What does a man’s beard have to do with the downturn? Everything, if you run Simla Chemicals (Simco), a company known globally for the hair fixers it manufactures.
Simco’s history began before Independence with Sardar Pratap Singh Bagga, a sturdy Sikh with a long, flowing beard, learning lessons on chemicals in the famous Lahore perfumery Bhaion ki Dukaan (the shop of brothers).
With time, Bagga moved to Shimla and set up his own business in 1948. Four years later, he chose to give up a comfortable life and moved to Delhi. “He felt the market here was penetrable,” son Kuldeep Singh Bagga, 62, recounts.
Although the enterprising Bagga rarely used a beard fixer in his life, he was quick to realise that other men in his community could not do without a glue to keep their untrimmed facial hair — integral to the Sikh identity — in place.
Sixty-seven years later, Simco, short for Shimla Chemicals, has not only penetrated the market but has become a virtual synonym for all beard fixers.
Today, the firm boasts of a “customer base of 1 million” spread across India and 12 countries including the US, the UK, Canada and Australia.
A Google search on Simco throws up dozens of catalogues of Indian stores across the world.
Community portals are littered with queries, such as, “What is a good way of setting a beard for a long time without using Simco?”
The answers range from ‘traditional thread and net’ to foreign brands of strong hairstyling gels. But most end with the usual concession — no alternative works as well as Simco.
Beating competition has been a habit for the Baggas.
When “vanishing cream” manufacturer Bagga Senior decided to sell beard fixers, he was not trying to create a market. Established brands like Marcos, Hillman and Welldone were already present. But once the Baggas stepped in, all of them had to shut shop,” recalls Maninder Pal Singh, an old business associate of Simco, crediting the Baggas with several marketing innovations.
Back in the early 1950s, when Bagga Sr was new to Delhi, he started out by using community gatherings to showcase Simco. He would set up stalls at gurudwaras during the Guru Purab Mela, introducing his product to hundreds of potential customers.
Under his elder son Gajendra Singh Bagga, Simco became the first beard fixer brand to launch an advertisement campaign in Delhi and Punjab.
“We started with wall paintings and ads in Punjabi dailies. Today, we place ads in all national dailies and Punjabi channels,” says Kuldeep Singh, who took over the business after elder brother Gajendra Singh’s demise.
Even new brands admit they are no competition.
“We are a new set up with a small customer base. Even today, hair fixer means Simco,” admits Avtar Singh Soni, who sold juicer-mixer-grinders at Old Delhi’s Bhagirath Place before he started manufacturing Prince hair fixer last year.
“Our customer base stayed intact during the downturn. In fact, our business has grown in the last two years — 47 per cent in 2008 and 25 per cent in the current year,” says Kuldeep Singh, who runs the company from West Delhi’s Naraina Industrial Area.
“Simco is an essential product. People don’t stop brushing their teeth because the economy is facing a downturn. Similarly, they don’t stop grooming their beards,” he says.
What helped in the times of double-digit inflation is Simco’s ability to sell cheap. “The cost of production was going up in Delhi. So we moved to Himachal Pradesh to avail tax benefits and set up two units in Baddi,” says Kanwardeep, Kuldeep Singh’s 35-year-old son and a Delhi University graduate.
As a result, a 100-gm pack of Simco Supreme that cost Rs 38 on April 1, 2007 was selling at Rs 41 on April 1, 2009.
“That is less than eight per cent rise in price over two years. So even when people were slicing their monthly household budgets, Simco remained on the shopping list,” says Kuldeep Singh.
He, however, refuses to divulge the company’s annual turnover. “You can call ours a small and medium enterprise. Till date, no big company has ventured into this market. Par iss trade mein humain ek badi brand ki izzat miltee hai (But we get the respect of a big brand),” he says.
Having survived the downturn, Simco now faces a new challenge. With an increasing number of Sikh youth trimming their beard, sales could be dwindling soon.
“In Punjab, particularly in villages, Sikh men are shaving their beards. The trend is not so strong in Delhi,” says Maninder Pal Singh.
But the Simco owner asserts the market won’t shrink so fast.
“Our product caters to religious families. So long as these people follow tradition, the market will continue to grow. A community doesn’t disappear just like that,” Kuldeep Singh says.
In any case, Simco has diversified in the last two years, manufacturing shampoo, hairstyling gel, hair oil, skin creams and lotions. “You can’t just rely on one community for doing business. Also, you can’t depend too heavily on a single product,” Maninder Pal Singh reasons.