From Veggie Tacos to Health Care: A Billionaire’s Sprawling Bets

(Bloomberg) — When the pandemic hit, Gaurav Burman knew he had to move fast.

Burman, 48, runs his family office, which oversees about $1.5 billion in assets. The firm is the controlling shareholder of Dabur India Ltd., one of the nation’s largest consumer-goods companies, which Burman’s great-great-grandfather founded in 1884. The family is worth an estimated $9.8 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

“We introduced a number of Covid-related products,” he said in a phone interview from his home in the small Greek island of Antiparos, where he escaped to from London with his wife and two kids during the pandemic. “And we did that very quickly.”

Burman Family Holdings was established in 1995, shortly after Dabur went public. Its investments and partnerships range from what Burman calls “promising” domestic startups like DMI Finance to global companies such as Yum! Brands Inc.’s Taco Bell and Aviva Plc.

Dabur has held up OK this year, with its shares rising 11{09c3c849cf64d23af04bfef51e68a1f749678453f0f72e4bb3c75fcb14e04d49}. While the benefits of ayurvedic products to protect against Covid-19 are still in question, sales of the company’s flagship chyawanprash — a mixture of Indian gooseberry, honey, sugar, ghee, herbs and spices — surged 700{09c3c849cf64d23af04bfef51e68a1f749678453f0f72e4bb3c75fcb14e04d49} last quarter from the previous three months. The company’s hand sanitizer is “pretty much sold out,” and its new vegetable wash is “flying off the shelves,” Burman said.

But other ventures from the family office have struggled — in particular Burman’s plan to open new Taco Bell restaurants in India.

Here are some of his comments, edited and condensed for clarity.

How did Covid-19 impact the family office’s investments?

Some of our businesses have benefited, and some of them have been highly challenged — let me give you an example of both.

We have a joint venture with a very large Japanese health-care business, M3. We have been partners with them for nearly a decade now in India. And about four or three years ago, we bought a business that focused on online health-care education. Like many other online businesses, that business has flourished.

Another business that we have is a partnership with Yum brands, we own Taco Bell in India. That business was growing very fast — we have roughly 70 stores and we were adding one new store every 10 days. That business has obviously been very challenged because in India we went through a very severe lockdown.

Tell us more about the Yum partnership.

About four years ago, I was looking at our portfolio and felt that we had one massive gap in it, which was quick-serve restaurants. There were a lot of tailwinds in India for a business like this.

We didn’t want to be in the burger business for various reasons — predominantly being the connotation with beef. I had been traveling in the States and always loved Taco Bell. I approached them actually protectively and the timing worked, and we decided to get into business.

We’re looking to grow the brand very aggressively in India. Our ambition remains the same: to get to 600 stores.

How did you cater to the various diet preferences in India?

The reason we decided to go with Taco Bell is partly because we always felt that the delivery mechanism was much more important than the protein. We felt the protein could be anything: chicken, lamb, a vegetarian option. In fact, 50{09c3c849cf64d23af04bfef51e68a1f749678453f0f72e4bb3c75fcb14e04d49} of our menu in India is vegetarian.

What’s your favorite restaurant?

My wife, Karima, is a foodie, and I have learned a great deal from her. My favorite restaurant in London is 43 Elystan Street, which is an unassuming neighborhood restaurant not far from where we live. We love the River Café whenever we manage to get a reservation.

When I am Delhi, I eat Taco Bell almost every day. It is one of my favorite foods.

Do you invest abroad?

Because of the exchange controls, we have limited opportunities to invest outside of India. Typically, what we look to do is to back entrepreneurs. We’re involved with a very interesting coffee business in the United States. It’s run by this extraordinary young American entrepreneur with Indian origins. He’s taken that from zero to over $100 million in revenue in the last five years.

The chairman of our Taco Bell business in India is an Englishman, and he’s always encouraged us to buy pubs. So over the last few years, we’ve been buying pubs, we own about half a dozen pubs in the London area, and we’ll continue to buy more.

Any IPO plans?

We will definitely look for financing opportunities, be it an IPO at some stage, or looking to bring in a financial partner or other people. We’ve built this reputation and track record of investing well in India, and a number of other families approach us — more now than ever.

Now let’s get a bit personal. How was life, growing up?

I grew up with my parents, my grand-parents, my uncles and my aunts. I had the benefit of being able to learn from them, be counseled by them and share experiences with them — this gave me a great deal of confidence.

I started visiting our factories and learning how we made our products when I was seven years old. I started traveling with my grandfather and joining his business trips when I was nine, and often accompanied him to actual meetings.

How did you get into the family business?

I was privileged to be immersed in business at a young age. There was no doubt in either my mind or my family’s mind that my vocation would be business.

As Dabur professionalized as we moved the governance away from the family, I decided I would focus on new ventures and try to start new businesses. Given our position and reputation in India, it became obvious to me that the best avenue for me was to try and work on joint ventures and bring successful ideas, products and businesses to India.

My goal is to create as much value in our family office as we did in Dabur — perhaps one day even more.

How did you spend your free time during the pandemic?

I read a great deal during the lockdown. Most of what I read are biographies and business-related books. I enjoyed Shoe Dog, which was inspirational, and Bad Blood, Damaged Goods and The Billion Dollar Whale, which all three presented what can go wrong in business. I found the recent biography on MBS very interesting and also greatly enjoyed The Hungry Empire, which tells the story of how the British Empire developed through its desire for exotic foods. I am now reading Concentrated Investing, which I would recommend to all investors.

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