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Got the World by a String

Flossing guru Dr. Fresh brought two things from India: a small company and a brain that never stops flashing on new ideas.

December 06, 2005|Sam Quinones | Times Staff Writer

Hard as it is to imagine today, Dr. Fresh was once an irregular flosser.

He owned a company that made toothbrushes but took string in hand only when something stuck in his teeth.

Then he got braces to close a gap in front. He began to feel unsettled, "not really fresh in the morning."

His dentist urged daily flossing. With that, Dr. Fresh achieved not just morning freshness but a higher plane of dental awareness: When it comes to one's teeth, he realized, "there's always something stuck."

"Believe me or not," he said, "my life changed after flossing."

Flossing was a crucial step toward personal transformation: from bewildered immigrant to oral-hygiene wizard, owner of 38 dental patents and worldwide provider of a billion yards of floss a year, including all of the label floss for Target and Wal-Mart.

Dr. Fresh's story is both classically American and refreshingly global, a tale of obsession, immigration and rebirth set against the oral hygiene industry.

He arrived in Southern California in 1998, an Indian named Puneet Nanda with big hopes for his puny toothbrush company, Dr. Fresh Inc.

"What I wanted to do," he said, "was revolutionize the oral hygiene industry in this country."

Since then, his privately held company has moved from an apartment to a 55,000-square-foot warehouse in Buena Park with space for 30 million toothbrushes and a research laboratory. Sales, he said, have gone from almost nothing to $20 million a year and rising.

Dr. Fresh Inc. remains a pipsqueak compared with Procter & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson. Yet the company requires two mottos to contain its owner's aspirations: "The Brand America Loves" and "Worldwide Toothbrush King."

He employs a thousand people in India and China making toothbrushes, mouthwash and dental floss. His 64 employees in Buena Park are the new Southern California workforce: Indians, Chinese, Koreans, Filipinos, Mexicans.

"Day and night you can talk to him about toothbrushes and he'll still be talking," said his friend, Harshad Mody, an Indian music promoter.

Indeed, after arriving in America, the Indian immigrant did almost nothing but tinker with toothbrushes, study their manufacture and analyze U.S. marketing and distribution. He had scant room for a personal life; he took no vacation.

His mind percolated with ideas for oral-care products. One of his proudest moments came when he embedded a red light in a toothbrush and set it to blink for a minute. The product -- the Firefly -- gets kids to brush until the light goes out. It is now Target's best-selling toothbrush.

He followed it with a line of dental travel-packs, mouthwash, even a dog toothpaste to fight canine halitosis.

"The chicken and poultry flavor is hot," he said.

From his base in Buena Park, he strove, through innovation, to become America's toothbrush guru. Finally, in his own mind, he became his brand -- Dr. Fresh, oral hygiene crusader.

Today, employees, buyers, friends, father, brothers all call him Dr. Fresh. So does his wife.

Peering from behind his glasses, with hunched posture and the gap in his front teeth that never closed, he said, "I don't know when I am Puneet Nanda any more. All I do is live, drink, eat, think as Dr. Fresh."

*

Dr. Fresh grew up in New Delhi, where his father ran a small toothbrush company called Denton.

In college, he studied medicine and cheekily dated the dean's daughter, for which his classmates nicknamed him Dr. Fresh.

In 1989, his father had a heart attack and couldn't run the company. Dr. Fresh stepped in.

Indian toothbrushes, with hard bristles and cheap plastic, were as menacing as street thugs.

"I thought, 'I'm going to see if I can improve the quality,' " he said.

He renamed the company Dr. Fresh and designed a diamond-head toothbrush with glitter in a bright plastic handle.

The Dr. Fresh Trendy was American-looking and cheap, exactly what Indians wanted, he said.

Toothbrushes flew from his factory, many into Russian hands.

Russian free-traders were chartering planes and flying across Asia looking for cheap consumer products to sell back home. Soon three or four Russians a day arrived at his factory, ordering dozens of cases of toothbrushes.

He learned Russian and hired a chef to cook Russian food for his visitors. The money rolled in.

In 1993, when he was 25, Dr. Fresh left wife and infant son in India to open a Moscow office.

"I was young," he said. "I was fearless." In Moscow, he couldn't import toothbrushes fast enough. He awoke one morning to snowballs against his apartment window. Below, 200 customers were lined up.

Then one day a short man walked into his office, followed by three goons, he said. The limber little fellow put his foot up against Dr. Fresh's throat and pinned him against a wall.

"You've grown too big too soon," Dr. Fresh recalled the little man saying as his three gorillas punched their palms. "Did you know you have to pay your bosses here?"

From then on, Dr. Fresh said, he dipped into his rising revenues to pay taxes to the Russian mafia.

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