The Aswani Brand of Business Success
Their long and arduous journey that took them from Sindh to Kochi down south post Partition is nonetheless peppered with sparkling display of entrepreneurial brilliance even while they had to shift places within Kerala, often not getting to remain even united as a family. But the Aswanis are today an integral part of Kerala’s business ecosystem, leading others by example. This innate business spirit still lets them experiment and guides them into newer territories. Through this exclusive interview, Destination Kerala introduces to its readers Deepak Lachmandas Aswani, the leader of the Aswani Group, and the Aswani family, which proved that entrepreneurial energy is boundless.
A sharp left turn on MG Road in Kochi near Shenoy’s takes you to Doraiswamy Iyer Road where you will pass a long row of shutters quite unlikely to pique any particular interest. Here, up a tiny stairway and a floor above through the elevator, is the apartment which houses the Aswani family.
Take the first name and there won’t be many who would ask ‘who’? This is where Deepak Lachmandas Aswani, one of the doyens of Kerala’s business ecosystem and head of the Aswani Lachmandas Group, resides with his family.
Our team was on time for the photo-shoot and so was the Aswani family. Dressed in white, and insisting that all others in the family dress formally enough, the 66-year-old patriarch, whose business empire has come a long way since the arduous post-Partition journey across the Indo-Pak border that finally brought his family to Kerala, was full of energy.
A ‘FLIGHT FOR LIFE’ FROM ACROSS THE BORDER
The story of the Aswani family is very much intertwined with the history of independent India and the blood-stained mass exodus that followed the Partition.
“We were among the luckier ones. My father was a contractor supplying goods to the Defence Services Staff College in Quetta, Sindh, in today’s Pakistan and the family could safely crossover to India. While my father got preference due to his military connections, his family then – my mother and two elder siblings – took a train to Karachi and then a ship to Bombay. My sister was born just days before that ‘flight for life’. Whatever could be carried with them was brought, even jewellery hidden inside pakodas,” said Deepak Aswani reminiscing those difficult times.
The family landed at different parts of the country, very far away in terms of distance due to the uncertainties prevailing at that time. Deepak’s father, Lachmandas Aswani, was in Dehradun, trying to find a place for the family to set up a home while his mother and her two little children remained in refugee camps in Kalyan and Ulhasnagar in the city of Bombay then reeling under the unease of Partition and displacement.
The country was teeming with refugees and after tremendous jostling, Aswani senior, the young military contractor, found his port of call in Wellington near Ooty, down south.
To the family that had come from the beautiful Sindh, things suddenly started feeling more like home thanks to the cool weather and the vast verdant stretches of the hill station of Wellington. Soon, Lachmandas Aswani was supplying goods to the newly-set up Defence Services Staff College in Wellington.
The family was slowly settling down when adversity struck again in 1950. The government decided to take over the department stores in the military establishments.
Lachmandas Aswani’s family had grown from four to six by then, being blessed with another son and a daughter. For Aswani senior, it was yet again time to leave ‘home’ and move to unknown places. As someone who would not easily give up, Lachmandas Aswani scouted around for opportunities, taking help from his business contacts spanning across the country, and finally set up a small stockist point in Wayanad, a heavily forested hill district in nearby Kerala.
“The times were different, one had to pass through Wayanad to reach Kozhikode and then move onwards to the capital city of Thiruvananthapuram. It was a key pathway and my father set up his own business as a dealer of the Imperial Tobacco Company,” said Deepak.
Living off a van which doubled as his shop, he worked hard enough to grab the attention of a British trade party passing through the jungles. With his impressive zeal and business acumen, Aswani senior soon found partners and expanded his Imperial Tobacco Company dealership to the Kerala capital in 1959.
Battling odds, Aswani senior established the business network of Imperial Tobacco Company there. With better business and more hospitable location, another big decision was in the offing – the Aswani family shifted from the cool climes of Ooty to Thiruvananthapuram, a highly humid place with a fair share of sea breeze. But just as fate would have it, it was not yet time for the family to be reunited.
“In 1964, the dealership for Kochi was also placed on offer to Aswani. My father and one of his three partners decided to move to Kochi. This was also the time my brother, Vishnudas Aswani, joined the family business,” remembered Deepak.
“My elder sister and I stayed back in Thiruvananthapuram to pursue our education. I was studying at Loyola School and she was graduating in Home Science,” he said. It took another four years for the family to be fully united. At the fag end of 1968, the entire Aswani family finally came together in Kochi.
ITC – A PARTNERSHIP BUILT TO LAST
Times were changing. In 1972, Deepak Aswani was fresh out of college with a degree in Economics from St. Albert’s College in Kochi. The country was slowly moving on from the pains of Partition to the agony of wars.
After the Chinese aggression and a humiliating defeat, the economy was in shambles. In the early 1970s, the Imperial Tobacco Company went through a series of management rejigs in what ended with it becoming ITC Ltd. as we know it today. This was the time the young Deepak joined the family business.
“The times were not smooth. The political situation was not conducive to companies that had a colonial past and Imperial Tobacco Company and its dealers soon found themselves on the wrong side of the national sentiment. ITC’s business share was seriously hit.
