Twice his business was flattened, but this entrepreneur refused to give up
Neither penury nor a ten-crore loss in a super cyclone could keep down Sarat Kumar Sahoo, who rose from a tiny food stall to build a company with Rs 250 crore turnover and more than a thousand employees.
The industrious life-graph of Sarat Kumar Sahoo, Managing Director, Om Oil and Flour Mills, is not obvious in his simple living; it is evident in his work.
Sarat Kumar Sahoo, Managing Director, Om Oil and Flour Mills, had taken his company's products on a bullock cart in search of buyers during their initial years in the business (Photos: Tikan Mishra)
Sarat, now 66, was born the second of three siblings to a middle-class family in Cuttack. His father ran a tiny five-seater eatery, barely enough to feed their family of five. Sarat remembers his nursery education near his house at Ranihat in Cuttack, “a temporary arrangement under a tree.”
After his higher secondary exams Sarat took admission into Christ College in Cuttack, but his brother went to Chennai to do a course in automobile engineering and it fell upon Sarat to assist his father.
The entrepreneur recollects that to save the cost of hiring help, he toiled along with his father, “washed utensils and served or delivered the food items.”
But he was already a winner in another field – kabaddi. “I was the captain of the Odisha Kabaddi team from 1968 to 1972,” he shares, “and later in 1973, elected the secretary of the State Kabaddi Association. Sports has inspired me to be at the top in whatever I do.”
Tragedy befell Sarat when their small eatery was bulldozed by the administration in 1974, “We were reduced to being paupers in a few minutes,” he rues.
Years later, in 1999, he would suffer another massive blow when the super-cyclone in Odisha wreaked havoc on his fledgling business.
“The cyclone destroyed machines worth Rs ten crore,” he rues. “Though I was broken, I was determined to rise again. I soon managed to bring stability in the company.”
No setback could put him down permanently. In 1974 after his eatery was razed to the ground, he immediately joined an entrepreneurship training programme offered by the Odisha Small Industries Corporation Limited (OSIC), with a stipend of Rs 750 per month to the trainees.
“I grabbed the opportunity of the three-month training as well as the money, which we desperately needed.”
Meanwhile, his father had opened a tea-stall in the city where Sarat helped. “The idea of setting up my own business began to germinate into my mind,” he says, “but I was cash-strapped and took up a job in a spice factory in Kolkata with the aim of gaining expertise in spices. I worked there for a few months before returning to Cuttack.”
Ruchi Foodline, a subsidiary of Om Oil and Flour Mills Ltd manufactures around 300 products including flour, noodles, and 48 varieties of spices
In 1976, at 26, Sarat finally took the first step towards becoming an entrepreneur. He rented 1600 sq ft at Madhupatna in Cuttack (which currently houses his company’s headquarters) at a monthly rent of Rs 450.
“There were not many flour mills in the area so I decided to invest here,” he says. He floated Om Oils and Flour Mill Limited, a proprietorship, with an investment of Rs 5,000.
“The money was partly from my savings and the rest my father gave from his tea-stall income,” he says, recollecting the initial days of start-up struggle.
“I also borrowed Rs 9,500 from the bank to buy machinery for the flour mill. Apart from me, there were my father and a helper to run the mill. I did most of the work and doubled up as a mechanic, salesman and accountant. We started off by making Ruchi atta (wheat flour).”
“Those days were really tough,” he continues. “I used to visit several shops, carrying my products on the bullock cart, trying hard to sell to buyers in Bhubaneswar, Puri and other closeby districts.”
Determination and hard work began to pay-off and Ruchi flour soon became popular in Cuttack and neighbouring districts because of the quality product it offered, that too at a competitive price.
The company began to expand their product range and in 1976 Ruchi Foodline was formed as a subsidiary of Om Oil and Flour Mills Ltd. Ruchi starting selling their vermicelli in 1978 and pasta in 1979.
Om Oil And Flour Mills Limited became a Public Limited company in 1997
In 1980, Ruchi forayed into spices with packed turmeric powder, coriander powder and black pepper. The company achieved a turnover of Rs 25 lakh by 1985.
“Despite the increase in sales, I never changed my marketing strategy and still visited shops to get feedback about our products and make the suggested changes,” says Sarat.
By 1995, the company’s turnover crossed Rs 80 lakh. “The secret was quality and hard work,” says Sarat. The business was running well with Sarat introducing modern technology for better production, such as pasta machines from Italy.
In 2013, the company launched Frozit ready-to-heat-and-eat food items – ranging from Roasted Veg Pasta, Pasta with Chicken, Pasta with Creamy Mushroom to Lachha Kheer (Rasmalai) & Poda Pitha (a traditional Odia cuisine). The target market included busy working single men and women, and hostel students.
At present, Ruchi manufactures around 300 products including flour, noodles, 48 varieties of spices, and other items. Its products are sold through 200 dealers in Odisha and more than 40 super stockists all over the country.
Om Oil And Flour Mills Limited became a Public Limited company in 1997, though its name is generally synonymous with Ruchi.
Ruchi products are sold through 200 dealers in Odisha and more than 40 super stockists all over the country
Not one to forget where he came from, Sarat has instituted the Ruchi Prativa Foundation that been awarding meritorious people since 1996 – from school toppers to other achievers.
His own children, Arbind Sahoo (38) and Rashmi Sahoo (35) are now directors in the company and follow their father’s mantra of ‘Hard work, honesty and no compromise on quality.’ Sarat says, “I had vowed never to give unhealthy food to my costumers and I request the younger generation to follow the same path.”
The MD is not ready to rest. “We are planning to venture into the soft drinks market,” he says about the company’s future plans. “My vision is to see more entrepreneurs coming up from Odisha and making the country proud.”