A look at the growing footwear industry of Kozhikode

At one of the 23 manufacturing units of VKC, a leading footwear maker in Kerala, one witness quiet efficiency on a warm afternoon. At the centre is a rotary machine. Eight workers stand close together on one part of the 60-station machine simultaneously inserting soles, gumming, mould-cleaning and moulding. Technicalities aside, it is on this machine that soles of sandals meet its top part popularly the “upper” and produces in a single run 30 pairs of polyurethane (PU) sandals. The new sandals slip onto the conveyor belt where it is picked by a worker who expertly chips away the excesses on his machine. At the next point, it is given the finishing thread work and the subsequent workers pack and case the sandals. Boxes with the brand name find their way into umpteen plastic bags and are later trucked to dealers.

Kozhikode has many epithets. Yet its flourishing footwear industry has so far not managed a footnote in the city’s resume. In a short span, the city has managed to be among the top five footwear manufacturers in the country. Recent reports pitch the industry’s annual turnover from the Kerala market at Rs. 700 crores. P. Sasidharan, president, Footwear Manufacturers Association of Kerala, says out of the nearly 120 footwear manufacturers in the State, about 80 are in Kozhikode. In pockets like Kolathara this industry is the norm. The industry accommodates all; big and small, old and new. Bulk of the production force is migrant workers. The core philosophy remains the same — affordable footwear for every man, woman and child. Affordability reflects in the pricing; beginning at Rs. 90, the bulk of the products are priced under Rs. 500. Manufacturers vouch, since the 1970s when the region got its first footwear manufacturers, many have wilted, but many have evolved, kept pace, united and survived.

Down the ages

Kozhikode’s footwear industries tell a lesson in history, says Sukumaran T, chairman of Nexo Footwear launched last year. “One of the first businesses to emerge around Kolathara was the match box industry. It later became plywood. We moved to making tea-chests and later gunny bags. Soon, brick industry took over and finally rubber sandals,” says Sukumaran. The popular “hawai” paved the way.

Josco’s Fisher rubber slippers still are a link to the past. Joseph Jose Kainady, third generation businessman carrying forward the legacy of his grandfather P.J. Joseph Kainady, has seen the rise and fall in business. Began in the early 1970s when rubber footwear fit well for weddings and office alike, Fischer turned a household brand. Caught up with rubber products, Joseph says, they missed out when the industry moved to newer materials. “Rubber prices shot up too. Though we started late, we are now into all kinds of footwear,” says Joseph.

VKC in its 39 years has maintained a steady graph as those running it kept a firm eye on the market. They began with producing 600 pairs of rubber sandals a day with each pair priced at Rs. 17. “Our biggest clients were the labourers from Tamil Nadu who inevitably bought these slippers when they went home,” says V. Mohammed, executive director. Rubber slippers may now be weak business, but at VKC they still run a token unit. “For the sake of nostalgia,” smiles Mohammad. “The annual loss is of 5-10 lakhs,” he adds. The moment they knew rubber won’t take them forward VKC progressively moved to sandals of RPVC (rigid polyvinyl chloride) to virgin PVC, microcellular PVC, air injected PVC, ethylene vinyl acetate (Eva), PU and now Stuck-On. They have seven manufacturing units outside Kerala. “We now have seven brands and 4,000 employees. In the past five years we have consistently recorded 50 per cent growth. We produce three lakh pairs a day and clocked an annual turnover of Rs. 890 crore from our sales in India and abroad. Sales from the Kerala market annually will be about Rs. 235 crore,” pitches in Premraj M.A., director.

Six-year-old Odyssia is a smaller establishment. Formed by experienced workers, Odyssia brings under its umbrella what were earlier separate units. They came together to be a single company on realising that remaining small compounds challenges. The story is similar at Nexo formed when seven different units came under one brand. “We united as it is easier to advertise, sell and market as one brand,” says Sukumaran.

Each brand is driven by a keen sense of its market. At Odyssia, Jishi P, managing director, vouches that they cater to the young and produce 20,000 pairs a day. “Usually the industry has three seasons, one when schools reopen, then Ramzan and Onam. Since we are big on school shoes, we never feel the pinch of off-season,” explains Jishi.

Niche area

“We largely focus on women’s footwear,” says Sukumaran. At Nexo, emphasis is on elaborate “uppers”. “Since those are hand-made, quantity produced will naturally be less,” he adds. But moving firmly with market, Sukumaran vouches it is time to move to Stuck-On. “We are opening a new unit for Stuck-On,” says the chairman of Nexo which has an annual turnover of about Rs. 60 crores. At Odyssia and Nexo, they are concentrating on markets beyond Kerala, especially South India.

Despite the strides ahead, those in the industry say, there are opportunities to be grabbed. If Kerala, till about 10 years ago, was monopolised by footwear from Delhi, that trend has reversed recently. Ninety per cent of the Kerala market is now taken by local products. Yet we have not touched our potential. “Simply because there is no comparison between demand and supply. Our production capacity is still limited,” says James Emmanuel, administrative manager at Premier Footwear.

The industry has focused firmly on the masses. “We are thinking seriously about a high-end brand,” says Premaraj. At Josco, they have taken a few steps ahead with Methiyadi, an innovated rubber sandal. Working to their strength, they created an air of exclusivity on the brand. “We have patented the product and have sold it apart from India in Italy, Spain and North America. We went about marketing it differently,” says Joseph. But those like Joseph know with the industry turning competitive only those who have foresight will survive. “We have learnt from our mistakes. We cannot compete with the present, eyes are on the future. The new customer is more fashion conscious and unless we adapt our production system it is going to be difficult. A design that was in demand for a year earlier is now out in three months,” he adds. With each brand pushing frontiers, ahead appears to be the only way.