Motha’s ethos of prioritising affordability, quality the secret to its success
In conversation with CEO Adrian Fonseka
By Yakuta Dawood
If you were born and raised in Sri Lanka, there is a good chance that you might fondly remember sneaking around in the kitchen to eat Motha jelly, as the brand is a part of almost all the households in the island. To get an in-depth analysis of the company and its success since inception, the Develop It Yourself (DIY) column of The Sunday Morning Business this week interviewed Motha Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Adrian Fonseka.
Walking down memory lane, going back 50 years, i.e. during the early 1930s, Fonseka said that initially, the business was just a company that imported confectionery items. It imported well-known brands such as British Candy including Trebor (now known as Cadbury Trebor Bassett), Hacks, Watson’s Toffees, and Moorhouse Jelly Crystals and Puddings.
Nevertheless, in the 1960s, the Government reportedly imposed import restrictions on confectionary items, which led then Chairman Julius Motha to commission a local manufacturing process to turn out products like hard-boiled sweets, toffees, and jelly crystals for consumers in Sri Lanka.
“The Chairman was already knowledgeable with regards to this industry. Hence, he started to manufacture locally to survive the import restriction on confectionery goods. Since then, Motha has earned the trust of consumers as well as the trade by delivering the benefits promised, by providing a delightful and memorable user experience, and also by making customers’ lives a little bit better, a little more convenient,” Fonseka highlighted.
Expansion since inception
Fonseka confidently said that Motha is one of the very few local companies in Sri Lanka that has dominated the jelly market share above 75% since inception.
When inquired about the secret behind maintaining customer loyalty over the decades, he stated that the company has never been driven by profits. “Though profitability is important, we have never maintained profitability as our number one priority, which is why we never price the product above the level of consumer affordability, so that every family can enjoy the product.”
As of today, the brand Motha has expanded with a diverse portfolio of products and different flavours.
Under the brand’s category of “Dessert Mixes” are several products with various flavours such as “Original Jelly Crystals” with 11 fruity flavours; five flavours of “Motha Diet Jelly Crystals”, four flavours of “Quick Set Moss Jelly Crystals”, eight flavours of “Motha Pudding Mix”, three flavours of “Motha Custard Powder”, and also a combi-pack for consumers to choose from for any suitable event.
“We have the biggest range in terms of pack sizes and flavour options. We also recently introduced seasonal fruit flavours – namely woodapple and rambutan jelly – giving our consumers the opportunity to taste some local fruit flavours any time of the year. We were also the pioneers to introduce most of the pre-mixes – namely pudding mixes and flavour variants – in Sri Lanka,” Fonseka said.
The second category is “Beverage Mixes” that has two traditional recipe flavours under the “Faluda Mix” and three different flavours of “Milkshake Mix”.
The third category is “Cake Ingredients”, which has essential products such as baking powder, cocoa powder, icing sugar, cornflour, gelatine, four types of colouring, and, of course, five types of Motha flavours that could be used for sweets, desserts, and cakes.
The final category is the soft chewy confectionery “Motha Jelly Jujubes” available with various flavours – namely, strawberry, blackcurrant, mango, passion, and orange.
“We have reasons to be proud of not only our own record of achievement but also the part we have played on the larger canvas of Sri Lanka’s dessert mixes, beverage mixes, and cake ingredients market,” Fonseka highlighted.
When asked how customers have been adapting to different flavours and product categories once launched in the market, he said that beforehand Motha identifies customer trends and behaviour, and does not produce large volumes at once upon launching, as customers have a wide range of choice; and so it could take time to expand the new product, he said.
“We are ready to go for the long haul. If the volumes are not high, we will invest in it rather than just take it off the market; we will give it some time for it to perform better. We need to be patient when introducing a new product, as we want it to live on, and we know that it will take some time for it to work,” Fonseka explained.
Commenting further, Fonseka said even though the company has been operating for so long, its relationships with all its stakeholders have always been highly valued and well maintained. Explaining further, he said that the connections between suppliers and distributors have sometimes lasted longer than 20 years.
Reflecting on employee relations, Fonseka said that there are more than hundreds of employees working at processing plants located at Kotahena and Ganemulla. What’s more is that there are workers who joined Motha as their first job and have continued to work at these factories for over 30 years.
“As of today, all production supervisors have risen from the ranks with the necessary training. We also have a profit-sharing scheme where we give our employees bonuses after reaching a specific monthly turnover in the business, which motivates them to work for such long periods. We are lucky to get loyal, long-term employees, as Millennials today do not stick to one place,” he added.
The uniqueness of the product
Being a dominant market leader throughout the years is not an easy task due to the number of competitors developing similar products into the market.
Hence, when inquired how Motha has been able to maintain its standards throughout the years, without a drop in customer loyalty, Fonseka replied that the brand always stands out from its competitors because of the quality that it has maintained and enhanced throughout the years.
“Quality is a priority, as there are many culinary specialists who only buy Motha ingredients for their cuisine. Hence, we do not compromise on quality. For instance, last year, for months we did not produce the ‘Faluda Mix’, as the special type of vermicelli we use could not be imported due to the (import) restrictions by the Government. Similarly, this year, for a couple of months we did not have cornflour and cocoa powder, since we could not find the raw materials at a quality acceptable to us,” he said.
He added that research and development (R&D) has also been another priority, which has enabled them to evolve their products from time to time in order to sustain customer loyalty.
“All our products have been developed by our own quality assurance team to suit the taste palate of our consumers. We do continuous research and have changed our formulas from time to time, which is why the jelly you taste today is different from what we had 60 years ago,” he added.
According to Fonseka, Motha has also educated the consumers on the value of the product through workshops whilst also sponsoring various events such as cake exhibitions, etc. to spread awareness about its products.
Switching from product uniqueness to the export industry, Fonseka very confidently said that Motha products are not second to any international product, even in the export industry. As of today, the products are exported to developed countries like the US, Canada, the UK, Italy, Australia, New Zealand, the Middle East, Hong Kong, and even neighbouring countries like India and the Maldives.
“Those countries (mentioned above) have their own brands at cheaper prices, but still there is a demand for our products. We are continuously investing. We are getting new machinery within the next few months to increase the production capacity,” Fonseka added.
Meanwhile, commenting with regards to the prevailing Covid-19 situation, he said that achieving profits this year would be quite difficult due to various reasons such as the current travel restrictions among the other Covid-19 regulations imposed by the Ministry of Health.
“Production is difficult because we have to work with a limited number of employees at factories, as large gatherings are not possible with the current regulations. There is also an issue of delivery where it takes time to get down raw material to Sri Lanka, for which even the freight rate has significantly increased.”
He also added that the prices of essential materials such as for packaging, importing ingredients, etc. have also risen due to Covid-19, and that it could cause a depletion in profit margins for the upcoming financial year, as Motha may not increase the price of the products since it prioritises affordability for its consumers.
Giving the concluding remark, Fonseka said that Motha will maintain the quality, price points, and other essential aspects of its products in order to always remain the number one choice for customers, both locally and globally. “We have grown in our own Motha way and that legacy will continue,” he added.