His mother started a premium Ayurvedic beauty brand, he made it an icon for Indian luxury. For Samrath Bedi, there’s no other place for Forest Essentials than the top.
After completing his under-graduation in Economics and Psychology from the University of Rochester in New York, Samrath Bedi had set out for a career in corporate banking when his mother Mira Kulkarni began dabbling in premium Ayurvedic skincare back home in India. Intrigued, Bedi returned to New Delhi in 2002 to check out what looked like “an interesting project”. He never left.
Starting from a single flagship store in Khan Market, New Delhi, Forest Essentials is now one of India’s top beauty brands, retailing from almost 50 points of sale in 15 cities. Though the brand concept was Kulkarni’s idea, it took Bedi’s execution skills to scale it up. “We are a yin-and-yang combination,” smiles Bedi about their relationship. “She’s impulsive, I’m logic-driven. She has the vision, I take care of the implementation. We have different personalities and that works, because we end up doing things correctly, with maximum long-term impact.”
The mother-son duo were clear about the division of responsibilities very early in the business. While Kulkarni looks after the R&D and branding, Bedi handles the business operations and ensures processes are in place. “We played to our strengths,” he says. The Indian skincare major is known for its traditional techniques of formula preparation using organic cold-pressed oils, plant extracts, herb infusions and steam-distilled pure essential oils. The products are made in accordance with 6000-year-old Ayurvedic techniques, including the chanting of Vedic mantras while they are being processed.
Ayurvedic principles suggest that every person has a different ‘prakriti’ or body type, which determines their skin and hair quality, and which necessitates different treatments. When you buy a Forest Essentials product, you are also educated about your prakriti and your body’s needs. For this reason, Kulkarni and Bedi decided to retail mostly from their own showrooms, even if that meant more investment. “The shop-in-shop model isn’t very viable; there are too many external variables. We need the retail staff to be informed about Ayurveda and the ingredients that go into every product; we need a certain luxury ambience. That’s just not possible if we have to deal with different department stores with changing staff,” he explains.
These past 16 years have just been about setting up a base, he believes. “We’ve had exponential growth but there is plenty of ground to cover. We have to keep raising the bar and keep the momentum going,” says the 42-year-old, referring to the proliferation of me-too brands in the market. Their lineup includes about 250 products across hair care, skin care, mother and baby care, and wellness. They have tied up with about 220 hotels to supply toiletries for guest rooms, including the Taj Group, Four Seasons and the Ritz Carlton, and employ more than 400 people across the country. “The luxury beauty market is still very nascent in India, and we are very small compared to what we could have been, say, in China where infrastructure would have given me access to 45 cities, not just 15,” he says. Bedi is unconcerned about “disrupters” like Baba Ramdev, the yoga guru who has made waves with his low-cost beauty products: “Patanjali is creating new consumers from rural areas. It’s helping grow the Indian beauty market,” he says. When those customers graduate to luxury goods, Forest Essentials will be among the brands that benefit.
Working with his mother was challenging initially, but in the long run, it has only taught Bedi the skills of listening and patience. “I have evolved along the way,” he admits, “I realise the importance of understanding and respecting the other’s point of view.” It helps that he loves what he does. “It’s not work for me,” he laughs.
Exactly the words his mother would have used.