Exactly 110 years before Prime Minister Modi’s ‘Make-in-India’ was launched, a pre Gandhian Swadeshi movement gripped the nation in the wake of partition of Bengal. People gathered at the cross roads and burnt imported clothes and picketed shops selling foreign goods. Country-men resolved to use things that were made only in India and
many came forward to build a self-reliant nation.
One of the first soldiers of the movement, Acharya P C Ray, the father of Indian chemistry, started his business from a rented house in Calcutta with a meager capital of Rs 700 to produce medicines of British pharmacopoeia standards. As doctors voicing pro-nationalistic concerns came forward to patronize its products, the company grew rapidly. In 1901, it became a private limited company as Bengal Chemical and Pharmaceutical Works Ltd. to produce medicine in large scale. “Its talcum powder, tooth paste, glycerin soap, carbolic soap became a household name across the country,” says Biplab Dasgupta, marketing head of BCPW, which was acquired by the central government in 70s. However, the products which were popular during this movement phased out with time as they were not actually cost-effective.
The Swadeshi thrust gave birth to three prominent pharmaceutical companies from Calcutta, which includes BCPW, India’s first pharmaceutical company, GD pharmaceutical and Dey’s Medical. But sadly, the only company which could survive the test of times is G.D. pharmaceutical with its sole product, Boroline.
“In times of yore, Calcutta was the capital of everything commercial for a while.But then that capital status shifted. When it did, so did brand talent. And that has been a challenge for brands from the East,” says Harish Bijoor, Brand-guru and Founder, Harish Bijoor Consults Inc.
Gourmohan Dutta, the founder of G.D. pharmaceutical, was already an established businessman when he decided to join the movement. He realized it was essential to manufacture indigenous products instead of importing. Defying the critics, he setup GD pharmaceuticals to manufacture medicines as an alternative to the imported ones. And, in 1929, the legendary green tube was born. Boroline is a simple combination of boric powder and zinc oxide, essential oils and waxes but it has remarkable healing properties. “Its formula is no secret but several attempt to copy it has failed,” said 44-year old Debashis Dutta, Managing Director and also the grandson of the founder.
Today, with a user base of over five million, Boroline is available through 300,000 retail outlets across India. “Detractors say Boroline is a sticky ointment. We agree Boroline is ultra rich and will always be so. And because of its thick texture, it is so effective in treating dry skin,” Dutta confirms. In 2002, while shifting homes, an user discovered a tube of Boroline that was manufactured in 1976. He found that the cream had the same texture, efficacy and smelt the same as a new tube would. Surprisingly, from the product to packaging, Boroline cream remained unchanged for 88 years.
“We have made sure that our successful products are consistent—they don’t change,” he further said. Not exactly a Swadeshi-motivated company, but Dey’s medical, another pre-independence pharmaceutical company, became relevant during the World War II. In 1941, B.N. Dey started a small retail medical store in Calcutta. During the global war, when the supply of essential drugs became uncertain, Dey came forward to ensure a steady supply of life-saving drugs. In 1957, they established a unit in Calcutta to manufacture indigenous products. The company did moderate business for the next 20 years despite several political uprising. But, in 1977, as drug price control notice of 1970 was introduced they had to cut down prices like every other pharma companies.
Dey’s faced challenges financially and further planned to bring forward the cosmetic goods to enhance profit. “Keo Karpin was brought to the forefront. The sell increased by 30 to 40 per cent in a year. In 1989, its sales reached 20 crore from two crore,” says Gautam Dey, the Managing Director. Although Keo- Karpin increased the profits but the company failed to gain momentum.
On the other hand, Boroline has defied the long held belief that a brand must re-engineer itself to stay in sync with the times. After independence, Murari Mohan Dutta, son of Gourmohan Dutta, pioneered ahead-of-times ideas to take the business forward. In 1950s, when brand image, rural marketing and event sponsorships were unheard of, Boroline took to the streets during festivals, cheered players in the grounds.
The advertisements in newspapers, magazines, radio and outdoor promotions were so massive that the popular ‘Khusbudar antiseptic cream Boroline’ is relevant even after five decades.
In the second half of the 1990s, Boroline launched its hair care products with Eleen. In 2007, it started manufacturing antiseptic skin liquid, Suthol. “Around 2001, my mother was bed-ridden. One of our directors suggested that we develop an antiseptic liquid for her. What he came up with turned out to be very effective. So we decided to launch it commercially,” Dutta adds.
Bijoor said, “Boroline is the mother brand of the East. This brand has represented to the world at large, that if your product is great, consistent and totally wedded to values that are basic to the consumer, you will win. Boroline, Jabaskusum hair oil and Keo Karpin are gems from the East.”
Looking forward, G.D. pharmaceuticals are planning to expand their retail penetration. Dattu says,“Market dynamics are changing. And, we are trying increase our presence further.” Alongside, they are also looking at the export market to open up and launch new products. “Homoeopathy may turn out to be an interesting opportunity in the future.”
(This article was first published in the February issue of Entrepreneur Magazine. To subscribe, click here)