Shwapna Bhowmick is the Country Manager for Bangladesh and Myanmar, Marks, and Spencer since 2013. She completed her graduation from the University of Dhaka and then went on to pursue a Diploma in Fashion technology from BGMEA Institute of Fashion Technology (BUFT). Followed by her course at BUFT, she joined a local buying house called ARAF apparels. She was then hired by the British multinational clothing brand, Next; she later went to work with the biggest retail giant, Walmart. After years of her successful tenure there, Shwapna joined Marks and Spencer in 2006 and took the lead as the Country Manager in 2013.
The Readymade Garment Industry is the rudder to Bangladesh’s success in the global scenario. The country is the sourcing ground to a plethora of multinationals, which makes our exports account for a greater part of the GDP. Marks and Spencer (M&S) is one of leading fashion garment makers leaving their imprint on the world. ICE Business Times converses with Shwapna Bhowmick, Country Manager, Bangladesh and Myanmar, M&S to know more about the evolving aspects of the company and its objectives.
Shwapna takes immense pride in obtaining an entirely Bangladeshi educational background and stresses on how family plays an important role in the progress of women in developing nations, “It is rare to find locals heading leadership roles in multinationals, similar to mine. From early childhood, I was injected with the idea that regardless of the background we come from we should never cease to dream big and do something meaningful. I wanted to have an impact and contribute to the development of my country, be it in any sector.”
She then describes her journey in a nutshell, “I got my first international break at Next based on my academic record at BUFT. Later to which, I joined Walmart and experienced the American side of the business.” She explains that the transition to M&S was a change in the direction of her career. She was hesitant because the company was at its initial stage, “Joining M&S in 2006 was a difficult choice to make as I already had a spectacular career at Walmart back then and M&S was only starting its operation. However, I knew this was my opportunity to bring the change.”
The lack of women in the leadership roles in the textile industry is what inspired Shwapna to join the sector, “The course I took at BUFT was specifically designed for people who were already working in the sector. It had no female students enrolled in it. The idea of my work having a direct impact on the workers gave me the boost to go forward with it.” The idea of breaking barriers and thriving in a male-dominated industry is what appealed to her. Shwapna was determined to facilitate change.
Shwapna further details the day-to-day challenges on her first attempt at work, “My initial tenure at Araf Apparels was indeed a learning experience. It was often that people produced stereotypical judgments about my work and lifestyle as I was amongst the only two females working there during that period.” She recalls that proving her potential was a constant struggle. However, Shwapna was determined to prove that she was just as capable, “I had to place double the effort compared to my male colleagues to achieve similar results in the workplace. It helped me understand and deal with the industrial challenges more effectively. I had immense support from my line manager back then to break the stereotype”.
Shwapna embraces the country’s textile led to progress and mentioned how real consideration could be made in this regard, “Bangladesh at this point stands as an example to the rest of the world with its highest number of green factories globally. The beauty of the backward linkage from yarn to fabric to garment under the same roof is something that hasn’t been achieved by the many neighboring countries which help the country to step up further in the global competition.”
M&S has a noted reputation because of the corporate culture and set values that transcend throughout their multinational set-ups. Shwapna was drawn to the company because of their unique approach, “We ensure that our employees understand that their work not helps them to earn but also has a greater impact in the development of the economy. Once the employees feel connected their level of efficiency increases resulting in better quality of work.”
The country head explains how skillset is at the core of robust workforce, “A greater part of nourishing a business depends on the skillset of the employees. It is vital for employees to keep improving ways in which they interact or do things.” She further emphasizes on the importance of effective delegation of responsibilities to sustain a business, “Our plans for the workers focus on increasing their efficiency and help us create a better platform to delegate responsibilities, and prepare the subordinates for future endeavors.”
The textile industry’s lack of potential employees and the role that universities can play to mitigate this agenda is a growing concern for Shwapna, “We see that there is a lack of encouragement and grooming in the universities for students concerning this sector. More robust courses on smart communication and grooming sessions need to be introduced to create potential leaders who will take the garment industry ahead of the global competition.”
