘JioMart Partner’ who buys the merchandise from Reliance and sells through the JioMart platform,” an executive said.
An email sent to Reliance Retail remained unanswered till Sunday press time.
Devangshu Dutta, chief executive of consulting firm Third Eyesight, said Reliance needs to ensure that it is in the right catchment which has a high concentration of demand, low competition and keep supply centres close to it to make instant grocery service profitable. “Margin contribution is low in grocery and hence apart from these there could be a higher focus on high margin products in the assortment,” he said.
To be sure, quick commerce is not new for Reliance Retail. It has been delivering orders in less than three hours placed through Reliance Digital online or app for smaller consumer electronics such as mobile phones and laptops. “However, order volumes are going to be much more frequent in grocery, and hence it would need a robust backend and delivery fleet,” an executive said.
While the pilot in Navi Mumbai will start with 1-3 hours delivery time, Reliance will progressively reduce the delivery time to match the industry standard of 45 minutes to an hour and will also expand the range. According to researcher RedSeer, India’s quick commerce market is all set to grow 15 times by 2025 reaching a market size of close to $5.5 billion. Online shoppers in the metros have been using quick commerce for their unplanned and top-up purchases.
(Published in Economic Times)
[This article appeared in the February 2014 print issue of Retailer, under the headline “Implications of the Tata-Tesco JV“]
India is a civilisation that has borne fruit from thousands of year of international cultural exchange, commerce and investment flowing both inwards and out. It is also one that has suffered from military and as well as economic colonisation over the millennia.
For those reasons, foreign investment into the country is bound to have both vociferous opponents as well as staunch supporters, and this debate is possibly most polarised in the retail sector that touches every Indian’s life daily. Over the last few decades, foreign investment into the retail sector has seen flip-flops from successive governments and political parties across the spectrum, being allowed until the late 1990s, then blocked (by Congress-led UPA), then selectively allowed (by BJP-led NDA, and later by Congress-led UPA). And more recently, with pressures, protests and influences from all sides 2011, 2012 and 2013 have certainly been on/off years during the UPA’s second successive term.
In this time Zara’s joint-venture, set up in 2010, has turned out be one of the most successful and profitable in India. More recently, Ikea announced a €1.5 billion plan for the country, followed by H&M’s US$ 115 million proposal, while Marks & Spencer identified India as its second largest potential market outside the UK. However in October 2013, the world’s largest retailer Wal-Mart decided to call off its joint venture amid investigations of its executives having supported or indulged in corruption and accusations that it had violated foreign investment norms. It decided to acquire Bharti’s stake in the cash-and-carry JV and announced that it would not invest in Bharti’s retail business.
It was soon after, as if to compensate for Wal-Mart’s blow, that India’s Tata Group and British retailer Tesco announced that they would be creating a formal joint venture in India, with Tesco investing US$ 110 million. The Congress-led government went on to quickly approve the proposal, as if to visibly shake off accusations of “policy paralysis”.
Tesco’s investment doesn’t look like much for a country the size of India, especially in the context of Ikea’s ambitious proposal or H&M’s fashion retail business that is possibly less complex than Tesco’s multi-product multi-brand format. However, let’s keep in mind that Tesco is facing tough trading conditions in Europe, took a global write-down of US$3.5 billion last year including its exit from the US market, and merged its Chinese business with retail giant China Resources Enterprise to become a minority partner. In view of all that and the unpredictability of Indian politics, US$ 110 million looks like a reasonable if not disruptive commitment. It also does somewhat limit the downside risk for Tesco if the environment turns FDI-unfriendly after the general elections.
Whenever Tesco expanded into new markets, it has tried to adopt a localised or partner-led approach. In India, since 2007, Tesco has had an arrangement to provide support to Tata’s food and general merchandise retail business. The intent underlying the partnership was clearly to look at a joint retail business when allowed by regulations and not just at back-end operations. The existing structure has provided Tesco with an opportunity to learn about the Indian market and operating environment first-hand while working closely with Tata’s retail team. Tata, in turn, has drawn upon Tesco considerable expertise of operating retail businesses in both developed and emerging markets. At the very least, the FDI inflow from Tesco will deepen this arrangement further, benefiting both partners further.
