Rajan Pillai, CEO, Apex Footwear Limited

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Stepping Ahead

In a conversation with Asif Tarafdar, the CEO of Apex Footwear Limited, Rajan Pillai explicates on the importance of innovation in business, the importance of a strong female workforce and what it takes to excel in the retail industry. 

From your experience, what are the aspects of the retail industry that you find appealing?
I’ve been in this industry for quite a while now. It has been almost 25 years after starting as a salesman. Over the years, I have worked at every stage of the ladder to reach here. Retail is a uniquely dynamic industry. It might not be apparent to many, but the sector is very glamorous, extremely dependant on the aesthetics. The customer makes their purchase decisions depending on the face value. The phenomenon is analogous to the film industry where a lot depends on the impression you make.

It is also continuously evolving. A couple of decades back, people used to get acquainted with brands through a visit and media. Now social media and word of mouth have become the primary for communication with consumers, nothing stays hidden from the eyes of the consumers.

So, when I look at retail perceptually, it is how you ensure that the customers are given the comfort of buying at the best possible environment. Retail is not just about selling a product, it’s also about selling an experience. Therefore, if you’re not able to sell an experience, nobody’s going to buy your product. Customers will always have alternative choices, you have to differentiate yourself by providing a unique retail experience. When a consumer walks into a store, you must ensure that the atmosphere is welcoming, the displayed products are clean and the staff are accommodating of customers every inquiry.

What qualities do you believe are necessary to be successful in this sector?
I believe some basic qualities are necessary to be successful in life irrespective of the sector. It begins with choosing the industry that interests you. If you don’t have passion for something, most likely you will fail to make an impression there. Consequently, for example, when we came out of college, retail was the future. So, pursuing this field has brought me a lot of success, it might not be the same for someone else. Therefore, success depends on the goal you have set for yourself. Some people come to retail for temporary financial benefits but if you want a career here, you have to be very focused. So, if you choose a path, you have to give 110% effort to become successful. Like I always say, there is no short-cut in life!

How was your experience of working for Being Human?
I worked with being human for two years. I started the brand in India. Initially, Salman Khan had a brand name called “Being Human”, it did not have a story or concept. It is a charity where all the proceeds go for humanitarian work. Concurrently, we were approached by an Indian diversified textile and apparel manufacturing company, Mandhana Industries who offered to avail the license to produce apparel for the brand.

Being purely an operations guy, I was part of the team and we set up the business for them. For two years, I worked very closely with Salman (Khan) and we opened about 30-32 stores. It is a very successful brand and can be more successful if done properly. Just like I said, you can’t have a half-pie, to be successful you have to do something wholeheartedly.

Can you please share the challenges you face as the CEO?
I don’t believe there is any person on the planet who is without challenges. Without it, life is depressing. Here, we deal with hundreds of challenges every hour. Retail is a sector which is continually evolving and there is no room to get complacent. The moment you start believing that you are the best, you commence your own demise. For example, successful European brands like JCPenney and Marks & Spencer are at the edge of extinction because they failed to evolve. Conversely, nobody knew China a few decades ago but they have managed to establish themselves as the powerhouse because they have been able to evolve according to the demand.

For example, if a consumer wants a specific feature on a mobile phone, as a phone company, you will not be able to survive without providing that feature. One of the reasons companies like GM and Ford have been bankrupt because they thought themselves as the best until they suffered heavy defeat at the hands of Japanese carmakers.

You should always consider yourself a student which will help you to grow. You have to set your sights for the next stage and grow accordingly. The moment you begin to think that you are at the top, it’s easy to fall. So, I always tell my team that we are at the bottom of the pyramid and there is a lot to be achieved.

Did you have to make any changes to your leadership strategy for Bangladesh?
Yes! a lot actually (laugh). I have previously worked in places like the Middle East and India where retail is very dynamic. Dubai is primarily thriving in the service industry, therefore, their service is strong. On the other hand, Bangladesh is primarily a manufacturing and agricultural country. The service industry is at a very primary stage right now. I am sure it will develop just as its international counterparts but it will take some time. When I joined here in Bangladesh, I had numerous ideas but could not implement them because the owners of the company had other priorities. I realised that I have to take things slowly and revise the basics. Our first Programme was “Back to Basics”. So, I started with the basics and by the grace of Almighty, we have seen robust growth for the last six years.

Bangladesh is set to emerge as the next manufacturing hub for the global footwear industry. Besides low-cost labour, what are the aspects of the industry we should focus, to ensure robust growth?
Bangladesh’s economy is sprinting. The primary reason behind the keen interest from investors is the availability of competitive labour force and women workers. At our factories, almost 70% of workers are female. More female workers contribute higher productivity of a country. China has managed to retain as one of the strongest economic powers in the world because of the availability of a largely female workforce.

Secondly, besides ensuring competitive labour, we can increase our productivity. China’s labour force is much more productive and capable of delivering output a time higher ultimately compensating for the higher wages. Therefore, we (Bangladesh) are lacking in productivity but the workers are not to be blamed for that. We have to change the system which promotes low productivity. As more and more foreign companies come to Bangladesh, they are bringing new techniques to increase productivity. This will have a positive effect on the overall productivity of Bangladesh, concurrently it will become more competitive. I am confident that in the next five years, the footwear industry of Bangladesh will become very strong. Honourable Prime Minister has set a target of 5$ billion export but I believe it will surpass that.

There are some hurdles that are required to be passed before that, logistics is one of them. It takes a lot of time to process our exports through the port. Often, shipments are delayed by weeks due to logistical complications, but clients are going to penalise us nonetheless. I really hope the government can solve this issue.

Apex Footwear has now decided to invest Tk100 crore more for building a new factory to carter to the local market. What has prompted you to focus on the local market?
Our local business is very strong, and it will keep expanding, that’s why we have invested in new facilities. We have just put a 6-floor building. Our Chairman Syed Manzur Elahi and Managing Director Syed Nasim Manzur are very focused on their goals in Bangladesh. My chairman is adamant about ensuring the 12,000 workers in both our factories are being looked after properly. He makes sure that they are fed properly and paid on time. Not only the workers but their families are dependant on us, Apex is well aware of that responsibility.

What is your vision as CEO of Apex Footwear?
We haven’t even started yet! (laugh). There is a long way to go, as I stated, it is not the people rather the process that will make the organization successful. So, people will come and go, but if there is a proper process in place, the business will continue to grow successfully.

We currently have about 250 stores, 222 franchises and 189 distributors. It is a remarkable achievement which has been made possible by the hard work done by our chairman. With his vision, I am sure we will do much better in the future.

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