Packed with passion: 13 Reasons
Right from his earliest days in the footwear industry, Opinder Singh, MD, Japjee Group has been known for taking risks and having his finger on the pulse of what’s cool. In his most wideranging and in-depth interview, Amit Chopra, MD, S&A spoke exclusivel
After getting his start as a manufacturer, back in 1992, Singh spent twenty years working his way up the ladder to become a popular brand,effectively overseeing the sales, product, finance, HR and sourcing departments of a company that, under his leadership, was transformed into a globally recognized brand, emblematic of the active nature of comfort styles. Singh’s each move was closely watched. In 2012, he skimmed his brand13 Reasons, a buoyant middle-market comfort footwear brand, which sorely needed a reboot and Singh was the man to do it. He managed to secure short-term financing to eke through the lean times. And earlier this year, cresting on double-digit percentage growth in sales, 13 Reasons managed to establish a solid footing for growth.
S&A: Are things going in the right direction? Opinder Singh:
We have seen double-digit percentage like for likesales growth in our sales and outstanding growth in distribution over the last fewmonths. It seems like things are going in the right direction.
S&A: Are you happy with the results? OS:
The results are good. They are fine. Last year was more about continuing to create the infrastructure, because you know when we took this business on higher levels, we didn’t have enough production lines, our own IT. So last year we set up a massive systems, IT, logistics and warehousing project,3 new lines — and that took up a lot of our time. Sales came through consistently and we were pleased. What I really did was give us a platform for growth, which is where this year comes in. We are doing just under 17 percent like for like sales growth, so it’s phenomenal. It’s as if it’s just taken for hit a tipping point.
S&A: What have been the key drivers of this growth? OS:
Retail growth in India is generally flat and it’s not like we have opened a lot of new stores. The one overriding thing, more than anything else, is absolutely the product. Of course, I would say that because I’m a product person, but it’s true. Suddenly, we’ve found confidence. I thought it would take us few months to get here and it’s taken couple of years, so it’s longer than I expected. If you already have a customer base, you can start off in that direction, but if they all basically say ‘I don’t want any of that,’ then you kind of have to compromise a bit. Even the bravest person in the world would have to compromise. You can’t just completely alienate every single existing customer. You have to meander and that’s what we did. And unfortunately, by compromising, we never quite got going where we thought we should be going. It diluted the offer. I suppose with the build up of editorial and word-of-mouth and people finding out about us, people have started to say, ‘Actually there’s somethinghere.’ I seriously think it’s a combination of talk about the brand and absolutely, suddenly getting that product right. It’s got so much better, it’s got so much more confident, and it’s got a real point of view.
S&A: Your views on work culture at your company? OS:
We have always tried to create a culture of belonging. I believe in the importance of creating an environment where people belonged. It’s one thing that I’m proud of – the passion of our employees.it’s a great lesson – how people really want to belong to something that they believe in – and that has been one of the highlights of the past few years.
S&A: So what is it that you are offering new? OS:
We are introducing Memory Foam Technology footwear in our new collections. The number of technologies that are being used in shoes has increased
like CRINKLE and flexible soles. most people choose to buy the shoes and deal with it. That makes the design an overall success.
S&A:IF you were going to describe the 13 Reasons of the past, how would you do so?
OS: Most of the customers when I first went round the stores — when we started into the brand — had grey hair, which is fine, but it ledme to believe that it was an older customer base and there weren’t any new, younger customers coming into the brand. And that worried me. Even right from the start, we knew we wanted to change it from what it was to what it had once been, which was an interesting, aspirational, contemporary brand. We keep innovating and introducing newer material
S&A: How about the price point?
OS: Certainly, when we started, we identified that there was a gap in the market for comfort fashion; for contemporary, effortless, comfy fashion—not classic. There were a lot of people in that premium price point that were doing classic things, but they had an identity that really didn’t change that much from season to season. We aren’t about that. We are about comfy fashion.we are really excited by it and appeal to customers who are excited by it, not necessarily people who just want to slightly update their footwear wardrobe each year.
S&A: We have observed that in this tough economic environment, what’s performing are luxury brands at the very top end of the market and brands at the very low end, super cheap, fast fashion. But you’re resolutely positioned in the middle and the results demonstrate that it’s working for you. Is it?
OS: Maybe it is. I’ve been in this business, as has my team, for a longtime and I think, instinctively, we knew that there was something that was lacking, something that men wanted that wasn’t there. You have to take risks sometimes and say ‘I think this is the case’ and try it — rely on your instincts. We did that to an extent with 13 Reasons.
S&A: Where do you see it going now? What role do you play with regard to products and designs?
OS: When I started 13 reasons, there were many strong brands retailing already. I didn’t start comfy footwear. But we simply innovated it further. This has been with us for a long time. I call myself a product person, but I’m not a designer, nor have I ever been. My role is to establish the creative direction of the brand and then to articulate that to the team. My role is very much of someone who is sort of nudging it to the left or to the right and making sure it’s still adhering to our original vision; and making sure that we are pushing a little bit further and not falling behind. That’s my role. And also articulating the message to the customer, in terms of building the brand and positioning the brand in everybody’s minds. That’s pretty much what I do, as well as considering where we think the brand needs to go next in terms of strategy.
S&A: What’s your focus on now?
OS: The retailers portfolio that we took over was mixed. There are some great stores, but also some that didn’t work and probably weren’t the right stores for the brand. So we’ve identified gaps in the market. We’ve identified 50 more stores in South India. We have also confirmed that we will grow with our existing distributors, and grow in more stores in New Zealand, which gives us an opportunity to really showcase the collection to international buyers. It’s too soon for us to open our stores, so we will stick to wholesale model. But because we are manufacturers we can keep dropping product — there’salways newness coming through. Our sellthroughs are always 70 to 80 percent.
S&A: How frequently are you making new prducts?
OS: Every 4 weeks or so. You have to. The only way it will work is if the customer is seeing something new.
S&A: So where does 13 reasons go from here?
OS: Assets are one thing, but it’s people who make a company and it is people who make a difference. It’s our company. It’s our opportunity. It’s our future. On operational front, we are starting our international expansion. We are starting with Europe and UAE. Our stress would be on comfy collection. Idon’t want to make any mistakes and I also want to find out which markets work and which don’t. In five years’ time, I hope we would be doubling our business in India and have a couple of our own stores. I’m not sure I see the necessity to open that many stores, especially with online being as strong as it is. I think nowadays if you’re in the right retail stores, you don’t really need to open hundreds of stores across the country. After New Zealand, I think that Australia has got to be a huge market for us, but we are going to leave that for another year. We are re-designing oursite right now which will launch shortly. I think online is tremendously exciting.