Sunday, 15 July 2012

Inspiring Personality - Mr.P.Ponnudurai, Lion Dates

Mr.Ponnudurai (Image Source : Hindu)

Mr. P.Ponnudurai:


Continuing my posts on Inspiring personalities, today I have read an article about Mr.P.Ponnudurai.  Can any one guess who he is? Now comes the clue.

He is the one who gives the Brand Name for Dates.

Now almost every one got it right.

Yeah, this post is about the Man Behind LION DATES - Mr.P.Ponnudurai.

The son of a landless farmer from Tiruchi in Tamil Nadu, who later went to Sri Lanka, Ponnudurai started working in a small provision shop from the  age of 10. When his parents were sent back to India in 1974, the 17-year-old continued working in a provision store in Tiruchi at a monthly salary of Rs 85

“But right from childhood I wanted to have my own business. So I got a bank loan of Rs 4,600 through a lawyer friend and started a small provision store, but with my having no experience, it failed and I was left with a debt of over Rs 4,000.”

He next got a job as a junior assistant in the Collector's office at a salary of Rs 800. To enhance his income he sold Sabina packets. 

Source : Google Images
“One day I saw some dates being sold loose in an unhygienic condition and asked the shopkeeper why could he not package and sell it. To needle me he said, ‘why don't you pack and give it to me.' So I did.”

That gives the birth of Lion Dates;
With his salary and income from sale of Sabina and dates, he soon wiped off his debt. After a while, the sale of dates went up to 500 packets a day; 

“As I did not have a shop, I'd pack dates at home and personally deliver to shops and stores,” recalls Ponnudurai. Gradually he extended his sales to Chennai, being supported by Sabina distributors.

Branding time

Very soon he had to give his product a name.

 “I took just five minutes to do so. I asked myself who is the most powerful being in the world and the answer that came to me was the lion, who is the king of the jungle.” 

As dates too are packed with iron and vitamins, he thought this would be the most appropriate brand name. But he didn't have the money to print labels from Sivakasi. 

“as I'd have to give order for a minimum of 10,000 labels, so I took the lion's picture from a political party's election symbol!”

Slowly he expanded his business to Madurai and Thanjavur and by 1983 his turnover had touched Rs 50,000. The profit margins were good and he started advertising on radio.

For professional help with his ad campaign, in 1992 he got in touch with G.N. Dhinesh Kumar, MD, Saroj Ad Creators, who has now become a close friend and media advisor. Says Kumar: “I told him, why don't you make a TV ad; he was reluctant but I convinced him.”

However, what he failed to do was get his client to change the lion picture on his packets.

“He was very sentimental about it and said the product should not get the label of being too elitist. He wanted to promote dates as a health food for common people.” says Kumar.

Though sceptical about television ads, Ponnudorai gave Kumar a budget of Rs 95,000.

“we began with a 10-seconds spot, he wouldn't agree for even a 20-seconds spot,” recalls Kumar.

But two weeks later the entrepreneur agreed to a 40-seconds spot as he saw the impact on his sales. 

“Now, of course, we've gone up to about 50,000 seconds per week all over India; we have spots in Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada, Hindi, Marathi, Oriya and Bengali,” adds Kumar.

The ads target Tamils in Malaysia and Singapore where Lion dates and other products are exported. 

“Even though I don't export to Europe, I've seen Indian and Sri Lankan shops in Europe selling my dates, so they must be smuggled,” smiles Ponnudurai.


Along the way came value addition through seedless dates and he also began importing from Muscat. In 1995 he was invited by a Muscat Government factory that had made a lot of date syrup but did not know how to sell it.

 “I thought if it can be mixed with milk, then it would become a healthy drink… a good tonic for children and adults.”

He personally began to experiment mixing of date syrup with milk at different temperatures. “A few times the milk curdled, or the drink tasted horrible. But then I found that the syrup mixed in lukewarm milk really tastes good.”

The sales of the date syrup picked up but then the Muscat factory closed down in 2000. Luckily he knew a Keralite working there, so after consulting him he put up his own production plant and the product is doing very well. “people like to have date syrup not only with milk but also with idli or dosai,” he says.
Obviously the desi version of crepes with chocolate or strawberry sauce, or pancakes with maple syrup!

Source :
Another Lion product is honey; he first tried to make honey with dates, but that didn't do well. But the shopkeepers said ‘give us plain honey,' and he did, branding it Lion honey.

To continue with the health theme, Ponnudurai started marketing Lion oats. “I import in bulk from Australia and that is doing well. My eldest daughter, who is now in the US, has joined me now and marketing oats was her idea,” he says.

This entrepreneur has put up four factories; “I found it difficult to get labour in Tiruchi so my production centres are in villages around Tiruchi,” he says.
The company employs 600 women in cleaning and seed removing. Ponnudurai explains that in the date business — particularly extraction of seeds — there cannot be too much mechanisation as it is a sticky product and will get stuck in the machine. “This is true even in the Arab countries; all over the world date business requires manual labour.”

The company imports 8,000 tonnes of dates every year and the bulk of it comes from Iraq (through Dubai) and Muscat. “I was the first one to get black dates from Muscat. Then I started importing from Iran, Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria. Now I have started importing Jordanian dates; they are very good but very costly at Rs 1,200 a kg. Iraqi dates cost only Rs 100 a kg.”

As other players in the dates business are small, he estimates he has about 80 per cent of the market and thinks he owes his success to “hard work, dedication, and my belief that I should not sell something that is not good for the health of the people. Dates are packed with iron, vitamins and other nutrients that are good for the health of the entire family. Apart from dates, date syrup, honey and oats, we had tamarind too, but I haven't really pushed that product because tamarind can cause stomach pain if consumed in big quantity.”

But more than promoting healthy and nutritious foods, he is proud about being a simple man.

“Some people close to me say I should buy an expensive car. I drive in a Honda City and think the purpose of a car is to reach from point A to point B. I have come up the hard way, so I know the value of money.”

Incidentally the auto rickshaw he bought in 1984 to supply dates is still with him; “I need to remind myself that I once had to drive that auto myself to deliver my products,” he says.

Adds Kumar: “He will part with lakhs of rupees for advertising his products, but will think twice to spend Rs 500 on a shirt!”

Ask him about his long-term vision or goals and the man who doesn't care much about giving interviews — he was a very reluctant applicant for the recent regional awards the CII gave to entrepreneurs — says:

“I don't want to show my face, let my company's face be there; nobody should know who is behind this company.”

His long-term goal for his business is simple; “till you get 100 per cent of the market, there is scope for growth.”

He does not sport the smooth mannerisms of the average corporate don. On the contrary, he is proud about his humble beginnings and talks at length about the English tutor he had to employ, paying him a daily fee of Rs 100 for three years to learn the language, after a petrifying trip to Mumbai in 1992.

“A man who had come to Tiruchi said to expand my business I should enter the Mumbai market. So I went to Mumbai but was too scared to go outside the Hotel as I knew only Tamil. He asked me to take a train to Masjid Bunder and meet a commission agent. Luckily the agent spoke Tamil.”

Not only that, he also ordered from the dates dealer half a tonne of dates, and gave him an advance too!

In three years, he had started importing dates from Muscat and first travelled there in 1995. Now he regularly imports from Iraq (via Dubai), Iran, Muscat, Tunisia, etc.

English language skills might have come to him late in life, but of three daughters, one is a doctor and the other two have done business management courses from London and the US.

Source : The Hindu Business Line,  Sify, Wikipedia, lion dates website, Times of India


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