An Indian now owns East India Company
Dipankar De Sarkar | 15 Feb, 2010
It's been a long, emotional and personal journey for Sanjiv Mehta, a Mumbai-born entrepreneur who completed the process of buying the East India Company (EIC) in 2005 from the "30 or 40" people who owned it.
Acutely aware that he owned a piece of history - at its height the company generated half of world trade and employed a third of the British workforce - Mehta, now the sole owner, dived into the company's rich and ruthless past in order to give it a new direction for the future.
With a $15-million investment and inputs from a range of experts - from designers and brand researchers to historians - Mehta is today poised to open the first East India Company store in London's upmarket Mayfair neighbourhood in March.
And then there is the inevitable - and daunting - task of launching in India, a country whose resources, army, trade and politics the company had controlled for some 200 years.
It's a task that Mehta has not taken lightly, he told reporter in an interview. "Put yourself in my shoes for a moment: On a rational plane, when I bought the company I saw gold at the end of the rainbow.
"But, at an emotional level as an Indian, when you think with your heart as I do, I had this huge feeling of redemption - this indescribable feeling of owning a company that once owned us."
The formal start of the East India Company is usually dated back to 1600 when Britain's Queen Elizabeth I granted a group of merchants a charter under the name 'The Company of Merchants of London Trading into the East Indies.'
With its own Elizabethan coat of arms - now owned by Mehta - the company was made responsible for bringing tea, coffee and luxury goods to the West and trading in spices across the globe.
By 1757 the company had become a powerful arm of British imperial might, with its own army, navy, shipping fleets and currency, and control over key trading posts in India - where it was known variously as Company Bahadur and John Company. In 1874, the British government nationalised the company, opportunistically blaming the 1857 uprising on its excesses. But the East India Company army, brought under the command of the Crown, retained its all-powerful presence in India.
"When I took over the company, my objective was to understand its history. I took a sabbatical from all other business and this became the single purpose in my life," said Mehta.
He travelled around the world, visiting former EIC trading posts and museums, reading up records and meeting people "who understood the business of that time".
"There was a huge sense of responsibility - I didn't create this brand, but I wanted to be as pioneering as the merchants who created it."
"The Elizabethan coat of arms stands for trust and reassurance, but we are not repeating history. It took me four years to do the brand positioning and put up the milestones."
The 'relaunched' company, with its headquarters on Conduit Street in Mayfair, is set to open a diverse line of high-end, luxury goods in London in March and in India some time this year.
EIC products in India will include fine foods, furniture, real estate, health and hospitality.
"India is the spirit of the East India Company in many ways - it evokes a huge amount of connectivity and emotions," Mehta said. "It's also a major ambition to bring Indian products to the rest of the world. Today there is no single brand name from the East that can stand alongside, say, Hermes or Cartier from the West.
"The East India Company has that ability."