Company boss Sushanto Dey, a third-generation businessman, reveals how he steered the leading leather footwear company to establish a pan-India presence and win over the hearts of Chennaites.
By Debanjoli Nandi
When Sushanto Dey took up the reins of a section of his family business of footwear and accessories from his father Sekhar Dey, it was already a well-known name in eastern and northern India, with its history dating back to the 1950s, when a young Bengali man, through hard work and perseverance, worked towards his dream of making quality leather footwear accessible to the common man in newly independent India.
Sushanto’s grandfather Suresh Chandra Dey had established the first Sreeleathers store at Sakchi market in Jamshedpur in 1952, a 100% ‘swadeshi’ success story that was the dream of a freedom fighter-turned-entrepreneur. The family business witnessed tremendous growth over the following decades. However, like many family-run businesses, there was a split in the family in the later years, and leadership of individual stores changed hands in the ensuing decades.
Born and brought up in Jamshedpur, Sushanto Dey was groomed for a substantial role in the family business from an early age, and the rigours of managing a successful brand in the highly competitive Indian retail space forged the third-generation businessman.An alumnus of Loyola School in Jamshedpur, Dey had started training in business in 1998, and after being armed with a degree in business administration from Western Michigan University, USA, he took charge of the brand's second store at Bistupur in Jamshedpur. “My grandfather’s ambition was to make quality shoes for the common man,” says Dey, who currently runs the show across Sreeleathers showrooms in Jharkhand, Bihar, and Odisha. The brand's probity is beyond question and is guided by the foundational mantra of 'world class, right price' products for Indians.
Dey was greatly inspired by his father and grandfather who had held firm to their ethics and principles, and the challenge, for him, was to come out of his comfort zone of east India and expand the reach of the iconic brand beyond known realms.
“When I completed my bachelor's degree in business administration from Western Michigan University and came back to India, my family wanted me to explore South India for expansion. I started looking at options, including Bangalore and Hyderabad. In Chennai, what I noticed was many people mostly walked barefoot. Wearing footwear items was still not popular here. This struck me, and I saw it as an opportunity to build my business. I started everything from scratch in Chennai. My idea was to source shoes and accessories and sell them locally. My footwear items were an instant hit, as there was no one in the same business at that point in time. People loved our products and kept coming back to shop with us. The initial 2-3 years was our period of struggle, and there has been no looking back,” Dey recalls.
Dey had received extensive hands-on training in the practicalities of running a business for 10-12 years before he opened his first store on South Usman Road in Chennai in 2012. “The challenge was to make my brand stand tall in a city where I had had no presence before,” says Dey.
But what prompted him to choose Chennai among all other major business hubs in southern India?
“Chennai has a lot of potential, as far as talent goes. It being a port city, I thought perhaps it would be a great idea to establish a base here. Chennai is also a great centre for leather research, and the technical know-how among artisans is very high here. There is also a lot of investment in machinery,” says the 43-year-old businessman.
Dey goes back in time and tells us how Sreeleathers captured the hearts of people in Tamil Nadu. “The journey from Jamshedpur to Chennai has been truly rewarding, and we are eternally thankful to the people of this beautiful state Tamil Nadu, who have accepted us gracefully.
”Establishing a business in Chennai was no mean feat. Dey’s business not only fostered the culture of wearing leather shoes and sandals among the common people but also played a key role in transforming the stationery market in the South Usman road area of T Nagar into a footwear and leather market, as following the success of Sreeleathers, several competitors popped up in the area.
Today, there is a wide variety of quality footwear and accessories available at the T Nagar and the Purasawalkam showroom of Sreeleathers, catering to the demands of the people.
“I have a simple policy. First, I buy out a property and remodel it into a showroom, and I did the same for our Chennai outlets too. This was the reason why Covid could not affect us much. There was no pressure of paying rent. And this also helps us keep the prices of products down. We also encourage our franchise partners to own their property and not function on borrowed money," asserts Dey, who has licensed numerous Sreeleathers franchisees across the country.
“No matter the location, our brand will always strive to maintain the sanctity of our tagline of world class products offered at the right price. We take inspiration from my grandfather who believed in serving his countrymen. We assign high priority to quality assurance while making sure the products are pocket-friendly. Our products start at anywhere between Rs. 170 and Rs. 200, and we cater to people of all age groups and backgrounds. Our idea is to sell products at 50% of market price, if not less than that,” shares Dey, elaborating on the quality assurance process that underpins the success of the business.
"We strive to maintain the highest quality in all our products. After manufacturing, the first batch of items first reaches our showroom at Bistupur (Jamshedpur) or T Nagar (Chennai) where we examine the quality of the products. Once they pass the quality test, we order in bulk for all our showrooms. Various companies approach us with their products. Either we buy the items directly, or we give a design for them to make the same for us and deliver the products.”
Not involved in direct manufacturing, the brand sources all of its products from across India. “All our products are sourced locally. Our USP is our enormous showrooms that offer an ocean of products. Footwear items, bags, leather belts, leather jackets, suitcases, wallets, leather portfolio bags, you name it, we have you covered. All your footwear and leather needs are met under one roof. Although we are mostly known as a footwear brand, 40% of our sales come from the accessories we sell," smiles Dey.
The boss of the iconic pan-Indian brand beams with pride as he talks about his young and vibrant team that supports the business across diverse states. “We started out in Chennai with 10 employees at our flagship store in T Nagar in 2012. Today, this store boasts a considerable client base comprising people from various walks of life. A lot of people from the northern states of India, who come to Tamil Nadu for medical purposes, bureaucrats, and foreign nationals, who come to the city for training and education, visit our store in T Nagar. Around 30% of our customers in our T Nagar outlet comprise this large diaspora of people who come from outside of Tamil Nadu. Our Purasawalkam outlet, which I founded in 2017, is mainly visited by local people", notes Dey.
Dey aspires to widen his brand’s presence further across the country. "Talks are on about entering additional market spaces in southern India. Right now we are focusing on strengthening our digital presence that we believe will help us double our sales over the next couple of years. After staying shut for three months during the Covid first wave last year, we chalked out a plan to revamp our business and launched our website [ https://sreeleathersonline.com/ ], and the response has been phenomenal till date.”“We are on a hiring spree right now and are currently expanding our digital team in both Jharkhand and Tamil Nadu," says Dey, noting that his wife Purajini Dey spearheads the brand's e-commerce venture.
Talking about growth and sustainability plans for the next 5 years, Dey says, "considering the current economic situation of rising costs, we would try to streamline administrative procedures of our businesses even more, and work towards reducing our overheads. I want to be even more aggressive in terms of pricing our products. I want to continue selling slippers for Rs. 200 for the next 10 years at least.”
Taking up the baton of a prestigious family business is no cakewalk, and Dey has been an inspiration for many young businessmen in the country. A father with big dreams in his eyes, Dey has already started grooming his 14-year-old son, who he wants to see as the future face of the brand.