After leaving his footprints in the export market, P.V. Gopalakrishna Bachi hopes to establish a foothold in domestic retail. T. Krithika Reddy talks to the man behind Bachi Shoes and footwear chain Language
From tedious balance sheets to breezy fashion pages. From fact-filled business sections to photo-packed lifestyle columns… if adventure is the name of the game, P.V. Gopalakrishna is one of those who play it best. How else would you describe India's largest exporter of kids' footwear taking the plunge into the choppy waters of domestic retail?
Riding a Triumph Rocket III from his home in Injambakkam to Language in quieter-than-usual Rutland Gate, Bachi zooms in well ahead of interview time, despite the slackness that goes with Sundays. In jeans and crinkled shirt, the six-footer's presence towers over racks showcasing distress-print shoes for men, spindly stilettos for women and non-toxic, candy-hued footwear for kids.
Having easily slipped into his new role as retailer, he says, “Language is a learning lab. It's a model that's being tweaked constantly. We don't want to be another shoe store. It's about brand building and creating a new idiom in footwear design.”
To Bachi, Language (co-promoted by Akber and Akther of another shoe export major Khizaria) completes the circle in a list of businesses that covers tannery, shoe components, uppers and finished products (under the banner of Bachi Shoes India and Euro Shoe Components based in and around Ranipet-Ambur-Vaniyambadi). “Not many from the export line switch to retail. But to me, retail is imperative to growth. Besides, I've always felt the best that's being manufactured here is exported. I want quality products to reach the local market — at least some in our own brand name!”
A student of shoe technology at the Schuh Fach Schule in Pirmasens, Germany, Bachi's sole-searching journey began soon after he completed schooling in MCC. “The family was into making shoe uppers. My dad was looking at adding value to the products when I stepped in as a trainee. Specialisation in Germany, followed by extensive hands-on training in Europe, helped me. When I returned in 1998, I saw the near-vacant kids' shoe segment as an opportunity in exports. So we focussed on product development and increasing our manufacturing base. We had to corporatise operations and have a razor-sharp focus on design. It worked. Soon we established ourselves in the European market with a wish list of clients — Super Fit from Austria, Elefanten from Germany, Stones & Bones from Belgium, Start Rite from England and Kickers from France. The key to success is creating products with intricacies that can't be replicated. We had a headstart in technology and design. And as you know, it's not easy passing stringent testing standards in Europe.”
As the conversation progresses, you understand there's more to a kid's shoe than just looks. “To me, business wasn't about numbers. It was and is about the product itself. I've always wanted to perfect the art of achieving that unique balance between form and function. Parents often ask for ‘party' shoes for kids. They don't understand that supple feet require ergonomically designed, comfortable footwear in non-toxic material.”
A finely-tuned business machine, Bachi's business steamrolled ahead — from a turnover of Rs.15 crore in 1998-99 to Rs. 165 crore in 2009-10, the production capacity rose to 8,000 to 9,000 pairs of shoes a day. In a major development in December 2010, Tata International Limited acquired a 76 per cent stake in Bachi Shoes India and Euro Shoe Components. Does that mean disengaging himself from Bachi Shoes? “No way. The Bachi family continues to hold the remaining stakes, and there's no change in my role as MD. It's a significant move towards growth. It's a part of our plans to expand our manufacturing capacity and acquire international brands,” he says with can-do optimism. “Every business grows and reaches a milestone. To take things to the next level involves strategic decisions. Bachi has done exceedingly well. With TIL's acquisition, our dreams of making it a bigger player could be realised. It's work in progress. It's not about retiring in my 40s!”
A shrewd player, TIL's acquisition might be the game-changing move in Bachi's domestic designs as well. Upcoming are White Walls in at least 10 Westside outlets. (White is a premier brand of shoes for men created by Language.) “We are also looking at working with Tata's TASHI to market high-end shoes.”
In a move to build home-grown brands, Language has already introduced (besides White) Design by Language and Evolv by Language (marketed through the new concept store Evolv). “We also showcase a host of foreign brands for adults and kids such as Miss Sixty, Staccato, Super Fit, and Stones and Bones. After Chennai, we've set up shop on upmarket Vittal Mallya Road in Bangalore. Our next stop is Hyderabad. In the North, we are looking at opening in malls.”
Having jumped feet first into the business decades ago, Bachi reminisces, “We've come a long way since our ‘rubber chappal' days. From providing mere protection to making a major statement, footwear has evolved. Men are getting adventurous and looking beyond the monotonous tan-taupe-black scheme. Women have become more fastidious in their style choices. Footwear is no longer about age — it's about attitude.”
FEET ON GROUND
As president of the Indian Shoe Federation, Bachi says, “India is a very small player in the world market. But there's potential to grow exponentially. The fact is that most leather businesses are family-run. That's one of the reasons we can't scale up operations. Factories need to fan out to interior areas instead of being concentrated in one or two places because they are huge employment generators — particularly for women. As a federation, one of our goals is to sensitise members to creating brands and entering retail. We have immense potential to become a design powerhouse.”
My Favourites? Alexander Mcqueen for design whims, Boss for class and Hogan for superior quality.
When choosing shoes:
Check if footwear material is natural and breathable
Harmful toxins could cause severe allergies
Sometimes, women compromise on comfort for the sake of style — that's wrong.
Cleaning footwear is as important as cleaning feet!
For kids, avoid footwear with unnecessary add-ons and plastic decoration. They have a knack of plucking them out and putting them in the mouth
A bike buff, Bachi has 15 flamboyant vehicles – some at his home in Injambakkam and others in his factory at Ranipet. Besides the Triumph Rocket, my collection includes a Sunbeam S7, Indian Pony and Honda CB 1000 R.