The First 100 Years of the Amira Group
2015 marks a particularly monumental year for the Amira Group as we celebrate our company’s centenary. The foundations of the Amira Group began, as you may have guessed, 100 years ago in 1915, when my Great Grandfather Lala BD Chanana set up an agro-commodities trading company. The past 100 years have seen enormous progress, allowing the company to become the Amira brand that we all know and love today.
I have never seen my role as Chairman of the Amira Group as purely a business position, but, something that is a deeply personal part of my heritage. As the fourth generation custodian of the family business, the Amira Group, to me, is more than simply a food company, but an organisation that is intrinsically linked with my familial legacy. It is the embodiment of the hard work, sacrifice and ingenuity of three generations of my family and our team who have helped the Amira Group become what it is today.
Lala BD Chanana
Riding the Rails to Entrepreneurship
- Born in the Sarghoda district of the Punjab region
- Worked as a station manager in Gunjial
- Founded the company as an agro-commodities trading house in 1915
The story of the company that would eventually become the Amira Group begins with my Great Grandfather, Lala BD Chanana. Born in the Sargodha district of Punjab, to a prominent family who belonged to the respected Khatri caste, he was relatively well educated for that time period. Having left school at the conventional age of 15, he gained a job with the local railway company and his work ethic and determination meant that he would eventually rise to the position of station master in Gunjial.
It was symbolic that Lala’s occupation in the railway service transported him on the path towards entrepreneurial success. ‘Punjab’ derives from the Persian word for (The Land of) Five Waters and is widely considered to be one of the world’s most fertile regions. It is the Punjab region that has been the agricultural epicentre of the Indian Subcontinent for thousands of years, something that was no different during Lala’s time. During his time as station manager, my Great Grandfather came into contact with a family of local grain businessmen. They recognised that Lala’s honesty and prodigious knowledge of the local area meant that he would be an excellent business partner for them as they looked to expand their operations. This opportunity sparked the fire for entrepreneurial activities that had always lived within him, and although he recognised the risk of leaving his stable and well-paying railway position, he realised that the fire now burned too bright to ignore. He left his position on the railways and set up the business that would eventually grow into the Amira Group.
The business was initially an agro-commodities trading house, trading in local pulses such as moong bean, urad and jiggery. Lala’s vast knowledge of the local area and natural flair for commerce meant that the business grew rapidly in its formative years, although this growth was only the beginning of what was to come.
Utra Village Family
Karam C Chanana
The Phoenix that Rose from the Ashes of Partition
- Expanded the family’s businesses as far as Afghanistan
- Forced to flee Lahore after the Indian Partition of 1947
- Returned to Pakistan, disguised as a Pathan, in order to sell off his business
My Grandfather Karam, was introduced to the business at a very young age, and as would become tradition in our family, was slowly but surely nurtured by his father to eventually take over the reins of the company. Karam’s aptitude for business meant that the company’s fortunes improved greatly under his leadership. The business expanded rapidly as the family vastly extended the company’s geographical reach, selling grain as far east as Afghanistan. By now, the considerable Chanana business empire, meant the family left the Sarghoda district and based their operations in Lahore. The business was truly a family affair, and during the 1920s, Karam encouraged his younger brother Dr Bhola R Chanana, to become involved in the large salt mine in the nearby town of Khewra. It became a development which further expanded the family’s business repertoire and meant that they now held the distribution rights to the world’s second largest salt mines.
By the 1940s, the business continued growing to unprecedented heights, amidst the backdrop of enormous political and social change occurring in the subcontinent. Punjab at the time was a vast and multi-faith region with large numbers of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. It was regions like this in which the horrors of the partition of 1947 were most evident. The partition had stoked the flames of religious tension and hatred across the subcontinent and thousands of people on both sides of the geographical divide were slaughtered in a series of retributive riots that erupted in its wake. Lahore, where the majority of the Chanana family were based, became part of the new Pakistan and was no exception to the turmoil. My family, who were Hindu, feared for their lives in the midst of extraordinary levels of violence in the region. They saw no choice but to flee to the newly independent India, leaving behind the business that two generations of the Chanana family had strived to create.
The decision to leave Lahore was not one that came easily to my Grandfather. Lahore at the time was known as “The City of Mughal Gardens” and was not only admired for its great beauty, but also for its status as the cultural, economic and intellectual heartland of the Punjab. For these reasons fleeing Lahore was something that caused great sadness to Karam as it meant he had to leave behind his roots, the home he had built for his family, his business and a city that was truly dear to him, almost overnight.