She pinpoints that for any successful enterprise the leader at the helm must possess a Critical Success Factor, “Success depends a lot on financial parameters. The business acumen brought by an employee is looked upon to see how benefited the company will be in promoting the individual to a higher rank.” She further expounds on how leaders at M&S make both ends meet by maintaining profitability alongside, “It is significant to grow aspects that give your company an edge over the others. At M&S, we focus our resources on producing the best range of products to have a better basket of good compared to others and make sure our stakeholders also get gain in the process; this helps us to maintain profitability alongside.”
Shwapna explains productivity is still a primary concern for Bangladesh and M&S has been taking active measures to improve it, “While we have achieved greater things on the list, we are still lagging behind concerning the efficiency of human resources. As a brand, we work hand in hand with the factories and re-engineer the product to ensure cost-effectiveness and the highest level of output.” She then articulates on how M&S improves the quality of its workforce, “Technologists are brought from the head office to train the workers on ensuring consistency in the quality of products. We carefully stress on the happiness factor by giving work breaks to our factory workers. The amount of efficiency with which they return to work is incredible to observe.”
Under her leadership, the value of sourced garment from M&S is expected to hit $800 million, which was $5 million in 2006. Shwapna recalls the hurdles faced on the way, “One of the biggest challenges was getting the industry mindset to shift from producing basic products to value-added ones. It was difficult to convince our partners to go for smaller fashion lines alongside bigger core line orders.” When she started out in the industry, many elements lacked adequate attention. Shwapna emphasizes the constant need to improve these factors, “Investment was required in the research and development, and the lack of well-built infrastructure prevented the establishment of green factories. However, things have changed greatly with time and the establishment of 13 green factories by M&S’s in Bangladesh which speaks much about our success.”
Bangladesh’s apparel industry envisions earning $50 billion in export by the year 2021. Shwapna shares how M&S company is accelerating the process, “The company are already sourcing its highest amount of garment from Bangladesh which is around 37%. provided that we are getting innovative products and factories here are getting digitized and compliant, export will remain consistent from our side. In this way, we will continue to contribute to vision 2021.”
“M&S understands the importance of establishing more and more green factories in Bangladesh,” mentions Shwapna. She further enunciates the benefits that the country can reap from such an endeavor, “It is imperative to find the right balance. Establishing more green factories would attract new buyers to our country and add more to the country’s GDP growth. It is incredible to observe how local companies have become a lot more proactive nowadays.”
Shwapna delightfully states the most rewarding sides of being a country head, “My greatest accomplishment is to be able to facilitate a change through an initiative by M&S called ‘Marks and Start.’ This program enables us to hire disabled people as employees, give them training and include them in our work stream. We have employed 1,762 disabled workers so far in our factories, and I feel privileged to be able to bring about a change in the lives of many.”
PROACTIVE BUSINESS MEASURES: THE WAY TO KEEP YOUR COMPANY GROWING
Shwapna shares the formula for an efficient business environment.
THINKING BEYOND BORDERS
In today’s world, it is necessary to keep the global goals in mind. At M&S, we are trying to shift many of our transactions to a virtual platform in alignment to the digitization taking place in our surroundings. We have started the practice of building a cashless society, and as our first attempt, we have created bank accounts for many of our stakeholders to transfer their payment accordingly.
THE POWER OF PACE
One of my attempts always remains in staying connected with the things happening globally. We try to adapt to every new technology has been in use elsewhere. For instance, we have started 3D fitting in Bangladesh recently, which was previously done by other countries. Our local employees remain connected with the ones working abroad through video conferences which ensures a more significant flow of communication and better quality of work.
A UNITED FORCE
The practice of empowering your local pool of workers is highly significant. We had come far from the days when our regional workers only used to replicate materials given to them. If we look at our M&S factories, our workers can, not only replicate and make specific materials but also come up with new designs and ideas by themselves nowadays. This method helps us to produce a better basket of goods for our consumers, and it happens when workers have the freedom to experiment with work.