Published On: January 18th, 2021
The year 2020 will be remembered as the year that took too many significant and beautiful people from us. One person who stands out among those we lost in 2020, is the Late Dharampal Gulati, better known as Mahashay Gulati. Mahashay is the Hindi honorific for Sir used to address a gentleman.
MDH spice king Mahashay Dharampal Gulati was the first and the longest-serving brand ambassador in the world. He was the iconic face of his spice brand MDH spices for over four decades, starting with the packets of the spices and graduating to the newspapers and television ads.
His journey from a tonga-driver in the 1950s to becoming the highest-paid CEO of an FMCG company in 2017, is outstanding and makes for a truly inspirational startup story.
His rags-to-riches story as one of the first entrepreneurs of India is a lesson in perseverance, confidence, vision, and out-of-the-box thinking.
When Mahashay Dharampal Gulati passed away on December 3, 2020, it marked the end of an era. Even the youth missed Mahashay Gulati and poured their sentiments on social media.
Table of Contents
The Formative Years
Dharampal Gulati was born on March 27, 1923, as one of the eight children of Mahashay Chunni Lal Gulati and Mataji (mother) Chanan Devi. Dharampal spent the first 25 years of his life – with his parents, two brothers, and five sisters – in Sialkot town of present-day Pakistan.
Here Chunni Lal had started a business of selling raw/whole and ground spices in 1919 under the banner “Mahashian Di Hatti, Deggi Mirch Wale”, Punjabi for The Gentleman’s Establishment, specializing in hot pepper. The name later became India’s most well-known and trusted spice brand MDH.
The Coming of Age
He got his early education till 5th standard in Sialkot, Punjab province of undivided India. As he was more interested in becoming an entrepreneur like his father, he dropped out of school at 10.
But as a passionate person, he wanted to succeed in something other than the spice-trade when they were still in Sialkot. He tried his hands unsuccessfully in many careers – carpentry, working in soap or rice factories, rice trading, and selling hardware.
As he could not succeed in any of those businesses, he joined his father for a princely sum of 20-rupee/month salary to sell Mehndi. Dharampal Gulati helped in the expansion of operations to other cities of the West Punjab province like Shekhupura, Nankana Sahib, Lahore, Lyallpur, and Multan.
In her book, Divided by Partition: United by Resilience, Mallika Ahluwalia recounts how he was instrumental in their revenues growing from negligible to close to Rs 800 per day.
By the time he was 18, Dharampal was married to Lilawati in 1941. Soon he became the father of two sons and six daughters.
The Passionate Visionary
But as luck would have it, the partition of India in 1947 forced the Gulati family to leave everything behind in the newborn nation of Pakistan and come to Amritsar, Punjab on the India side as refugees.
Later, in search of work, they shifted to New Delhi, India, where he bought a tonga or tanga (horse carriage) for Rs 650, out of the fifteen hundred rupees he had, to sustain the aftermath of the partition. He soon realized that waiting on passengers and driving a tonga will never be enough.
Dharampal Gulati always wanted to do more and be more.
In 1954, he started a shop – Roopak Stores, in Delhi’s Karol Bagh area. It was India’s first modern store to exclusively trade in fresh-ground spices. Later, he would hand over the Roopak brand to Satpal Gulati, his brother.
In 1959, they set up his factory to mass-produce quality ground spices under the brand name Mahashian Di Hatti, in Kirti Nagar, New Delhi. It is believed that he sourced his first investments from his meagre savings and family when there was no seed funding for startups available.
From early in the business, he understood the power of communication and advertised in a popular local Hindi newspaper, Pratap. The increasing acceptability of his ground packaged spices among people led to his second store in Chandni Chowk, New Delhi.
Mahashay Gulati was committed to quality from day one in all his operations – he was willing to put his neck in line for it. MDH spices never made anyone else their brand ambassador, mascot, or model – it was always the Masala King himself.
An ethnic look with turban, sherwani, hook moustache and a pearl necklace was his signature style that he built into a brand image for MDH spices.
The Masala King
Mahashay Dharampal Gulati was called the Masala or the Spice King of India. He was a pioneer in the sense that no one before him ever thought of producing and marketing ready-to-use ground spices on a massive scale.