But there are the inevitable twists in the tale. While the Tesco proposal was in the works, the new Aam Aadmi Party formed a government in surprise victory in Delhi state and announced that it would not allow foreign owned retail businesses in the state of Delhi. This strikes off one of the most lucrative metropolitan markets from the geographic target list at least in the short term. (The central government has pushed back saying that while retail is a state-subject, the decision to allow FDI by the previous Congress government cannot be reversed at will by the current AAP government, but the debate goes on.) BJP-led and BJP ally-led state governments have also indicated their unwillingness to allow foreign retailers into their markets.
So should we even attempt to forecast what Tesco and Tata could do in this environment? I would rather not pre-empt and second-guess the future plans of business executives who are trying to read the intent of politicians who are focussed on elections 4 months in the future! However, whatever the plans, the retailers must comply with the regulations such as they are now and utilise the opportunities that exist. So it is likely that the following scenario will play out.
Tata and Tesco have said that the proposed joint-venture looks at “building on the existing portfolio of Star Bazaar stores in Maharashtra and Karnataka”. These are both states where Trent has multiple locations, so a certain critical mass is available. Since current government policy requires the investment to be directed at creating fresh capacity, new stores would also be opened in these states, though the expansion plans look modest, with 3-5 new stores every financial year.
But with the 50 percent investment in back-end also being a regulatory requirement, new procurement, processing and logistics infrastructure which could service stores within these states as well as in other states are is likely to be built. Tesco’s wholesale subsidiary currently supplies merchandise to Star Bazaar stores across states – this relationship is likely to continue as some of Tata’s stores are in states that are not within the FDI ambit. The product mix proposed includes vegetables, fruits, meat, fish, dairy products, tea, coffee, liquor, textiles, footwear, furniture, electronics, jewellery and books.
The norms earlier required FDI proposals to ensure that 30 per cent of product sourcing would be domestic, from small-midsized enterprises. However, in August 2013, the government relaxed this requirement to be applied only at the beginning of the joint-venture operations, and that this requirement would not include fruits and vegetables, an area where Tesco has focussed significant energy. So the immediate focus would be on meeting the domestic sourcing requirements in other categories, and creating a viable business model and scale through an appropriate product mix.
The partners are likely to continue working on improving the performance of the existing Star Bazaar stores which are 40,000-80,000 sq ft in size. However, Tata has also launched a new convenience store format, Star Daily sized at about 2,000 sq ft focussed on fresh foods, groceries and essential items. Retailers with foreign investment are now also permitted to open stores in cities with populations under one million from which they had been prohibited previously, so the new small format can provide significant expansion opportunities and more volume for the back-end operations to reach critical mass quicker.
Would there be a change of name on the store fascia? Unlikely, since Tesco has been operating stores under other brands as well in markets outside the UK and a “Tesco” name appearing on the fascia may not significantly change the consumer’s perception of the store. Other than in lifestyle categories or overtly brand-driven products (such as fashion), most Indian consumers focus on utility, quality, local relevance and price as significantly more important purchase drivers than an international name. In fact, a trusted Indian name like Tata carries as much weight or more weight in many categories than an international brand would. So the stores may carry a joint by-line, but the focus is likely to remain on the existing brand names.
And what of several other retailers who are interested in the Indian market? Will they draw inspiration from Tesco and take their plunge into the market, urged on by the outgoing government eager to demonstrate results during its final months?
Wal-Mart, for one, seems to have returned to the table, having set up a new subsidiary, perhaps preparing the ground for a retail launch with another partner. A European retailer, remaining nameless for now, is being mentioned as being the next proposal in the FDI pipeline.
