How does one convert a disintegrating textile mill into a shopping destination? Gayatri Ruia on how Phoenix Mills became High Street Phoenix.

This is the story of a mall that was once a mill. Unlike other mills that occupied space in the heart of then Bombay, Phoenix Mills — owned by the Ruias — was neither sold, nor pulled down. Like the phoenix it was named after, it would rise again from the ashes of the Union-tsunami that swept over the city's organisations and destroyed the mills of Bombay.

Phoenix Mills stood on a road that was seldom taken. “When I used to drive to college, sometimes using the road because it would be less crowded, I would not find a single other vehicle on it,” reminiscences Gayatri Ruia, Director, New Developments, and Atul Ruia's wife. “My mother would be horrified to know I had ventured through that lonely stretch.”

The time was early 1990s. Datta Samant had wrecked the entire mill industry with his rousing call for strikes and bandhs. Somehow Phoenix had managed to stay functional, thanks to a good process house. But the threading and spinning sections had been badly hit. The struggle was to keep it running and avoid acquisition by the Government.

The younger generation of Ruias was ready to step in and do their bit. Atul Ruia had just returned from Wharton and was raring to go. His efforts would lead down some strange roads, but would, in due course, change the once deserted Tulsi Pipe road Gayatri had sometimes taken into “The Orchard Street of Mumbai”.

When Atul Ruia's attempts at getting new machinery from Coimbatore, proved futile, because it meant months, if not years of waiting, a decision had to be taken if the mill was not to close down. Thinking hard and thinking laterally made it happen.

The mill had a warehouse where space was leased out at Rs. 2 a square foot. Why not, they thought, use that area and build on it! The idea slowly took shape. The city's first Bowling Company was set up as a joint venture on the warehouse space and began to attract the hip crowd. Soon eateries and a pumping night club cropped up: Soul Fry, Boko, Fire and Ice... the buzz was infectious. Perhaps the buzz was what made it all happen the way it did. Instead of the residential towers that had been planned on the property, the Ruias decided to use the land to create a bigger buzz.

“The rule says: if an existing mill structure is broken down, one can build only up to 30 per cent of what it was,” Gayatri Ruia says. “So we decided to keep the structures and build into and around them.” It was a beginning, and one that was to teach many lessons. Lessons that have helped them to set up one more mall in Mumbai and others in Bangalore and Pune. Gayatri Ruia talks about the journey and shares some of the lessons that they learnt in the long road to success in a new territory.

Lesson 1: Move on!

It's important to keep an idea moving. Waiting for the ideal situation does not pay. The decision to keep the mall structure meant we did not have the blueprint for the textbook mall. What we had was not retail friendly; it was a maze of a space. We had just paid share money to the cousins who wanted out and were cashed out. And a mall, unlike housing, does not get pre-sold and get its promoters ready cash. We decided to build and let out a plot to the PVR so the revenue could help out. Besides movies would also increase traffic.

Lesson number 2: Invent solutions:

Big brands like Nike and Adidas were insistent on ground floor space on High Street Phoenix and the first floor was going a-begging. The idea then was to give it to niche brands. So I created Mogra, a multi-designer store, and the walk-ins started. Also we had Big Bazaar and wanted a balance. So the Grand Galeria was the answer. Both became destinations to attract different clientele.

Lesson number 3: Dream to make things happen

I personally like my branded bags and shoes and said let's have a luxury mall. My dream was to get Louis Vuitton here. So we changed the look of Palladium, made it art deco, increased the height of the atrium... And then for one year we struggled, it was pathetic with nothing happening by way of leasers. The luxury bubble had burst and we had brands like Reebok asking for space in front in a luxury mall!

Lesson number 4: Adapt, Adapt...

Atul took me to Singapore and I visited the Paragon mall, and realised this could be a realistic model for Mumbai too! We had 2,50,000 sq ft at Palladium and needed to make footfalls happen. The brands were making us run; brand managers would start talking to us, then quit; the Indophile would decide to hate India and go back... so the solution was to mix high street with lux. To convince Burburry to be opposite Zara and to give up Vuitton...these were tough issues.

Vuitton was my personal crusade; to get the brand to my shopper. But the leasing committee we set up felt that between Vuitton and Zara, the two brands asking for front of store, it made more sense to give it to Zara. Zara has proved a hit. It is more suited to Mumbai.

Also, in order to stay buoyant, we had to allow some brands that did not really fit. Now that we are growing and established, we are slowly replacing them and getting more international names in.

Lesson number 5: Build lasting relationships.

When the mills closed, despite the strike, our workmen had no bitterness towards us. They told us so; said they had to bow to their union, but their blessings were with us. Now we keep to the same philosophy. Zara, for one, is coming to all our new properties and so are many of the other brands.

Of course mistakes happen on both sides during new ventures; it helps to talk things over and sort out matters together.

Lesson Number 6: Keep the larger picture in mind.

We have tried to turn disadvantages to advantages. There is a lot to do on our malls, enough for different segments of people. Any mall needs to be inclusive. Our new malls are integrated multipurpose complexes, including hospitality, movies, residences, common space, F&M, retail... and we will ensure all aspects are thriving all the time.

In Bangalore we try to keep the garden city feel with large atriums and lots of outdoor green space. In Kurla we are getting the brands to take bigger stores so there is a feel of space for the client living in a cramped city.

It all adds up to one word: caring.