Not all heroes wear capes. Sometimes it can be a doctor armed with nothing but a bicycle, in-depth knowledge of Ayurveda medicines and a strong willingness to help those in need. This is the story of medical practitioner, SK Burman, who lived in Calcutta during the 1800s. He was endearingly known as Daktar Burman (Daktar translates to 'doctor' in Bengali). Today let us delve deeper into his inspirational life, his successors and the legacy of the world's largest Ayurvedic healthcare company, which was Daktar Burman’s brainchild.
During that tumultuous period in history, cholera was running riot in Calcutta. The efficacy of Daktar Burman’s medicines was rooted in ancient herbal formulations documented in texts passed down through generations. He worked tirelessly, making his medicines accessible to the common folks. The afflicted would wait earnestly for their savior, who rode on a bicycle to deliver medicines to his patients’ homes.
Daktar Burman brought immense relief to the underprivileged, who were battling chronic illnesses such as malaria and cholera. However, there was only so much that he could do alone. On his bicycle, he was able to reach only a handful of patients. He was driven by a desire to make his medicines accessible to more patients, especially in remote villages and towns. Daktar Burman devised a unique solution: delivering his remedies through mail order. This innovative approach proved successful.
In 1884, he founded a company, naming it Dabur — a portmanteau of the first two letters of 'Daktar' and the first three letters of his surname. Three decades later, in 1919, his son CL Burman established a research and development unit for medicines, introducing mechanization to enhance production. The business flourished, gaining popularity among an increasing number of people.
As time passed, CL Burman's sons, Puran and Ratan Chand, assumed leadership roles and divided responsibilities. Puran oversaw manufacturing, while Ratan focused on sales and marketing. In the 1940s, Dabur ventured into producing hair oil infused with amla, becoming one of the pioneers in this field in India. The business expanded, and so did the Burman family, with three generations residing together under one roof. Although each family had separate living spaces, they shared meals and engaged in discussions to improve their enterprise.
The elder members of the family mentored the younger ones, preparing them to carry on the business legacy. This practice continued for many years. However, in the late 1960s and 1970s, Calcutta faced political and social unrest. The rise of the Naxalite movement and assertive trade unions led to an unfavorable environment for businesses. Many companies, including prominent ones like the Birla Group and State Bank of India, relocated their headquarters from Calcutta.
Consequently, the Burman family found it increasingly challenging to sustain their presence in the city. In 1972, they made the decision to move to New Delhi, where Dabur has been headquartered ever since. By 1998, the fourth and fifth generations of the Burman family assumed leadership of Dabur. The company diversified its product range, encompassing hair oils, chyawanprash, and toothpaste. While the business thrived, the family sought ways to accelerate its growth and sought the guidance of external experts.
They approached the global firm McKinsey & Company, who proposed an unconventional suggestion: relinquishing control of the business. This meant that the family would no longer be involved in day-to-day operations. Instead, they would hire professionals, either from within or outside the company, to assume key executive roles such as CEO and CFO.
Although they would not receive salaries from Dabur, the family would retain their ownership shares and positions on the board of directors, shaping the company's overall vision. Decisions regarding new product launches, expansion into new markets, establishment of manufacturing facilities, and production quantities would be entrusted to non-family professionals. This approach was considered radical at the time, as few business families in India had taken such a step. Nevertheless, the Burmans embraced this suggestion.
The transition was not without challenges, and the family's determination was tested. In 2009, during a meeting, Anand Burman, the fifth-generation chairman, was asked to taste a new flavor of Hajmola candy. Although he personally disliked the flavor, he considered the feedback from the research team, which indicated that the candy would sell well. Consequently, Hajmola Mint was launched. Currently, Dabur India is led by Mohit Malhotra, with Amit Burman, Anand's cousin, serving as the chairman. Amit, a management graduate from Pune University, joined Dabur as a management trainee in 1994 and assumed the role of chairman in 2019.
The Burman family established a council that acts as an interface between the family, the board, and the management of Dabur. This council determines the company's strategy. Four family members—Amit, Mohit, Aditya, and Saket—represent the family on the board of directors. Additionally, the family members pursue their own businesses outside of Dabur. This approach has proven successful for Dabur, which has become the world's largest Ayurvedic healthcare company. It offers a diverse range of consumer products in categories such as hair care, oral care, healthcare, skincare, home care, and food.
From its humble beginnings in a small manufacturing plant in Kolkata, Dabur now operates in 12 locations in India and eight overseas. Dabur boasts a portfolio of over 250 herbal and Ayurvedic products, including popular over-the-counter medicines like Dabur Honitus (a cough syrup) and Dabur Ashokarishta (a health tonic for women). The company's presence extends to over 6.7 million retail outlets in more than 100 countries
But is success only determined by profit margins and sales turnovers? Of course not. While it is true that the entrepreneurial spirit of Dakatar Burman's successor contributed largely to what Dabur is today, the intrinsic roots of the company are embedded in success as it began as a service to humanity. Daktar Burman embodied what it means to truly practice the Hippocratic oath. If one’s intentions are pure and selfless, success is bound to follow.