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The Dressing Room
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How I Did It
Ramakrishna Karuturi, Karuturi Global
believes glory comes with
ambition, and being
Photograph By S Radhakrishna
Entrepreneurship runs in my blood. My father, Surya Rao
Karuturi, was a first-generation entrepreneur who started as a
small rice trader, went on to become a large-scale farmer and
eventually became a manufacturer of cable and transmission
towers. While growing up in Bengaluru, I was greatly influenced
by him. His foresight and never-say-die attitude have
been my inspiration all along.
I always knew I would join the family business. After graduating
in mechanical engineering from Bangalore University in 1988, I
went to Case Western Reserve University in the US to pursue an
MBA. Back to India in 1990, I joined the business as technical
director. It was a great experience; I was young and full of dreams.
I really worked hard at Deepak Cables (India) Ltd, the familyowned
power transmission towers business. Entering into the
Far-Eastern market was one of the decisions I took there.
Chancing upon a rose garden was a serendipitous moment for me.
After working at Deepak Cables for four years, I had started feeling
the need to do something else. I took a break and visited Israel
to explore new transmission tower business
opportunities. For some time, I had
wanted to build greenhouses so that we
could combine our power tower business
with our large agricultural assets. I was
not prepared for what was going to come
next. When I went to see greenhouses in
Israel, I was struck by the variety of roses
being cultivated. It was a fascinating
sight, and I couldn’t get it out of my mind
even after I returned home from that trip.
I was so struck by it that I decided to take
up rose cultivation in India. I spent
nearly one-and-a-half years just researching
how to grow roses.
My family was sceptical. They thought it
was a momentary fancy and would soon
pass. But I was certain that I wanted to be
in the business of roses. I was in love with them and nothing could stop me from fulfilling
my dream. At that point I didn’t
think how it would turn out or whether I
would succeed at all.
Our cultivation beginnings were humble.
I acquired 18.6 acres of land outside Bengaluru
and started growing roses on it.
Karuturi Floritech was incorporated in
1994 and was renamed Karuturi Global
in 2004, when we entered Africa. I
invested Rs 5 crore, part of which was
loaned from a bank. Our turnover was in
the range of Rs 2-3 crore in the first year
itself. I had grown nine varieties of roses.
At that time, most other cultivators were
importing roses from Netherlands,
because of which the costs were high. Our
roses were all homegrown, and we man aged to cut costs by almost 30 per cent
because of that. We were the lowest cost
farm in Bengaluru when we set up. Unlike
other farms in the area, we didn’t have too
many fancy equipment or high overhead
costs. We were producing roses with limited
resources at a very low price. In fact,
when the vice president of a bank visited
our farm, he called it “primitive”. I wasn’t
offended. It was a compliment.
I dreamt really big. In the mid-90s, the
flower export market was in the early
stages. We didn’t have the wherewithal to
compete with the international market
and nobody expected that India could be
successful one day. But I had a gut feeling
that we could be big. I knew it was about
hanging in there. We began to expand.
Between 1996-2000, we developed Singapore,
Australia, Middle-East and Japan as
our markets. These were not traditionally
on the radar of big flower cultivators but it
was a good time to go global and tap these
markets. Markets across the world were on
an upswing and people were spending
more. We were successful in most markets
we entered other than South Africa.
That didn’t work though—somehow we
didn’t find too many buyers in the South
It’s not like business was a bed of roses.
Yes, we were growing but we faced our
share of challenges. Ironically, we found
success in these challenges. In February
1999, just before Valentine’s Day, the flight
taking our roses to Europe was cancelled.
Other local rose cultivators panicked and sold
their produce at whatever price they
could fetch. I bought all their roses, negotiated
for a flight to Europe from Chennai
and sent the consignment of roses by road
to Chennai. I had bought the flowers for Rs 4
per piece and sold them on Valentine’s
Day for Rs 48 per stem. Similarly, in 2007-
08, when Kenya erupted in violence and it
was tough to find labour for the farms, I
refused to abandon my operations.
Instead I continued with rose cultivation,
exporting nearly a million roses annually.
I provided housing, food and blankets to
over 6,000 labourers and children in
schools and hospitals that were part of the
By 2000, I had set up the Indian market, and
was doing well in other global markets. Our
turnover now was Rs 12-13 crore. Around
then, I managed a personal coup of sorts. I
started a chartered flight from Bengaluru
which began flying out roses to Amsterdam.
