Unforgotten Brands: Nilgiris

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Like other great Indian business stories, Nilgiri’s is about hard work, adapting to new circumstances, and the aspiration of one individual

Muthuswamy Mudaliar’s journey from a humble mail runner in colonial India to the founder of Nilgiri Dairy Farm Ltd., one of India’s most renowned dairy brands, is a testament to resilience, entrepreneurial spirit, and a commitment to quality.

Born into poverty in Morattupalayam near Tirupur, Tamil Nadu, Mudaliar’s early years were marked by hardship. With limited formal education, he sought opportunities elsewhere and found himself working as a mail runner for the British postal department, shuttling between Coimbatore and the hill stations of Ooty and Coonoor.

It was during his postal runs that Mudaliar identified a demand for dairy products among the British residents and visitors in the Nilgiri Hills. As he was flooded with requests to carry dairy products and other items, Muthuswami often carried a 30-pound (around 14kg) cream tin on his head and walked up the hill to Wellington).

Responding to this demand, he took the bold step of venturing into the dairy business by purchasing the butter business of an Englishman in Vannarpet in 1905. Equipped with imported machines, Mudaliar established The Nilgiri Dairy Farm Ltd., laying the foundation for what would become a pioneering enterprise in the Indian dairy industry.

Together with his brothers, Mudaliar began selling cream and butter, delivering them personally to customers’ doorsteps, a practice that would later become synonymous with the Nilgiri brand. Determined to succeed, he took the cream right to the doors of customers, trekking regularly between the hills of Wellington and Coonoor.

His commitment to quality and customer service soon earned him a reputation, and orders for Nilgiri butter poured in from as far as the Bangalore Cantonment.

In 1922, the brothers decided to part ways, and Mudaliar relocated to Ooty, where he focused on expanding his business and catering to elite clientele like the Maharajas (of Mysore, Jodhpur and Jaipur), Nawabs, and Zamindars, used to visit Ooty in the summer season to witness horse races, flower shows, and dog shows especially during the summer months.

His pasteurized Crown butter gained popularity, attracting the attention of Spencer’s, a British trading house, which began stocking the brand at its stores.

Recognizing the need to meet the growing demand for Nilgiri products, Mudaliar sent his son, Chenniappan, to Bangalore to oversee operations there. Chenniappan continued his father’s legacy by cycling regularly to Jalahalli to deliver butter to British soldiers.

By 1936, Nilgiri’s had established its presence in Bangalore, opening a modest store on Brigade Road and offering dairy products, baked snacks, and coffee.

In the 1940s, the family relocated to Bangalore, making it the headquarters of the Nilgiri brand.

The concept he had seen during his travels to the United States and Europe served as the inspiration for Chenniappan’s vision for expansion, which resulted in the store becoming a larger supermarket. The Nilgiri supermarket chain soon expanded to Erode, Coimbatore, and Chennai, offering quality products at competitive rates under one roof.

One of Nilgiri’s early achievements was popularizing sliced bread packed in wax-coated paper, a novelty in rice-eating South India. Despite initial scepticism, the brand’s commitment to quality and innovation won over customers, establishing Nilgiri as a trusted name in the region.

Chenniappan upheld his father’s business policy of “No adulteration, no lying,” ensuring the brand’s integrity and reputation remained untarnished.

In 2006, Actis, a UK-based private equity investor, invested $65 million in the Nilgiris Group, strengthening its manufacturing and franchising operations in South India. This investment marked a new chapter in Nilgiri’s growth story, enabling it to reach new heights of success and expand its footprint across the region.

Future Consumer Enterprises Ltd. purchased 98% of the company from Actis Capital and other promoters on November 21, 2014.

However, in August 2023, Future Consumer Enterprises Ltd. sold Nilgiri’s to AVA Cholayil Health Care for ₹67 crore, signalling a change in ownership for the iconic brand. Despite the change in ownership, Nilgiri’s legacy as a pioneer in the Indian dairy industry continues to endure, a testament to the vision and perseverance of Muthuswamy Mudaliar and his descendants.

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