Creating An Empire
Sudeep Nair, 50, hailing from Evoor, Cheppad, in the Alappuzha district of Kerala, is the Group Chief Executive Officer of Food Empire Holdings Limited Singapore, an USD 280 million global branding and manufacturing company in the food and beverage sector. Its products include instant beverages, frozen convenience food, confectionery and snack food
Sold in over 50 countries, in markets such as Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Central Asia, China, Indochina, the Middle East, Mongolia and the USA, Food Empire Holdings currently has 24 offices worldwide. In addition, it operates 8 manufacturing facilities in India, Malaysia, Myanmar, Russia, Ukraine and Vietnam.
The group has won numerous accolades and awards including being recognized as one of the “Most Valuable Singapore Brands” by IE Singapore, while its brand MacCoffee has been ranked as one of “The Strongest Singapore Brands”. Forbes Magazine has twice named Food Empire as one of the “Best under a Billion” companies in Asia.
Here in an exclusive interview Sudeep Nair speaks to KTE Editor Deepak N Nair.
Tell us about yourself, your childhood and the kind of life you led?
My younger sister Sunita and I together had a lovely childhood with our parents. Since my father was working for the Indian Air Force, we had the opportunity to move from one place to another, every few years, thereby getting to see and live in different parts of India during our childhood.
It was thus an interesting experience and, in hindsight living inside defence colonies, although we were quite insulated from the world outside, we had our own active lives inside the guarded cantonments. Only when I did my high school in Delhi, away from the main city, did I get an understanding of how the outside world was in India. It was quite a revelation for me.
During our school years, the annual summer vacation trips to Kerala were something we eagerly looked forward to, as it meant spending time with both maternal and paternal grand parents, our cousins, assorted relatives and extended family members, in the lush green village environs of Kerala. We used to split our time between my mother’s ancestral house at Pattazhy in the Kollam district and my father’s ancestral house at Evoor, Cheppad in the Alappuzha district.
His Career and How it Began
I started my career in software development in Delhi in 1992 and very soon I got a break to move to Bangkok and worked there for a year till 1993. Later, the same year, I chanced to meet our Singaporean Founder Mr.Tan Wang Cheow and moved with him to Singapore to join his newly setup electronic trading company in 1993.
The company was exporting electronic items to Russia and former Soviet republics from Singapore. However, after having joined the company the realization struck that the electronics trading business was getting increasingly tougher and cutting into our profitability. Hence, we were compelled to look at new business opportunities to keep going. We had to diversify and find some other business to sustain our future.
Luckily and quite fortunately, after some research, we found a 3-in-1 coffee mix, as a possible new business opportunity. It had to have a long shelf life, and coffee products if packed and sealed properly were an excellent choice. We sent some samples of the same to our existing business partners and associates who were trading in electronics. Truth be told, no one in these countries really knew what the product was, but at our request, our business partners were willing to give it a try, and the samples were instantly liked by them. Markets had just opened up and consumers were open to new concepts and new products in the entire former Soviet Union. Since we got good initial response, our Founder Tan Wang Cheow requested me to travel and start an office in Russia in 1994.
Initially, I wasn’t very keen and so he sent some of my other colleagues from Singapore. They went to Russia and returned after few weeks refusing to stay there due to difficult conditions - climate and business wise. As a consequence, Mr.Tan persuaded me again, and wanted me to give it a shot. His persuasion worked, and I made up my mind to give it a serious try, as I perceived I had nothing to lose.
I went to Russia during the peak winter season in December 1994, and after doing some spade work, set up our first office in March 1995, and in the process also met my future wife Irina, who helped me manage my office those years in administration and marketing. There was no turning back since then, and we succeeded not only in Russia but in the entire region and we set up offices and operations in the same geographies and till now have market leadership position in the coffee mix segment employing hundreds of people across the region. After some years, I decided to settle down in life and got married to Irina in 1998. She also resigned from her job to start a family and our daughter Anastasia was born in 1999.
It has been a challenge and great opportunity to put my experience in building new businesses across various countries and it’s very humbling too, because it’s always a new start from beginning, when we decide to start a new country. While its tough, challenging and rewarding, I enjoy what I do as I have been involved with our business from the beginning.
Food Empire Holdings Ltd.
The company where I started work was a private company and our founding shareholders decided to list the company on SGX Singapore in 2000. Since Russia and CIS were the main markets of the company and I was involved in building most of the business I was invited to join as an Executive Director of the Board in 2005. Later in 2012 I was appointed as the Group CEO with an additional responsibility to grow and diversify our business outside of Russia/CIS into Asia. It has been a challenge and great opportunity to put my experience in building new businesses across various countries and it’s very humbling too, because it’s always a new start from beginning, when we decide to start in a new country. While it’s tough, challenging and rewarding, I enjoy what I do as I have been involved with our business from the beginning. Our success or failure largely depends on the quality of our human resources and I am lucky to have found and nurtured a good management team across countries, who are working along with me for the Group, trying to compete and succeed in a very competitive environment, where we are pitched against world’s largest MNCs and local players
Our success or failure largely depends on the quality of our human resources and I am lucky to have found and nurtured a good management team across countries, who are working along with me for the Group, trying to compete and succeed in a very competitive environment, where we are pitched against world’s largest MNCs and local players.