His privately held flagship company MDH or Mahashian Di Hatti Pvt. Ltd. is an established brand in the Indian spice market with the top slot in North India and second slot pan-India.
MDH exports more than 60 spices and blended spices to over 100 countries all over the world, including Europe, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, the USA, Japan, and African countries.
Till he passed away, Mahashay Ji was the MD of Super Delicacies Private Ltd., a sister concern of MDH and CMD of the flagship company Mahashian Di Hatti Private Limited. He was also on the boards of many hospitals & charities that he started or supported over the years.
For his exemplary work and contribution to the world of business, the President of India, Ram Nath Kovind presented him in 2019 the Padma Bhushan, India’s 3rd highest civilian award.
He won many accolades and awards, including the “Dadabhai Naroji Award”, the “Arch of Europe” award in Paris, “Indian of the Year” by ABCI in 2016 and “Excellence Award” for a lifetime of achievements in 2017.
People who knew him would call him modest, humble, down to earth but with superb business acumen and ear for opportunities.
According to most brand consultants and watchers, he was the most likeable and endearing brand ambassador in India and was lovingly called the “MDH Uncle”, or “MDH Dadaji”, by the younger generations.
As per the latest figures available for 2019, the MDH brand had 18 manufacturing facilities, including one in Sharjah, UAE.
In 2017, when MDH reported a revenue of Rs 924 crores, and net profit of Rs 213 crores, an increase by 24% from last year, Mahashay Ji became the highest-paid CEO of an FMCG company. He was way ahead of his peers at Hindustan Unilever, ITC, and Godrej with revenues many times over.
In 2020, the MDH group was valued at over 6,750 crores and Gulati’s personal stake was pegged at over 5,400 crores with 80% shareholding in the company. With this feat, he was ranked at the 216th place in IIFL Wealth Hurun India Rich 2020 list as it’s the oldest individual member.
Dharampal Gulati followed the time-honoured principles of honouring his commitments, serving customers with quality products and giving back to society. He had an unwavering commitment to serve humanity and the community in any manner in his reach.
He promoted harmony and fraternity above the divides of community, class, gender, region, castes and language. His relentless contributions and active participation in philanthropic & charitable work have created a legacy for decades to come.
He founded over 20 schools to promote education among the girl children, poor and the backward regions. The 300-bedded Mata Chanan Devi hospital in Delhi is a charitable hospital with state-of-the-art healthcare facilities for the poor.
Reportedly, Dharampal Gulati earmarked most of his personal wealth to various trusts, and 90% of his salary went directly to charitable organizations. The Mahashay Chunni Lal Charitable Trust, in memory of his father, manages some of the most promising charitable initiatives.
To help fight the COVID-19 pandemic, the trust gave financial contributions to the Chief Minister’s relief fund and distributed over 10,000 PPE kits among healthcare workers in Delhi.
A Life full of Learnings
The life of Mahashay Dharampal Gulati made the world pay attention and note a humble spice seller from India and believe in the power of quality.
His determination, commitment, hard work and perseverance were exceptional that made him rise from the trauma and setbacks of the world’s worst human migration in 1947.
His intelligence and business acumen made him a visionary – he could see that if the quality of home-ground spices can be delivered in pre-packaged form, there will be many takers for it. It was back then when no one could even imagine that such a business would survive, let alone thrive.
The repeated failures in trying his hands at different vocations did not dishearten him – rather, they strengthened his resolve to find his true calling and make a mark in it.
His successes against all odds, his vision to venture capital investors into an unknown venture, arranging investments and funds when startup venture capital was not available, made for many inspirational startup stories.
Dharampal Gulati’stop venture capital firm believes that “the buck stops with me” was reflected in every packet and ad of the company with his beaming smile assuring millions of customers world over.
Mahashay Gulati started with his father, lost everything, started driving a tonga, and started again with a very small enterprise. He made it successful, despite not attending formal schooling after the fifth standard.
He was aware of the role of education, and that is why promoted it wholeheartedly by setting up many schools with generous scholarships and freeships for students from the disadvantaged sections.
His charm, energy, and smile were infectious. He was young at heart and when he passed away at 97, his life symbolised that age was really just a number for him!