The horse is clearly Harish Tahiliani’s favourite animal. An entire wall of the office-factory of the managing director of Arab & India Spices in Ajman is taken up by a massive poster of a herd of white steeds that appears to be galloping towards the viewer.

Step inside his office that has a lovely aroma of Indian spices and you cannot miss a statuette of a white-and-gold prancing horse that takes pride of place on a corner table. ‘Yes, I like horses,’ admits Harish. ‘I admire their grace, speed and power.’

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Even as our photographer Anas Thacharpadikkal is setting up lights for the photoshoot, Harish requests if the backdrop can be the horse poster. Standing before it, he turns to look at the picture on the wall, admiration evident in his eyes, perhaps likening his company to a steed that is powering ahead in the field of foodgrain processing. ‘When we set up a factory in the UAE in 1986, in Sharjah Industrial Area No 1, the total area was 4,000 sq ft,’ says Harish. When they moved to the second location, they expanded to 40,000 sq ft.

‘Now, the area of this factory in Ajman is 400,000 sq ft,’ he says proudly, driving home the point of how the company has expanded over the years. ‘We have 18 processing lines of pulses today and are the second largest in the world in terms of lentil processing.’ His factory processes more than 15,000 tonnes of produce every month. The company also bagged the SME award in 2011 in the UAE, becoming the first company from the foodstuff industry to receive the honour.

The growth in the spice and foodgrains business, though, has not been a cakewalk. The seeds of the company were sown back in 1946 when Harish’s grandfather left Pakistan during the partition of the subcontinent to set up a small spicemill to support his 17-member family in the western Indian state of Gujarat.

‘My father, Kumar Lal Tahiliani, joined the business later and soon expanded the operations, setting up Asian Food Industries, one of the biggest food processors in Gujarat,’ says Harish.

In the early 80s, Kumar paid a visit to Sharjah to meet his sister who was married to an Indian merchant here – a visit that would be a game-changer of sorts. While on a tour of the souqs in the UAE, Kumar found that a majority of processed pulses and foodgrains were being imported. ‘So he decided to set up a pulses processing mill in Sharjah,’ says the father-of-two, tracing the origins of Arab & India Spices.

The first factory processed and packed pulses imported from India. ‘Consumers loved the amazing difference in taste of freshly-processed lentils versus that of dals that took months to ship here after being processed elsewhere,’ he says.

While he built his fortune on Indian spices, Harish is also passionate about horses
Anas Thacharpadikkal

Initially, the UAE arm was managed by a partner and the senior Tahiliani would only visit the factory occasionally to check on things. Not being hands-on at the factory, says Harish, did not help the business and the firm’s reputation took a beating.

Deciding to up the stakes and put things in order, Kumar decided to delink from the company’s partner and run the business on his own. But there was a hitch – Harish’s father did not want to give up his base in India and move completely to the UAE.

‘It was the early 90s and I was a student in India when my dad called me aside one day and told me, ‘‘One of us has to shift to the UAE. If you or I don’t go there, we might have to close down the UAE company. Why don’t you go and take over the company?’’.’

Harish had been visiting the UAE since he was 17 but now at age 21 he was being told to take over reins of the company. ‘I took up the challenge,’ he says, ‘although I had very little experience.’

Before joining the company in 1994, he was only given a few minor jobs to handle at the company in India. ‘I was given tasks like purchasing a few products, machinery parts etc… my dad used to handle everything.’

‘But I learnt a lot on the job,’ he says.

Learning to take responsibility of the company, manage the staff, procure foodgrains, maintain supply and delivery chains, among a host of other issues, the young man got so busy ‘that for almost a year I could barely find time to sleep. But those initial tough days prepared me to face any challenge’.

Under Harish, the company grew ‘but most importantly we earned a solid reputation for providing consumers with the best-quality foodgrains and spices’.

Shifting to Ajman in 2006 was a major expansion. ‘To keep abreast of happenings across the world, we adopted the latest technology related to grains processing from Europe,’ says the 46-year-old while taking us on a tour of the plant.

Apart from sourcing a variety of grains from across the world, Harish also keeps an eye on a host of issues including climate change, global price fluctuations and trends and the food needs of people based on festivities to ensure grain is available in plenty at all times.

The bulk of imports is red whole lentil, he says. Second is chickpeas. Grains and spices are imported from parts of Africa, Canada, Australia and India. Imported lentils are dehusked, split, dried, polished, sorted and packed before they are sent to warehouses of distributors.

‘We have a database of some 4,000 clients,’ he says. ‘You know, 60 per cent of the lentils that you find here of any brand are processed by us.’

The bulk packs are branded ‘777’ while consumer packs are marketed under the brand name of ‘RK’. ‘My mother’s name is Radha and father’s name is Kumar, so...’ 

Among powdered spices, the largest import by volume is chilli powder, says Harish, whose company has won several awards from the Spice Board in India. ‘We are also the biggest exporter of the powder.’

From processing around five tonnes a month in 1986, Arab & India Spices today churns out more than 15,000 tonnes a month, pitchforking Harish into a global player in the food industry.

What was the most important lesson his father taught him about business?

‘Never compromise on quality. That was the first lesson he taught me. Another important lesson was to honour commitments at any cost. We’ve never defaulted on a single contract in 32 years.

‘My father also taught me to be competitive in the marketplace, and to be a one-stop shop for all the needs of a client. He used to often tell me, “to succeed, you must keep yourself open to feedback. Do not remain isolated and cut off from people.” I never shy away from meeting clients and customers and listening to them.’

What is his advice to his staff?

‘I always tell them to listen more and speak less. If you listen more, you will get answers to all your queries,’ he says.

What are the life lessons he has picked up over the years?

‘To never be overconfident, to never be egoistic, to be always open and to keep learning. One should never stop learning.’