From just one store in Chennai in 2003, Mr. Pronto has grown to 12 outlets across three cities. Udhav Naig meets Abhishek Dhingra, the man behind the business of servicing leather goods, whose talent won him an award at the recent Asian Retail Congress

“I really don’t know how they found me,” says Abhishek Dhingra, director, Mr. Pronto, with a shrug. He has been identified as one of 50 most talented retail professionals in India in the tenth edition of the Asian Retail Congress. He received the award for his decade-long journey as director of Mr. Pronto, a company that services leather goods.

“When compared to big retailers, including mall owners and online retailers, I have just 12 running units. It is difficult to grow when one operates in the unorganised sector,” he says.

The origins

The seeds were sown when he was studying at the Asian Institute of Management in the Philippines. When he learnt that his classmate’s family owned a chain of 160 shops that mended shoes and bags, he got curious. A visit to one the shops changed his life.

“At one of his friend’s stores, I saw people line up to hand over their shoes to be repaired. I thought, ‘Do the Filipinos have so many damaged shoes?’ I immediately told my dad about setting up a similar store at home and he said, ‘Yes, let’s do it.’”

He set up his first shop in Spencer Plaza in 2003. “It didn’t take long for people to find their way here because nobody had to tell the cobbler anything about quality,” he says.

Though it was an idea that worked in another country, Abhishek soon learnt that it wasn’t going to unfold like a fairytale. “I couldn’t exactly replicate that business model in India,” he says. The Indian market had its own problems and he had to devise different strategies. There were a number of challenges — dealing with the social stigma attached to working with leather being the prime one. Besides, his mother had reservations too.

“A number of people come to my office looking for a job. When I tell them they would have to mend shoes, they have second thoughts. There was one person in Delhi, who said he would rather be a driver or repair suitcases than mend shoes. But when the economic condition of the employees improves, their attitude to the job changes,” he says.

But recruiting and working with cobblers, many of whom are debt-ridden and addicted to alcohol, was not easy. “There have been instances where I have paid skilled workers upfront just to clear their debts. Also, they were not used to telling customers what was possible and what was not when it came to mending their footwear. We had to expose the cobblers to an organised set up and train them to work with machines.”

Scaling up operations

The first few years were filled with experiments and mistakes. Today, Mr. Pronto has 12 stores spread across three cities — Chennai, Bangalore and Delhi. Abhishek is hoping to inject more money to enable him to achieve what he couldn’t when he started Mr. Pronto in 2003.

“Opening one or two stores doesn’t excite me anymore. I am hoping to open many stores simultaneously,” he says.

More than the award, the significance of Mr. Pronto lies in the way it has lifted a number of people out of abject poverty. But, Abhishek doesn’t want to take the credit. “The best award is recognition of Mr. Pronto. Let’s also be very clear. I am part of their business, so it is only fair that the technicians benefit from it,” he says.

Even as he finalises a deal with an investor, Abhishek has rolled out a franchisee model. “All my stores are available for franchise operation. We offer a shop that’s running, which is company owned,” he says.

Will he expand his business to include non-leather goods as well? “No, Mr. Pronto’s primary focus will continue to be “fixing” shoes and it will also continue to operate in the unorganised sector.”