The East India Company – Reborn And Renewed Interview by Fiona Sanderson and words by Hannah Norman
The Luxury Channel meets the man behind the East India Company, Sanjiv Mehta.
For many new business owners, a key challenge is to turn your brand into a household name. But if you were taking on a 400 year old brand, you’d think that part of your job had already been done for you. Not so easy, however, when your brand was synonymous with the British Empire and all that it stood for.
London-based businessman Sanjiv Mehta is under no illusions when it comes to being an Indian at the helm of the East India Company, which he took over in 2005, and officially re-launched in 2010. Originally incepted in 1600 by British Royal Charter to exploit trade with India and the East, it grew to become one of the most powerful organisations the world had ever seen, with its own armies and its own mints (23 of them, in fact). As a consequence, not all of its history is pretty. For an Indian to take over a company with such a checkered past – particularly as far as his fellow countrymen are concerned – is no mean feat. But then, Mehta is assuredly pragmatic about it. “I believe the EIC today could only be run by two kinds of people – a British man living in India or an Indian living in London,” he reveals. He’s also aware that the East India Company means different things to different people – a natural consequence of a company whose history spans some 400 years, and covers much of the known world. “East India Company connected the whole world because it controlled the waters of the world,” Mehta explains. “In a way, it was the Google of its time – it brought the world together.”
Mehta is only too aware of the implications of the brand’s history. “We knew East India Company owned India; we knew it created India. I was born and brought up in Bombay, so it’s completely part of my DNA,” he says. In many ways, though, he appears to have a quiet respect for what the company achieved. “East India Company was pioneering….We speak English because of East India Company. The tables of the world have tea because of East India Company. We play cricket because of East India Company,” he smiles. “So when you start thinking about the impact of this entity, it is the principle of what common wealth sits on today. Whether it’s the English language, whether it’s architecture, whether it’s the Catholic religion, mercantile law, or even global food habits such as toast and jam and marmalade.” But that isn’t to say he ignores the grimmest aspects of the East India Company’s past. “You will be writing pages of history and your acts need to be very carefully managed and measured,” he says, considering. “That really is a challenge, solely because of the awareness of the name. In India, with East India Company, there is an emotional relationship there – it’s not a commercial relationship.”
When speaking about the East India Company, it would seem that emotional awareness speaks volumes. “You get emotionally connected to places, because emotion is about the relationship between subconscious and conscious experience. That’s where true brands get created,” Mehta says, before explaining, “the legacy of East India Company is alive in the DNA of the world at large. It is that which we have ownership of. The most difficult thing for any brand is to become a part of your subconscious, which is very difficult. It’s more than being a brand; it’s more iconic.” The East India Company, Mehta reasons, is part of people’s subconscious – people have heard of it, even if they can’t automatically name a product or service that it sells. “So really, my job is to develop and offer such products and services to consumers, which connects their conscious experiences with their subconscious perception,” Mehta says.
But, with so much history and heritage to build upon, where does one start? For Mehta, the answer is simple – look to that same history and heritage for your inspiration. “We believe we can learn from the history. We’re trying to identify the milestones of the East India Company journey in terms of what makes sense today, and we are trying to follow that,” Mehta explains. “Our notion is to carve the brand out of the history.”
That’s exactly what the newly-launched brand has done. “East India Company’s primary objective when it was founded, was to bring exotic foods from the east to the west – spices and teas. When we were at the crossroads re-selecting its commercial legacy, we also decided to start there too – with fine foods.”
There are other patterns in history that Mehta has meticulously followed. “We’ve launched a gold and silver business because when East India Company first started trading tea, the only way to pay for tea was bullion. So we launched a bullion business.” China, silverware, textiles and fashion have followed, and there are plans for a fine jewellery business next year. The East India Company merchants were purveyors of luxury, and Mehta is keen to follow suit. “East India Company only traded those things that were value-intensive, not volume-intensive. By default, they started trading what we call luxury – the expensive ivory, diamonds, precious stones, fine lacquer furniture, muslin, tea, pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg – these were priceless things. They traded those products, not because they were unique or unknown but because they were so value-intensive,” Mehta says. But, he adds, “in the business of luxury, you buy with a sense of realism and sell with a sense of romanticism.”
It’s a philosophy that must be working. From one flagship store, the business has expanded to seven more, with plans for another twelve next year, and that’s not including the plan for numerous concession stores.
Mehta’s own plans, once he has the East India Company well and truly up and running, are to move into philanthropy and set up his own charity. He may well be making history with the East India Company, but he’s well aware of the magnitude of the brand compared to his place within it. “It’s four hundred years of history,” he acknowledges. “The East India Company brand doesn’t belong to a race, religion, colour or country; it belongs to civilization. We haven’t created the brand – we are just passing through the life of the East India Company, so my passion has no meaning because it will only live for this generation.” With such commitment to the brand, Mehta’s clear passion is sure to survive for more than just a generation. It really couldn’t be in better hands.