Got the World by a String

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.

After three years in Moscow, he recalled, a renegade mafioso robbed him and shot him in the back of the head. He recovered but still has a nasty scar.

That ended Dr. Fresh's dream of revolutionizing Russian oral hygiene. He returned to New Delhi. But he found the city's smog oppressive; besides, Russia had given him grand international plans for his company.

Soon he set his sights on the U.S.

His mother was terrified to have him travel again.

"We were a divided house," his youngest brother, Nikhil, recalls. "We have very closely knit families in India. He was going to be really far away."

In April of 1998, without telling his mother and again leaving his wife and this time two children in India, Dr. Fresh set out for New York.

"In 10 years, you'll say you sat with Dr. Fresh in a car," he recalled telling a mystified woman who shared his cab shortly after he arrived.

*

New York was not Russia. His toothbrushes raised nary a brow and he hated trying to sell brushes in the cold.

That Christmas, the snow piled high on the sidewalks and he had a raging fever.

Miserable, alone and walking on a bitter Christmas Eve to find an open pharmacy, Dr. Fresh slipped and fell in the snow.

"If you were passing by, you'd have dropped a dollar right there," he said.

Back at his apartment, he searched the Internet for the U.S. city with the highest temperature at that moment. He bought a ticket for Miami and went to the airport. The flight was canceled.

"I was almost in tears," he said. "There was a Sikh guy in the airport. I told him, 'I want to go where there's sun 24/7.' He said, 'Why don't you go to L.A.?' I said, 'L.A. ...' "

He took the first plane to Los Angeles, sleeping all the way, and woke to the nudging of a flight attendant.

"It was 9:30 a.m. or so," he said. "I saw a huge beautiful sun."

At a hotel, he slept until late that afternoon.

"The sun was still shining," he said. "I realized I was feeling much better."

A few days later, he moved to Los Angeles permanently. Within a year, he had moved his wife and two children from India.

"I found the real America," said Dr. Fresh.

*

In Los Angeles, he scored his first big U.S. deal, selling 180,000 toothbrush six-packs to the 99 Cents Only chain of stores.

Emboldened, he cold-called 20 potential buyers each day, persisting even when one prospective client threatened to call the police.

Sales and sunshine nurtured his creativity.

"I had a lot of ideas [for products], but I did not make them because of fear of failure," he said. "Once the first was successful, I lost that fear."

He invented a toothbrush cap that disinfected the brush. It sold poorly, but he was undaunted.

Innovation became his obsession. Three or four times a week, he made pilgrimages to Wal-Mart, Walgreens and the gift shop at LAX, spending $100 each outing on the latest products and packaging, hoping for inspiration. His Firefly toothbrush for kids came from watching his daughter, Muskaan. She wouldn't brush, but she was devoted to her tennis shoes with red flashing lights.

He took a broader interest in hygiene and spiffiness, diversifying into mouthwash, baby wipes, shoe polish, anything cleansing and cheap to make. He is licensed to sell a water-soluble sanitary napkin, Flushaway.

"I would say every single day he comes up with a new idea," says Ajay Bansal, Dr. Fresh operations director.

His company grew relentlessly. He drove a nice car. He bought his family a spacious house in Cerritos, an enclave of upscale immigrants from Korea, China and India.

Yet something was missing. As he traveled the world -- one week in Shanghai, another in London -- he began to feel he belonged nowhere in it.

In Cerritos, he and his neighbors shared the paths at a nearby park but knew nothing of one another. It had been different in New Delhi, where every door had been open to him.

"I always ache for that," he said.

But he knew he couldn't return to India to live. In time, he adjusted, taking some comfort in the idea that he had become a citizen of the global economy, "a worldly wise guy."

For this, Southern California was the perfect base.

About this time, Dr. Fresh discovered the fulfillment of daily flossing. It allowed him to be reborn every day.

"I started being more in control of the destiny of my teeth," he said. "I feel I've increased the life of my teeth by at least 10 to 15 years.... After I'm done flossing, I also rinse. After rinsing I feel I am the freshest person, really."

He wanted that fresh-flossed feeling for everyone.

Dr. Fresh installed a floss-making machine in India, where his brothers were running Dr. Fresh Inc .

"He notably started talking floss, floss, floss," said brother Nikhil, who, like most Indians, had never before flossed.

Today, Dr. Fresh is one of the world's leading floss makers at a billion yards a year.

At a Las Vegas dental-care convention a few years ago, a buyer urged him to devise more floss products, given that the niche was wide open. Dr. Fresh began thinking about the biggest trouble with floss: that you can't always find it when you need it.

One night, he sketched a toothbrush with a hollow compartment at the base containing a roll of floss, with a cap at the end.

He named it the Flosh: toothbrush and floss in one.

He developed a prototype, monkeyed with it, perfected it.

Given Americans' deplorable rates of flossing --11% do it regularly -- he couldn't hope the Flosh would sell like the Firefly.

Still, the Flosh embodied Dr. Fresh, a toothbrush and floss in one instrument, combining his love for innovation and his zeal for eradicating dental bacteria wherever it might be found.

"I think," he announced this summer when he was done monkeying with it, "that this is going to be a major step in flossing."

*

One fall evening, Dr. Fresh pushes a cart down Wal-Mart's fluorescent aisles, looking for inspiration.

He combs through toothbrushes, then stops in stationery.

Pen packaging often gives him ideas. He eagerly awaits each October: "There's a lot of innovation in Halloween packaging."

Looking like an art critic in a museum, he halts to admire curvy new bottles of Zest body wash, then frets at how little a pen company has done with its SpongeBob SquarePants license.

He's been busy lately. He's won a contract to make Wal-Mart's private label Equate toothbrushes next year, 5 million units annually, he says. He's opened an office in Bentonville, Ark., near Wal-Mart's headquarters.

Sales to the retail giant, he hopes, will top $20 million annually in a couple years.

He shopped the Flosh to Procter & Gamble and to Johnson & Johnson, wanting their national distribution. But when he didn't hear anything definite from them, he decided to sell it under his own brand.

Wandering through Wal-Mart's acres of mass production, tonight, his mind is open -- especially, it seems, to things that blink.

He has grand hopes for his Firefly line. A new Firefly mouthwash has a cap that blinks. He wants more ideas for products that blink -- big, refreshing, anti-bacterial ideas, not necessarily dental.

Finding nothing, he leaves Wal-Mart with only a few pens and a box of Crest dental floss he wants to study.

"Oh, look at that," he says as he exits the store.

Outside, a woman in a wheelchair sells tiny blinking pendants: a broken heart, an electric guitar, Betty Boop. They flutter in her lap.

Just what he was looking for.

He buys a bulbous blinking fish that catches his eye. He cradles it gleefully as its red light pulses.

An idea takes shape in his mind.

"I'm going to put it in bottles of liquid soap," he whispers conspiratorially, "so you can push on the top and it'll light up."

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