Company Man

The firm that once colonised India is now owned by an Indian businessman. Can Sanjiv Mehta turn history on its head—and make a tidy profit in the process?

01 September 2011
The East India Company store on Conduit Street in London.
The East India Company store on Conduit Street in London.

FOR A WEALTHY MAN who lives in a lavish house at the end of a private road in the upscale Borugh of Harrow on the Hill in northwest London, Sanjiv Mehta has slept in some unusual places in his 49 years. On a cold night in 1991 in the port of Saint Petersburg, he dozed off on a wooden bench near the customs clearance area of the warehouse, inside which lay containers filled with coffee he was exporting to Russia. The coffee had arrived from Kotka in Finland, and was due to be shipped to Moscow the next day.

With the collapse of communism, Russia was turning into a Hobbesian state, a land of no norms, in which every transaction was assumed to be the last, and nobody wanted to give an inch. Mehta was in Saint Petersburg that night because he was troubled by a series of thefts that had emptied entire sealed containers of his goods. He had lost three shipments so far, each with goods worth $90,000. It was uncanny, and seemed impossible, because once the paperwork was done, the containers were padlocked and sealed in Kotka, and the keys were sent separately to the buyer to prevent the goods from being pilfered along the way.

And yet, when the containers reached Moscow they were empty, even though their locks and seals were intact. There was no sign of forced entry, no fingerprints that could be traced back to the criminals. The insurance companies refused to settle the claim: without evidence of damage, Mehta couldn’t prove that the goods had been stolen.

Mehta examined the containers closely and found that the thieves had figured out a brilliant way to steal his goods. They would unhinge the door of a container, remove the door, take out the goods, and bolt and reseal the door after replacing the hinges. The padlock was still in place, like a clueless nightwatchman unaware of what was going on behind his back.

So when the next shipment was scheduled to depart, Mehta flew to Finland. He saw the container being loaded properly in the truck in Kotka, and sat with the driver during the journey to the port. He travelled with the container on the ship all the way to Moscow, saying nothing. It was an arduous journey, and a dangerous one: the Russian mafia was infamous for its violence. (Mehta had already been threatened once in Yekaterinburg.) In the end, nothing happened—the thieves knew he was on board. But they got the point, and the thefts stopped.

Salil Tripathi lives in New York, is a contributing editor at The Caravan and writes for Mint.

Keywords: london colony business colonialism The East India Company Sanjiv Mehta trade brand British Empire