However, it is likely that most will remain in the wait-and-watch mode until the outcome of the national elections is clear. The real issue is not the regulations themselves as much as the unpredictability of the regulatory environment. Policies are being made, turned around, and twisted over in the name of politics, without a clear thought given to the real impact on the country, the economy and the industry of either the original policy formulation or its reversal.
Until that dust settles down, we should expect no dramatic changes in the near term, no sudden rushes into the market. But then, we could be wrong – policy and politics have taken unexpected twists earlier, and could do so again!
[This article appeared in Daily News & Analysis (DNA) on 10 October 2013, under the headline “Without Wal-Mart, can Bharti play it alone?”]
A year ago, Wal-Mart had called Bharti its natural retail partner in India. But today the companies have jointly and publicly changed their relationship statuses to “single”, calling off the 6-year old marriage. Bharti will buy out or retire Wal-Mart’s debentures in the 200+ store Easyday retail business, while Wal-Mart in turn will acquire Bharti’s stake in the 20-outlet Bestprice cash-and-carry business.
By some estimates, the split was imminent for perhaps a year or longer, as the pressure rose for the two companies due to multiple factors. Several regulatory changes governing foreign investment in the Indian retail sector made it difficult for Wal-Mart to acquire a stake in the existing retail business that the two partners had set up. Anti-corruption investigations in Wal-Mart’s India business (in addition to Mexico, China and Brazil), as well as questions around the legality of US$ 100 million worth of quasi-equity compulsorily convertible debentures issued to Wal-Mart at a time FDI was not allowed in multi-brand retail businesses brought down even more external scrutiny upon the joint business. And finally, pressure against foreign investment in multi-brand retail of basic goods such as food and grocery, continued to exist not just amongst opposition parties but also parties within the ruling coalition and individuals in the government.
The split means that Wal-Mart can now overtly take complete ownership of the Bestprice business, and drive it as it sees fit. The fragmented retail market and the myriad small businesses in India do potentially provide a large customer base for the cash-and-carry business if Wal-Mart chooses to be more aggressive. However, that may not happen immediately. The business has been coasting for over a year without new openings that were already planned and significant personnel changes have happened from the seniormost levels down. Wal-Mart’s investigations of corruption allegations continue and before committing more resources it will definitely want to strengthen systems so as to not be in violation of Indian and US laws.
On the other hand, if it wishes to now enter the retail business, Wal-Mart would also have to look for a new Indian partner to set up new retail stores in a separate company. Retail is capital-hungry so Wal-Mart would need a cash-rich partner who can accept a junior position in the venture in which Wal-Mart would clearly be the driver financially, strategically and operationally.
At this time Wal-Mart seems to have decided to take a step back and evaluate what the Indian market means to it right now and in the future, what sort of investment – both in financial and management terms – it demands, and what returns the investment will bring. It remains to be seen whether it will choose to grow aggressively, coast up incrementally or, in fact, take the next exit out of the market as it has done in some other countries earlier.
And what of Bharti? Will it be able sustain the retail play without Wal-Mart’s close operational guidance and financial participation, or will it choose sell the Easyday operation to another domestic investor? On its part Bharti has stated an ongoing commitment to the business, and has also hired the former CEO of the joint venture, Raj Jain, as a Group Advisor. A 200-plus store chain is sizeable and credible in India’s fragmented food and grocery market, and is seen by the group as “a strong platform to significantly grow the business”.
However, Bharti’s core telecom business is also capital-intensive and highly competitive, and it will be difficult at this time to sustain high-paced growth in another cash-hungry, thin-margin business such as grocery retail. For now the Group’s best bet would possibly be to consolidate operations, unearth more margin opportunities and take a call at a more opportune time whether to further invest in growth or to treat retail as a non-core business and exit it.
Creating a substantial, profitable retail business is a long-term play in any part of the world. In India, as retailers are discovering, it takes just that extra dose of patience.