The Chananas left everything they had behind in order to flee to India, and the only thing more difficult for Karam than leaving his beloved Lahore, was seeing the poor conditions in which his family now lived. This was something that ultimately motivated him to leave the relative safety of Delhi and make the perilous journey back to Lahore to sell off the business’ assets and restart the company in the new India.
Disguised in traditional Punjabi Muslim attire, Karam took a train journey back into Lahore. Religious tensions were still incredibly high in Pakistan at this time and so Karam was forced to keep his true identity hidden, for the repercussions at the time if someone were to discover that he was a Hindu were potentially fatal. He stayed in the city, keeping his true identity hidden for the entirety of his time in Pakistan from all but his Muslim friends who remained in Lahore. Despite the fact that the tensions that existed at the time between Muslims and Hindus were strong enough to tear the country into two, they were still not strong enough to tear away the bonds of friendship. It was my Grandfather’s Muslim friends and business associates that still remained in Lahore who took him in, risking their own safety to ensure that his true identity was kept hidden and helping him to sell what was left of his inventory. Six months after arriving in Lahore, Karam was able to sell off what was left of the company and set about returning to India to use the proceeds to rebuild the company from scratch. One thing he would never forget, however, was the gratitude shown to him by his Muslim friends, and how the depth of those friendships had given him the opportunity to rebuild a life for his family.
Khewra Salt Mine
Lahore House Gawalmandi
Taking Amira into the Modern Age
- Took over the company in 1978
- Began expanding the company into global territories
- Introduced state of the art rice milling technology to the company’s Indian factory
My father Anil Chanana, the last of the Chanana lineage to be born in Lahore, joined the family business in 1968. While the company that he had inherited from my Grandfather was a quintessentially Indian one, my father worked towards establishing the foundations for modernising the company and sowing the seeds for the international growth that continues today.
Before taking over the helm of the company, he assisted Karam in establishing three wholesale outlets in Naya Bazaar, Delhi. Once he fully assumed the role of head of the company in 1978, he made huge strides in transforming the business. A great embracer of change, he led Amira in establishing India’s first automated rice processing plant in 1993, a development that hugely raised the standards of the rice trade in India and was a key factor in catapulting the Amira Group to the forefront of the Indian rice market. The processing plant, which was manufactured by the Swiss company Buhler, allowed us to produce rice, untouched by the human hand, at a level of quality and efficiency that was previously unheard of in the subcontinent.
In recent years, my father was able to make the trip back to Lahore, a visit in which he was able to experience with his own two eyes the humble beginnings from which the company was established. From the salt mine in Khewra and the house in which he was born, to what remained of the storehouses in Lahore. He returned from Pakistan reminded by the good fortune of the progress which the company had undergone and his stories of his visit inspired me to continue my family’s work to take the Amira Group to new heights.
Karan A Chanana
Taking Amira to the New York Stock Exchange and Beyond
- Current Chairman of the Amira Group
- Launched the Amira brand in 2008
- Presided over the company’s listing on the New York Stock Exchange in 2012
Soon after graduating from Delhi University, I began working for the family company. Taking over at the helm of my family’s business was a prospect I found incredibly daunting. Three generations of my family had devoted their lives to building the company of which I was now in charge, and it made me eager to build upon the hard work of the Chananas that had preceded me.
Fortunately, over the past few years we have been able to establish a global brand out of the agro-commodities trading company established in the Punjab 100 years ago.
In 2008, we launched the Amira brand, and began selling our products globally. In the years since, we have greatly expanded our activities in developed markets, launching in the USA in 2009 and in the UK in 2011. In 2012, we became the first Indian food products company to become listed on the New York Stock Exchange. We have since further diversified our product range, by launching a range of organic products in 2013. In 2015, the Amira Group has now evolved into a company with a branded presence in over 40 countries, and over 200 different products, ranging from our traditional staple of basmati rice, to a selection of snacks, spices and cooking oils.
The motivation behind this expansion has always been my desire to make a significant contribution to a business that so many members of my family have toiled so hard over to make a success and because I possess a genuine passion for food. This natural desire drives my aspiration to bring Amira to the world and share the beauty of basmati rice and quality food globally. I am incredibly grateful to be able to combine my passion for food and respect for my forefathers and their humble beginnings, to my work.
The celebration of a centenary is monumental for any company, and Amira’s anniversary has provided me with the impetus and motivation to help usher the company to further growth as we enter its second century. I am fortunate to have a great team to work with and am constantly inspired by my team and our customers. It has also, however, provided me with the time to reflect on all the good that the Amira Group has brought myself and my family over the years and inspired me to mark our centenary with the establishment of the Amira Foundation. We hope that the charitable foundation will inspire people to connect with food and equip them with the nutritional knowledge and cooking skills to help make healthier eating choices.