But, from those times till now the ITC distribution business has been the bedrock of the family’s enterprise. Except for those hard times, our partnership with this conglomerate has been fairly recession-proof and weathered tough times. Today, we handle over 16 product categories and employ over 300 people in our distribution division. Our coverage too has seen a quantum leap. From the earlier channels of convenience outlets known as ‘petti kadas’ we have expanded to cover chemist and grocery stores, supermarkets and fancy and ladies stores, and of course, the bakeries, among others. The ITC business has taught us financial discipline and concepts in retailing, category management, brand management, and sales and distribution management. Moreover, it gave us the enormous goodwill that we enjoy today,” said Deepak Aswani.
FORAY INTO TEXTILE BUSINESS
With the sons joining the business, the Aswani brand was ready to grow. Deepak’s brother Vishnudas took the lead and struck a deal with Delhi Cloth Mills (DCM) and the brothers took the initiative to establish the new vertical.
“I spent time helping my brother set up the business during the day and went for law classes in the evening. A year later, in 1973, I was selected to the first batch of MBA programme started by the Cochin University of Science and Technology (CUSAT). My hands-on training began then – every day I would open the shop in the morning and return to it in the evening after my classes were over,” said Deepak.
Soon the DCM Group, which itself was on an expansion mode, offered a dealership to the Aswanis and they readily took it up.“You should remember this was the Kerala in 1970s. People were generally poor and clothing was considered a luxury, even basic clothing for that matter. Men wore no shirts and women were wearing just a blouse and a ‘mundu’ and so the business was risky in itself. Add to it the fact that the retailers here preferred to get their goods sourced from big cities like Delhi and Mumbai,” said Deepak.
“We managed to tide over the crisis to a certain extent by tapping into the USP offered by DCM furnishing. We could make the Kerala style towels, ‘thorthu’, and design curtains that were similar to the full-length drapery that we see today,” he said. The business didn’t last long though and the Aswanis were back to just the cigarette business for a short while. True to their spirit of never backing down, they moved on to tie up with Bombay Dyeing in 1976 and Vimal in 1979.
The real game-changer, though, was about to come – the company took up the dealership of Raymond Textiles in 1986. “Again, Raymond was a gamble. People were still getting used to the kind of clothing manufactured by a company like it. The first year was rather discouraging. At the end of the fifth year, we had grown from Rs. 50 lakh to Rs. 1.25 crore. In the sixth year, our sales doubled to Rs. 2.5 crore and then, there was no looking back,’’ said Deepak.
After their first store at MG Road, the Aswanis opened their second Raymond store at Marine Drive in 1998. “Today we have six stores between us and my brother’s family,” Deepak said.
Apart from these two, the family also operates The Raymond Shop stores at LuLu Mall, Thripunithura, Palarivattom Bypass and Angamaly. The Group also manages Exclusive Brand Outlets of Park Avenue and Color Plus at the Centre Square Mall and a unique Made to Measure Raymond outlet at the LuLu Mall apart from an exclusive Jockey outlet at Kakkanad.
PIONEERING BUSINESS IDEAS
The Aswani Group still holds the reputation of being pioneers of exclusive and customised clothing solutions. Two of their innovative business products – the Priceless stores and My Kingdom are testimony to this.
“In 2005-06, Priceless and My Kingdom were instant hits. At Priceless we were supplying branded merchandise which were moving out of the fashion cycle, and that too, at a discount of 25 per cent. And My Kingdom remains our crown jewel even today. It was a super well-stocked lifestyle store which had everything for kids – from parlours to play stations to even a Kidzee franchise!
“The store was a huge hit and I guess we were ahead of time. But it was too early and suddenly the construction of Kochi Metro hit us leaving MG Road in disarray, and we had to backtrack. When the time is ripe for the re-launch of the project we are planning to offer franchises for My Kingdom. We are sitting on several offers already,” said Deepak.
The Aswanis were a traditional family, one where women remained largely confined to their home. But now, as Deepak Aswani put it, it is the two women in the family who manage 50 per cent of the business. And in his own words, his wife, Jyoti Aswani, the Managing Director of the textile branch, is the one who does the “most difficult part of the job.’’
The family patriarch, Lachmandas Aswani, was a committed family man. He used to start early, visit all the shops the family ran before settling down in his favourite corner at the Raymond showroom on MG Road by noon. At the end of the day he would handpick all the things needed before going home. He stuck to this routine till the fateful day his age got the better of him and he suffered a fall.
“My father-in-law had grown old by then but his work ethics remained the same. He still believed that the USP of any business was the individual attention one could give the customers. Even a small thing like welcoming the customers at the Raymond Shop by giving them sweets was very important for him,’’ Jyoti Aswani said.
“It was inconceivable till then for a woman from the family to go to the market. But once father had that fall I started standing in for him,” said Jyoti.
Then slowly, though reluctantly, the family saw its first woman entrepreneur take charge of things.
