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Deepak Kanegaonkar - uncommon scents

Deepak Kanegaonkar
uncommon scents
by Raju Bist
June 30, 2003

It’s like selling snow to Canadians or sand to Arabs. Deepak Kanegaonkar, a Mumbai-based manufacturer of industrial chemicals, set off to do the unthinkable: He went to France to sell perfume to the French.

Sold by Indian entity Gandh Sugandh, a division of the Deepak Kanegaonkar Group of Companies, Urvashi, an Indian sandlewood perfume, is now for sale in the fragrance capital of the world, Paris.

According to Indian mythology, Urvashi was a beautiful celestial dancer. However, the man behind the perfume is more readily associated with chutzpah, grit and a clever eye for marketing.


Sold in a handcrafted silver flacon for an expensive E 130, the perfume belies the long-held view that Indian goods come cheap. “Indians have never been known for quality goods and breaking into the French market was really tough,” admits Kanegaonkar candidly.

Knowing very well that he would stand no chance in the international market if he tried to recreate a me-too chic perfume, Kanegaonkar instead zeroed in on selling a whiff of the mystic East to Europeans. “Right from the outset, we wanted our product to carry a distinctive Indian image, Indian story and Indian name,” says the 45-year-old entrepreneur. “The idea was to sell Indian culture itself in the form of a perfume.”

Once he had decided on an easy-to-pronounce name, he delved into designing packaging that would convey quality. He first sounded out some designers in Mumbai who were supplying perfume containers to the Middle East but their designs relied very heavily on Mughal patterns. Since Kanegaonkar was not seeking to portray a Taj Mahal-type image, he turned instead to the Indian desert state of Rajasthan’s silversmiths whose families had been traditionally involved in intricate, handcrafted designs.

Using silver could increase the weight of the falcon and jack up the final price of the product, but Kanegaonkar was convinced that silver would go a long way in adding to the Indian allure. French custom officials were puzzled when the Indian entrepreneur went for import clearances -- there had been no perfume in a silver container in the last 100 years. In the end, the French created a special classification for the determined businessman: silversmith/perfumer.

Stocky, with a mop of dark hair hanging over his forehead and a perennial smile on his face, Kanegaonkar would have badgered the French until he had got the green signal; the man is a study in perseverance.

After graduating with a degree in chemistry, Kanegaonkar hung around in his hometown Sholapur (about 200 kilometers from Mumbai) wondering what to do with the rest of his life. Job opportunities in Sholapur were scarce but even then the young graduate was determined not to work for anybody else; he wanted to be his own boss from day one.

He packed his bags and with only Rs. 250 in his pocket, took off for Thane, a small industrial township on the outskirts of Mumbai, to stay with his brother-in-law. He hired a small shed, mortgaged his wife’s jewelry and in 1985 floated a firm called Phoenix Alchemy, manufacturing oil field chemicals used to decongest crude oil as it is being carried to the refineries.

His big break came when, on a flight to New Delhi, Kanegaonkar cornered Colonel S.P. Wahi, the chairman of the public sector monolith Oil & Natural Gas Commission (ONGC), and asked him to buy his chemicals. Impressed with the young man’s confidence, Wahi asked the entrepreneur to meet him the following week in his office in the business district of Mumbai’s Nariman Point. The meeting apparently went well since even today, Phoenix Alchemy is one of ONGC’s largest suppliers.

Meanwhile, Kanegaonkar had been collecting perfumes from all over the world -- his collection totals 750 bottles. In 1997 his wife suggested he should launch a perfume of his own. So he spun off Gandh Sugandh and got Alka Sane, a talented chemistry major in his group, to head it.

Says Sane, “Right at the outset we thought of launching our perfume in Paris. For if the French said ‘oui’ to our perfume, it would then easily be accepted all over the rest of the world.” Her team persevered for two years to get the right mix in the scent and also to convince the finicky French distributors to stock the product.

There’s a lot to consider when launching a fragrance. Urvashi has 138 ingredients, including sandalwood and jasmine oil from India and other blends specially formulated in France by suppliers approved by the International Fragrance Association (IFRA). A series of surveys in France, Germany and Switzerland helped Gandh Sugandh zero in on the right formulation.

The perfume then had to pass a series of skin, allergy and poison tests in government approved labs across France. Once the clearances were in place, Kanegaonkar’s legendary chutzpah again came to his rescue. He convinced the Indian ambassador to France, Kanwal Sibal, to try out his product. So impressed was the diplomat that he threw a party to launch the perfume, inviting all his French contacts for the occasion. This was followed by a gala ceremony in the prestigious Institute of Architecture in Paris where Urvashi was unveiled before a gathering, which included 70 members of the media. Kanegaonkar followed this up with advertisements in leading French magazines like Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire and Elle.

Urvashi comes in a silver flacon (nominated for the packaging category in Paris Grand Prix Awards) as well as a glass bottle. The bottle is manufactured by Courval of Paris, which supplies to the likes of Boucheron, Dior and Chanel. It is available only at elite and fashionable stores in Paris, Lyons and Marseilles, following the entrepreneur’s intent to not introduce a mass market product. Currently sold in 175 retail stores (including Sephora, Marionnaud and Le Printemps), this figure is expected to rise to 450 by the end of this year.

After spending around E 3 million on Urvashi so far, Kanegaonkar is set to launch the perfume in other European capitals -- no doubt influenced by the news that European women spent E 4 billion on scents last year. He is also thinking of launching a perfume for the European male, pricing it at E 75. Then, after establishing the brand as a major perfume manufacturer, he intends Gandh Sugandh to diversify into soaps, cosmetics and other beauty-care items.

For a first generation entrepreneur who has scaled great heights within just two decades, Kanegaonkar comes across as a humble and down-to-earth person. “I am a small man,” he says self-effacingly. A small man with big dreams.

Raju Bist is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist with more than two decades experience in all facets of journalism. Apart from writing for international publications, he runs his own media communications company, Infolink Worldwide.
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