A first time entrepreneur, a business thousands of miles away: How NIC became one of India’s favourite natural ice cream brands
Giving up a stable corporate job to test the waters of entrepreneurship can be daunting. And Jeetendra Bhandari (JB) did just that. After years of experience in leadership roles across major companies, he decided to take the plunge not in the country he resided in, but thousands of miles away. Today, his brand NIC is one of the fastest growing natural ice-cream companies in India today.
Speaking at The Success Edition, an initiative by Kotak Mahindra Bank and YourStory, JB, CEO at Walko Food Company, says, “I had that urge to do something on my own and to pursue the passion of creating a world-class company.” But he had to start from scratch. First, he had to convince his family and friends, who were all based in the USA, and get them on board with the decision to start his own venture. With tremendous support from his friends and family, JB began his journey in 2010 in India. The first two years were spent in research and trying to understand the Indian market. JB took multiple trips to India during the time to finalise the sector he would get into. “And in 2012, we incorporated the company and did some pilot testing with the frozen and potato snack business in North India. Meanwhile, through some network, we came across this cafe chocolate business in Pune that was looking for a joint venture. We decided to acquire the brand and closed the deal in 2013. We built the plant in 2014,” JB explains. The team realised among the products of the cafe chocolate business, there was a small brand for natural ice cream. In 2015, JB decided to work on it after analysing the ice cream industry reports, which stated that capita consumption in India is 400ml versus 23 liters in USA and China. He also noticed that while the ice cream industry was cluttered, the natural ice cream category didn’t have too many players, except one dominant player. “So it was our analysis that the natural ice cream sector would grow at a much faster pace than the regular ice cream industry, and that there is room here for some other player to become a catalyst,” JB reveals. After getting some big names as their first clients, the team was clear they were going to get into parlours. “We had to get into retail and we also have a franchise system. So that started in 2016. We got good results and we knew the product acceptability was very high. So with that confidence, in 2017, we kept expanding,” JB says.
One thing that JB and his team was very careful about was the attention to detail. A major challenge was ensuring the product matched or exceeded customer expectations. The production of natural ice cream requires a lot more manpower as compared to that of regular ice cream, and also raises the question of uniform taste. JB says, “When you make two tons of mango ice cream in 20 liter batches, how do you make sure that every batch is the same? Consistency of quality is very important. So we focus more on that.” Alongside this, the team also had to strengthen its supply chain as frozen food companies need to ensure the goods are maintained at a certain temperature. When NIC was initially launching in different cities, distributors would ask them to increase the volume for them to distribute and the expense of partnering with a third-party was also high. So, NIC started doing its own distribution. JB feels that since they were in control of their supply chain, they did not have to depend on a third-party and reached more customers organically. “For an FMCG product, a single brand distribution network was created. I don’t know if there is another brand in India which has done that,” he says, adding, “In fact, during the lockdown last year, one of our competitors asked us if we would be interested in distributing their ice cream ”
But through all of this, capital remained a challenge. JB explains that his venture was mostly self-funded since a majority of the investors were his friends and family. With limited cash, they had to be careful. But they found a solid backing in Kotak Mahindra Bank. “The logistical cost to supply the ice cream across the country was too much. When we went online, we needed to invest money to create a network of outlets across India. Kotak stepped in and gave us the working capital to do it,” JB says. Post that, the team experienced massive growth, so much so that they ran out of production capacity and needed to build a new plant. A year later, Kotak again stepped up and gave the team project finance money to build a new plant. JB says that it isn’t just the financing aspect of their relationship that makes him want to continue working with Kotak, but also the advice and guidance he receives from senior executives at the bank. “We are a one-bank company and we are very happy with the service Kotak is providing. Not only through transactional activity, but also financing as well as being a partner in our journey. And when we sit and talk to them, they give their opinion and solutions,” JB explains.
As for the future, JB says the team is going to continue to focus on NIC. “I strongly believe between us and other natural ice cream brands, we can grow this category 10 times over the next seven to 10 years, and we should work on it. From Walko and NIC’s point of view, we are still quite unknown to an average customer so we need to increase our visibility,” he says. There aren’t any plans to slow down. “We are in 1100 locations across India. We supply on our own, without any distributors involved. We have a workforce of over 440 people. We saw growth even during COVID-19. Going forward, our focus will be to get into sectors like modern retail and franchise. We are getting a lot of requests for franchises,” JB says.