Sunday, June 10, 2007

It Happened In India.

Kishore Biyani, the poster boy of Indian Retail industry is considered a maverick. An unconventional and unorthodox player when it comes to his playground, in charting and executing a retailing model without aping the West. 'It Happened in India' is KB's autobiography with assistance from Dipayan Baishya. I enjoyed reading the homespun narrative of a gutsy businessman who started his initial days of struggle as a trader of stonewash fabric, founding makeshift fabric stalls outside hotels and hosting textile expos, all these before completely revolutionizing the retail landscape in India. KB also addresses accusations against him of driving the competition out of kirana’s earlier pockets of business and affecting their livelihood in a negative way.

One of the interesting features of the book are the point-blank and frank testimonials from family members, associates, business partners and consultants who thought KB's ideas were sometimes silly, sometimes forward-looking and sometimes just-straight-from-the-heart. The book is written in an easy flowing and conversational mode with an aim to appeal to the widest possible audience and not just for those in business and management. The topic of the book though business centric is written in a storytelling format, the author conveying the message perspicuously and in prose that has great verve and vivacity. It speaks of the roadblocks and initial upsets, the achievements and accomplishments, the trials and tribulations of India’s most flourishing retail company. The journey that started with 'Pantaloon' [derives it's name from the Urdu word for trousers patloon] in the early 1990's, today has established its presence across the entire consumption space covering six verticals: Retail, Capital, Brands, Media, Space and Logistics.

This book is the success story of an iconoclast and irreverent Indian entrepreneur for whom commerce is never the raison d’ etre of Indian bazaars, they are rather more of a social mélange. KB points out that the consumers in today's burgeoning India can be classified into three groups: India One, India Two and India Three. These groups can be understood as the consuming class, the serving class and the struggling class respectively. The India One (14% of India’s population) class uses modern retail formats like Big Bazaar but even with this small percentage the retail sector is fascinating. It has grown because Indians are earning more, spending more, consuming more and thereby creating more jobs across other industries.

A flip through the book exposes the philosophy underlying, India's first hypermarket, Big Bazaar. Unlike the hypermarkets in the west, which are typically big-box format, with long, narrow aisles suitable for individuals shopping alone with carts, the Big Bazaars are created with multiple clusters. This compact and clustered format encourages 'butt and brush' effect and 'an organized chaos' as Indians like bumping into people, chat, gossip and eat while they shop. It would come as a surprise to many that the Big Bazaar is a totally desi concept, and the format is inspired by and modeled after the Sarvana Stores on the Ranganthan Street in Chennai.

The book also uncovers a very interesting facet, the colorful entrepreneur in KB. KB made forays into Bollywood with two movies to promote the ‘Pantaloons’ store brand. One of the movies was Na Tum Jano Na Hum but both the movies flopped at the box-office. For a brief period he was the marketing agent for foreign cricketers in India as if retail wasn't just enough for him. Ideas, imagination, memetics and creativity are the key drivers of his business and in the book he explains the emergence of a new era, the Creative Economy.

To cite an example KB has now roped in the Rockwell Group as architecture partners to design the next generation malls, the new landmarks of Indian cities. Rockwell Group, among many of its finest designs world wide, is best known for the design of the Kodak Theatre where the Academy Awards are held. Apart from this KB is also involved with the functioning of Idiom, an independent design and consultancy firm based in Bangalore whose quality of work is comparable to the San Francisco based design powerhouse, IDEO.

Does organized chaos and disorderliness play a role in business? How can designers’ devise business strategy and why the fancy MBA-types won’t fit into his organization, [Suit boot pahen ke baith jayenge par product nahi bikega as KB writes in the book]? Why should Indian companies not ape the overseas retail model at all? Will the advent of the frictionless, boundary less economy comprising the global multi-nations dampen his desi way of doing business? KB answers to many such questions and more in the book.

Few nuggets of information, to fortify my point that KB follows a paaka desi style of doing business.

1. In wired world of today, branding, advertising and marketing plays a more pivotal role that it used to be in earlier days. Most of the advertising and marketing professionals are educated in convent schools in large metros and are attuned to western ideas, speak and think in English. But KB wanted to communicate and spread his Big Bazaar message through one-liners in the local languages. He pulled in Gopi Kukde [famous for his Pan Pasand one-liner, 'shadi aur tumse kabhi nahin'], a relatively unknown advertising professional to coin famous and catchy one-liners such as 'chane ke bhaw kaaju’ [cashew nuts at the price of chickpeas], etc.

2. On occasion of Diwali '2005, the chief of Human Resources Department, Plantaloon floated the idea of offering gift vouchers, bags, T-shirts, etc as incentives to the store staff. KB instead of following the general trend advised his manager to get the employees' houses painted and the clutter removed. The idea was to offer something really authentic, desi and what better than the social occasion of Diwali.

Enough, enough, there are lots more fascinating episodes, such as KB’s signature Time Pass Theory, the man who runs business for some of the biggest apparel brands in India, still wears the same set of trousers for years and many such middle class ethos: respect, strong relationship, humility and simplicity that still forms an integral part of his lifestyle. So pick your copy and enjoy reading it.

Kishore Biyani with Dipayan Baishya
Rupa & Co
Pages: 269

Keep reading and remain connected.

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