Many leading executives have quirks or eccentricities. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has famously taken to only eating animals that he kills, while the late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs admitted "I hate buttons". So when it comes to his restaurant habits, it would seem that Karan A Chanana, the India-born chairman and CEO of Amira Nature Foods, a basmati rice producer, is in good company.
“There have been times when I have been in a restaurant where the food was very good, but rice was shit," he says. "I would take a bag [of Amira-produced basmati rice] and ask a chef to cook it for me.”
Given that Mr Chanana is the fourth generation of his family to manage Amira, this rice fixation is perhaps understandable. But there is more to this obsession than his family's history and his own love for food, says Mr Chanana. The name of the rice is commonly believed to be derived from Sanskrit word meaning 'fragrant', as Mr Chanana explains in his blog, where he also describes himself as a “culinary traveller in pursuit of the palate” and adds that basmati rice is the “world's favourite grain”.
He also tells how basmati rice has a lower glycaemic index than most grains, making it a better fit for diabetics. Also by law, it can only be grown in India and Pakistan. “Regardless of what customers are being told, the Himalayan mountain range does not exist in California,” Mr Chanana says in reference to the mid-1990s patent battle with the US-based RiceTec, which briefly caused a rift in India-US relations.
But jokes and rice facts aside, Mr Chanana is serious about his business, and so far successful in his quest to transform his family-run business into a multinational operation and establish a recognisable brand. “Rice consumption is growing, and basmati rice consumption is even outstripping that growth. Yet it is a very fragmented [market] and so it is there for the taking. It needs a global brand,” he says. “We want to make Amira into such brand."
With this in mind, when Mr Chanana took over the company in 2006, he recruited executives from large international corporations and in 2012 floated Amira on the New York Stock Exchange. Ultimately Mr Chanana wants to grow Amira to be a $1bn company.
This may seem like an ambitious goal, but Mr Chanana says that with his product's growing availability overseas, it is attainable. Rice produced by Amira is currently available in more than 40 countries, predominantly in south-east Asia, India, the Middle East, Africa and North America. By 2017, the company wants to double its international presence, with markets such as China and Latin America so far untapped by the company.
Mr Chanana does not specify where Amira is planning to expand, but says that his company is looking to grow additional lines of business, such as ready-to-eat meals, snacks and organic products. Yet, he is also quick to add that it is basmati rice that will be Amira's growth vehicle in the years to come.
“Basmati rice is an affordable luxury product. It is aged like wine and comes from a geographically protected region, like champagne. But unlike alcohol it is actually healthy,” says Mr Chanana. Amira's growth and success in international expansion in recent years proves that it can also provide a healthy source of revenue generation, too.