“I started off on a big scale only after my sons, Prakash and Susheel, left home for their education and careers. This offered me with a lot of free time and I started taking more interest in business affairs. Soon, I saw myself visiting shops when Deepak was away on his business trips and started travelling around the country to source materials,” said Jyoti about her entry into business.
“Typically, the most chaotic market anywhere would be a textile market. So undisputedly the most unpleasant part of our job was also this. But she did this all alone,” said Deepak, applauding her work.
Jyoti soon found an ideal ‘business partner’ in her younger son Susheel’s wife, Neha Susheel Aswani. Neha, with her experience in Credit Suisse, Mumbai, is currently the Chief Financial Officer of the company and manages the two showrooms at LuLu Mall. The next generation Aswanis – Prakash, Susheel and Neha – had illustrious academic and professional careers involving A-list colleges and some of the largest multinational companies in the country. Their reach and networks have helped the group forge successful partnerships with reputed companies such as Hersheys, Kimberly Clarke, Western Cashew, FirstCry and Amazon.
THE HABIT OF INNOVATION
Take the newly-renovated MG Road Raymond store for instance. The flagship outlet of the Group is raved about as a convergence plus store housing custom dressing solutions for the modern man.
“What we offer is the future of dressing solutions. It has everything for the discerning crowd – ethnics, casuals, womenswear and even custom shoes with immaculate fitting,” said Deepak.
“And moreover, this is his baby,” said Aswani pointing towards Prakash Aswani, his elder son.
“I joined the business in 2007 and my focus was to further professionalise it and infuse technology to consolidate the customer base and expand ourselves,” Prakash chipped in.
Prakash and Susheel are now in charge of the ITC distribution division managing around 10,000 retailing accounts and have started offering more customer engagement solutions adaptable for different environments. “ITC is a very stable business and moreover, the reach and visibility we have in these stores is something that we could leverage to push non-cigarette products we are supplying from ITC, which now make about 30-40 per cent of the products,” Deepak added.
“The future of the dealership lies in how well we leverage this reach and visibility advantage we have. We are open to dealerships from other companies and are already promoting an array of innovative products that are produced locally,’’ added Prakash.
“We require finesse and highest standard, and need to bridge the technology gap in systems and processes for offering seamless customer experience. This applies across the board from stockpiling the inventory to meeting customer demands across the Raymond stores we run or even the ITC dealership,’’ said Prakash.
Prakash with his keen technological interest and engineering background has developed a proprietary offering that provides a powerful, immersive and interactive experiential marketing solution for the organisation by effectively engaging customers across multiple touch-points.
ASWANIS INTO E-COMMERCE
Neha and Susheel are both MBA gold medalists from the Symbiosis Institute of Business Management, Pune. They have recently helped the Group venture into the rapidly growing e-commerce space and are all-Kerala stockists for the baby products company www.firstcry.com. They service close to 350 consumer orders and cater to B2B requirements as well from franchise stores across the southern region. They have also been chosen by Amazon to set up its first Multi-Seller Flex (Fulfillment Centre) in Kerala. Through this venture, they hope to on-board offline sellers and help them go online, and supplement and grow their sales. Last-mile logistics and fulfillment support which provide sellers greater visibility and results on the Amazon portal, are also offered by the Aswanis.
Like businesses around the world, the Aswanis are concerned about the other big disruptor after technology. “Climate change is a major concern. The floods washed away the Onam season in 2018. While the clothing store suddenly saw a fall in sales after a promising July, our entire cigarette stock worth around Rs. 75 lakh in our Aluva godown was destroyed. The insurance could not cover even half the loss,” said Deepak, and added that his wife Jyoti, too, got trapped in flooded Mumbai, trying to source materials.”
“The family is now looking at getting into manufacturing. But this is where Kerala’s work culture will affect us. We are considering the option of being based outside the State given the labour and permit situations here.” he said.
‘Honestly, neither the corporate tax cut nor the GST on biscuits affect us. It is the oversupply through excessive competition, the disturbing Gulf scenario causing remittances to nosedive, and the threat of brand hijack by the namesakes and contrabands that impact us,” summed up Deepak.
With time, the Aswanis have grown, diversified and evolved. They have kept pace with technology and responded in the affirmative to disruptive ecosystem changes. Maybe the words of the third generation Prakash Aswani hold the key to the future: “Our business was built by the customer. Technology will be an enabling disruptor and we may soon infuse immense amount of that spin, but continue to give our customers a personalised experience they will want to come back to.”
Deepak Lachmandas Aswani
Family: Jyoti Aswani (spouse), Prakash Aswani, Susheel Aswani (sons), Neha Susheel Aswani (daugher-in-law), Neel Susheel Aswani (Grandchild)
Education: MBA from CUSAT
Loves to do (when not working): Movies, travel to the hills
Films/Music: It’s a Mad Mad World
Favourite Cuisine: Sindhi food Koki roti and potato
Favourite Holiday Destination: New Zealand
Drives: Audi A6
Favourite Gadget: Google Pixel
A leader you admire: K M Mani, Narendra Modi
A business leader you admire: Mukesh Ambani, YC Deveshwar, Anand Mahindra, Adi Godrej