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Tea to prosperity, B-school model B-school’s model of enterprise

If you ask any student of Indian Institute of Management-Calcutta (IIM-C) from the 1970s onwards the name of the leading F&B manager the B-school has produced, you would expect to hear Indra ‘PepsiCo’ Nooyi. But don’t be too surprised if, instead, you hear loyal voices come up with “Mihirda”.

Mihir Saha, who used to run a tea-stall opposite the Joka campus, now runs two campus canteens and caters at all campus events. He is probably IIM-C’s greatest rags-to-riches tale, incorporating several key management strategies:

Consolidation: The tiny stall he started off with is now an air-conditioned restaurant.

Diversification: Mihir Enterprises includes a phone booth and a crockery store.

Customer is king: He let students into his kitchen to show him exactly how they liked their eggs. Mental notes are made on what visiting VIPs liked for bed tea.

Working with vision: The 51-year-old is busy raising money for a multi-cuisine restaurant nearby.

The modest man may have only barely been able to finish school, but he has been mentored by some of the best B-brains in the country. Faculty members had loaned him money and students had pitched in when Mihir had not yet hit the fast track.

The early days are related with pain. His father lost all his money to several failing business schemes. “Those were hard days. We didn’t have clothes and we ate whatever we got,” relives Mihir, now neatly dressed in jeans and full-sleeve shirt.

His elder brother had to leave school and Mihir was also going to be pulled out when in Class VIII. “I remember that day well… I cried and I cried.”

His anguish and a caring principal ensured that Mihir had the chance to finish school. Soon after, he left his Nadia home for a job in the city. Just when he was about to give up, he heard of a small tea stall being rented out near “IIM-Calcutta’s new campus”.

That was 1976. Mihir, around 20, took on the shop, but competition from “Debu’s tea-stall” was stiff. “I laid out nice benches, put some plants out and kept the place clean. Within three months, everyone was coming to me,” recalls Mihir.

Then the training began. The students traipsed into Mihir’s kitchen to cook up sambar and payasam, hot dogs and French toast. “Mihir, gol cha do,” they would shout out, indicating that everyone sitting in a circle should be served a steaming cuppa.

Two years later, a coffee corner on campus was being rented out. Mihir scraped together the money for it. “That’s when I became a bhadralok,” he says about shedding his pagri and shorts for clean trousers and shirt. By the early 1980s, catering assignments on campus started coming in. When the Tagore Hall came up, Mihir was given charge of the mess.

“Mihir is IIM Calcutta’s best example of enterprise,” says R. Bharat, Bangalore-based alumnus from the class of ’78. Now, Mihir Enterprises has over 30 people on its permanent payroll, with more hands hired when required. He cooks for all visiting dignitaries, and has even trained chefs at a five-star hotel.

And when star alumni pass through, they are always certain to come and chat with Mihirda. “I have found true job satisfaction,” he smiles.

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