Long term plans for India
As part of our vertical integration process, being in the instant coffee industry, we wanted to be a producer of instant coffee, to have a better control over our key ingredient for coffee-mix branded business. Hence, we selected India for its competitive landscape and our familiarity being Indians, to put up our first investment into a factory to make instant coffee from coffee beans. That was in 2015 and our first manufacturing unit in Mambattu, in the Nellore district of Andhra Pradesh has been performing well amidst tough worldwide coffee market conditions. And now, we are expanding the Indian unit to produce a higher value added product within the instant coffee segment. That project should start production in 2020. We started our business in India to use it as a manufacturing and exporting base, but we definitely also want to enter the Indian consumer market, and we are exploring some products that are in soft drinks category other than coffee. At this stage we are satisfied with our first project and we keep exploring new projects for investments in India.
We definitely also want to enter the Indian consumer market, and we are exploring some products that are in soft drinks category other than coffee.
The turning point in career
There were a few, but an important first one was in 1993 when I realised that I didn’t want to ” Our success or failure largely depends on the quality of our human resources and I am lucky to have found and nurtured a good management team across countries, who are working along with me for the Group, trying to compete and succeed in a very competitive environment, where we are pitched against world’s largest MNCs and local players. The Complete Family Man be working in the software support industry and wanted to move to business development and international sales. It was a big change as I was a programmer till then. But, I was quite confident, and it has been a wonderful challenging and rewarding experience so far. More than anything else, the satisfaction of creating new businesses, products, creating employment and creating a sustainable business model for future, that touches every part of the society and all stakeholders gives me a sense of satisfaction, which is beyond financial or other materialistic goals. I have been lucky doing what I enjoy all these years.
Major influences in life
Major influences for me have come from my own experiences, and also from the experiences my friends and acquaintances, in this life’s journey, at different points of time. In my formative years, and even now, different types of books and reading materials have always been a source of guidance and inspiration. I am also observant by nature and learn something from everyone whom I meet and interact with. It’s humbling but rewarding experience, as long as we are open to listening, meeting and interacting with people we come across in our lives. I also spend some time reading about economics, psychology, current affairs and economic development models of various countries, companies and many other interesting spheres. As such, my reading is all non-fiction and more often that not, it’s a struggle to find time to read, amidst a life full of intercontinental travel.
Our daughter Anastasia is now an young adult and is in her first year studying Law at Kent University in the United Kingdom, and my wife Irina has been a wonderful home maker and has taken care of everything at home and on the family front, that I could never attend to, due to my hectic business and travel life. Due to my role as Group CEO since 2012 where I have taken up the challenge to build and diversify our businesses outside Russia/CIS region, it takes away 185 days in a year traveling within Asia and Europe. It’s always tough to be away for long, from family and friends, but it’s a compromise that I have to make. To compensate for this, we try to go for more frequent holidays to spend some quality time together. I also make sure to visit my parents in Kerala, multiple times in a year and also my sister and family in Dubai, with whom I am very close too.
Typical working day and weekend
My days usually start late since I tend to finish late, and it starts with checking any urgent messages or emails and then if I am in Moscow it would be some physical sports activities and then to work and meetings. If I am in Singapore or Asia, usually being warm countries I would go for long brisk walks after my day ends, post dinner meetings. During the day time, every day could be different depending on which country I am in. If I am in some countries where I am on a business trip, it could be market visits, or brainstorming sessions with local management. If it’s at the headquarters in Singapore, it would be more of shareholder activities, board matters and management meetings to check the progress of our projects. The overall day to day management is run well by our team in the respective countries and I am proud to have a good team that we have built. Typical weekend is always plenty of sleep, nature walks/brisk walks, lots to read and catch up on latest entertainment and of course dinner with family and friends.
I travel about 185 days in a year, so basically every month, half the month I would be traveling between continents Asia and Russian/European. Most of it is business related, but also whenever we go on vacations.
Favourite travel destinations
My favourite destination so far has been Africa for a holiday with abundant wildlife. I also love Asia and Europe generally. I have travelled a lot so far, and aim to cover more during the next 10 years. I am a nature lover and since we live in major cities my idea of vacation is always to be closer to nature. Central America is also a favourite destination like Ecuador and Costa Rica. We always remember our holidays in Galapagos and Kenya. I have yet to travel to Latin America and I am looking forward to do that in coming years. The world is very diverse and amazing. There is lots to see and admire in every country. Last year, I managed to visit Ranthanbore Tiger reserve in India and it was an awesome experience
Visits to Kerala
I try to visit Kerala at least 3-4 times a year mainly to spend time with my parents and to keep in touch with our relatives. Often times, I and my sister try to plan our visits together to relive our childhood moments and enjoy quality time with our parents.
Suggestions to improve Kerala’s tourism potential
Kerala has so much to offer in terms of tourism. Great food, culture, history and mostly smiling people. The only issues are lack of infrastructure to support and encourage more tourists to visit the state. The roads in particular, call for drastic improvement. Foreign tourists must feel safe and comfortable because they are visiting to enjoy and learn our culture and see new places. Kerala has so much to offer and I hope the necessary infrastructure, if created, can exponentially grow tourism. On visa front also, the electronic visa system has helped but it should be better like other countries have done in South East Asia.
Foreign tourists must feel safe and comfortable because they are visiting to enjoy and learn our culture and see new places. Kerala has so much to offer and I hope the necessary infrastructure, if created, can drastically grow tourism.
How would you describe yourself in one word.
Italian amongst European cuisine, Indian/Thai/ Chinese in Asian