It was a major decision for us. We were still
small players in the business but it meant a
lot to me. Even today, I cannot forget the day
when I saw a Boeing 737 take off from
Bengaluru airport with our homegrown
roses. It was surreal, almost. It marked a
turning point in the business. Today, we
operate several chartered flights every week
to ship our roses to Netherlands, the hub of
Europe’s flower business.
Things were going fine with the business.
But, slowly, it was clear that the biggest
threat to our business was competition
from Africa. My best people started
leaving for cultivators in Africa.
Sometime in 2004, an employee of mine,
and somebody I consider a guru, told me I
should look at Africa as a potential base
for rose cultivation. He had left Karuturi
to work for an African company. I
laughed off his suggestions at first. But
later as we were driving to our farm
outside Bengaluru, he kept at it. And, the
facts he listed—high yield of roses and
high profits—were astounding. I was
stunned by the potential for what Africa
could do for us. I immediately turned
back to Bengaluru and booked myself on
the first available flight to Africa.
It was the second turning point for Karuturi
Global. Once there, I discovered how
they were miles ahead of us. Their air
freight was cheaper; they had duty-free
access to Europe and were shipping roses
round the year. Their scale of operations
was phenomenal. On the other hand, we
were playing to the seasons. We moved
from one season to another, from one
country to another. We were moving
between six markets in a year and as a
result, there was no stickiness with the
brand. That made me enter the Africa
market. By then, I knew what I wanted. I
had to be the rose grower for the world.
A bit of prudence and pragmatism paid. It
wasn’t easy to break into a world inhabited
by seasoned players. The African
growers saw me as a Johnny-come-lately
breaking into their stronghold. I decided
against going to Kenya, where all the
major rose growers were. Instead, I went
to Ethiopia where the government was
offering free land and cheaper air freights.
Once we got a foothold in the Africanmarket, we bought large farms in Kenya.
We bought 188 hectares for $67 million in
Kenya to take on the global competition.
In the last seven years, we have grown to
become the world’s largest producer of cut
roses with an annual production of 650
million stems. We export 1.5 million
roses every day.
I don’t have much of an appetite for taking
risks. People tell me that I took risks
when I decided to set up farms in Africa.
But I don’t see it that way. I felt that I was
going into a market where my overhead
costs would be much less and I would
gain access to the world market. I am not
scared of perceived risks but of actual
ones. Business can throw up some very
tough times. For example, last year, we
lost our maize crop and incurred a loss
of $15 million due to flash floods in Ethiopia.
You have to take it in your stride.
I’ve always believed that when it’s high
tide, you’ve got to sail and when the tide
is low, you’ve got to make sure that you
don’t get sand-banked.
Most of all, it’s important to look
after one’s employees. I started
with only three. Today, there are
10,000 across our offices in Africa,
India, Holland and Dubai. Soon,
we are looking at increasing that to
25,000. Essentially, everybody is a
human being first and so it’s
important to relate to them at that
level. There’s nothing that a smile
Over the last year or so, I realised
there aren’t too many peaks left to
conquer in the rose business. I have
diversified into agriculture. We have
leased 3,000 sq km land in Ethiopia
and are growing rice, maize, sugarcane
and palm oil. In total, we have
1,00,000 hectares of land in Africa.
By 2014, I plan to acquire a million
hectares. And, produce three million
tonnes of food by 2020. My
vision is to help convert Africa into
the food basket of the world.
Expanding in India is also a priority.
We started a food processing business
plant at Tumkur, 85 kms from Bengaluru.
It has a capacity of 6,000 tonnes per
annum and we are processing and bottling
gherkins for exports to Europe and
the US. I hope to be a substantial player in
the global gherkin market soon. We’ve
have acquired a flower retail chain Florista
and renamed it Flower Express. We operate
25 stores across India, and are in the
process of opening 50 more. In addition,
we have entered into a public-private partnership
with the government of Karnataka
to manage 1,500 acres of farmland
for a long-term lease to grow vegetables
for its captive consumption.
As an entrepreneur, you can’t let yourself
perish. You have to be at it—that’s my sole
philosophy. When things get really tough,
they egg you on to be better and more successful.
I’m very competitive that way. In
hindsight, being perennially paranoid has
helped. It’s that level of passion you bring
to what you do that I think differentiates
the successful from the also-rans.