CHENNAI: When PVSK Palaniappan, son of a coffee and cardamom exporter based in Virudhunagar, had his first encounter with an aerated drink a century ago, he was instantly enamoured with his experience and the possibilities. Here was a drink that the average Indian had never tasted. And for Palaniappan, all of 23 years and waiting to try something new, it was a chance to break away from his father’s business and build something on his own. Thus began the journey of one of Tamil Nadu’s most iconic soft drinks brands — Kalimark.
A century down the line, Kalimark now has the founder’s great-grandsons who are all set to change the quintessential, small-scale family business into a corporate entity that can take the fight to the giants of the soft drinks industry. The success of the slow, but steady re-invention, can be seen in the 14% market share that Kalimark’s flagship product has secured in Tamil Nadu.
“We’ve been around for a century. But it was only in 2010 that we embarked on our current push. Until then, Kalimark the brand and Kali Aerated Water Works, the company that manufactured the products under the brand, were a small business,” points out Jeyandran Dhanushkodi, fourth generation director. In the time since Kalimark’s new avatar began, it’s best known drink, Bovonto, has become ubiquitous across the State’s major cities. Kalimark has also come out with a series of new products from Trio (orange flavoured soda) to Ginger (a fizzy ginger drink). Its latest launch, made during its centenary celebrations on Monday, is Vibro. a new version of ‘paneer soda’.
But before Kalimark could become the 6,000 cases per day and Rs 170 crore business it is today, it had to transform the idea in the young Palaniappan’s imagination to reality. “Both my grandfather (Palaniappan) and grandmother, Unnamallai Ammal, began that journey by buying a small, hand-operated machine that would inject gas into water and pressurise it. He took the products to some of the shopkeepers in the area and it was an instant hit,” narrates KPR Sakthivel, a third generation member of the board and the family’s oldest. The success and demand saw Palaniappan set up his first factory in Virudhunagar in 1916.
The business took off and Kalimark became the go-to brand for soft drinks in rural Tamil Nadu — or ‘Colour’ as it was, and is still, called in those parts. Units were opened in Madurai, Tirunelveli, Tiruchy, Kumbakonam, Chennai and Karaikudi over the years. The firm has been growing at 25% every year for six years, says Jeyandran. But Kalimark had to wait another 43 years before it would come out with the product that would define the next half a century of its existence — Bovonto, which contributes to 95% of the firm’s revenue.
The company has now come close to breaching the Rs 200 crore mark in revenue and is targeting Rs 1,000 crore by 2020 in its battle to stay alive in an industry dominated by two global giants — Coca Cola and Pepsi. “But it was the advent of the two that has made it easier. Without them, soda would never have gotten past its limits as a luxury product,” says Jeyandran.