It happens every single time. Even today when I look at that little store near Churchgate station in Mumbai, it brings back fond memories of the Saturday mornings I spent having my fill of the adventures of Richie Rich, Phantom and Tintin. I was in my teens and I enjoyed the exchange between the characters of an imaginary world. Within a couple of years, I discovered James Hadley Chase and I was hooked on to the intricate plots complete with unexpected twists and turns.
What interested me the most was how people behaved in different situations. That was also the time when I had turned into a rebel of sorts. And I’d even end up arguing a lot with my father. I lived in a typical Marwari joint family then and an uncle who was witness to my change in behaviour during those years once advised me, “Beta, your father will not change at 50. You will have to change.” That had a significant impact on me, which ingrained the need to being open to change, very early on in my life. I soon discovered that I would often get bored by status quo and that has always pushed me to try something different.
The same uncle, who gave me that insight was my role model. I used to keenly observe his ability to convince people in favour of his viewpoint. I must have been just 20 or 21, but even then I knew that convincing his six siblings to agree on something was tricky. Chacha wasn’t just a good decision maker, he excelled at building consensus. In many ways, although he wasn’t the eldest, he was in charge of our family business of fabric and clothing.
And he wasn’t the only family member who taught me a life lesson or two. My grandparents, their six sons, including my father and then my aunts and cousins, we all shared a small apartment in a building aptly called ‘Jeevan Vihar’ in Malabar Hill. I was always intrigued by the fact that a bunch of individuals, who were very different in their thinking could live together in such a small space!
The dynamics of human relationships was on full display here. It taught me all about dealing with everyone’s likes, dislikes, greed and anger. I could not have asked for a better learning experience, where skilful negotiation was needed at every step. In reality, this is what has helped me in business. After all, every business deal involves negotiation but always with a human being on the other side.
Other than this, there are several other advantages of living in a joint family. Education is never of great importance and that often came to the rescue of a mediocre student like me. I was more interested in gully cricket. As kids, we’d place bets on these extremely competitive matches and winning was the most important thing for me. Till today my elder brother Vijayji ribs me on how accepting defeat was the most difficult thing for me.
Though I did everything from manufacturing stonewash jeans to setting up Pantaloons in the mid-1990s, the biggest moment of my career was in 2006. And it came to me on a day my mind was not focused on work. It was 7.30 am on the 26th of January and the holiday calm at home was interrupted by a call from Sadashiv Nayak. He was the head of operations for the western region then. It was the first time he called that early and I knew it had to be something out of the ordinary.
“We have a long queue outside the Big Bazaar store in Lower Parel,” he excitedly informed me. That was the situation half an hour before the store was to open. In less than five minutes, similar calls came in from Gurgaon, Bengaluru and Kolkata. I already knew that my idea to offer rock-bottom prices on Republic Day would work, but the scale at which it did was truly something else.
I had to see the story playing out for myself, and I decided to get to the outlet in Lower Parel’s Phoenix Mills. The scene I witnessed was nothing short of a war zone. An outlet that had a few thousand customers on a regular day now had 10,000 people inside and hundreds more waiting outside! While I managed to slip in with some difficulty, there were customers bribing the guards to enter the store. The more tactful guys would get inside under the pretext of using the washroom and then would quietly get into the store. It was pandemonium to say the least. And everything from basmati rice to DVD players and television sets disappeared in no time.
We had to call the police and engage in crowd management. The television channels had a field day with this story being as important as the parade in Delhi. We decided to extend the sale by two days and customers continued to pour in. Against an expected target of 26 crore (to coincide with the date of the national holiday), we ended up making 30 crore. I was over the moon. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime moment for a businessman and the feeling was hard to describe. And though we managed to make the annual sabse sasta din sale a success every year since then, the first year was a special milestone.
The idea of getting a larger share of the consumer’s wallet was always at the back of my mind. With Pantaloons, we had less than 10%. And I wanted that figure to be 50%, after all being ambitious comes easily to me. It was not the first time that people around me thought of me as foolish. However, what they didn’t know was that I was already planning something big. With the consumer wallet issue being my biggest obsession, I travelled across the country to find out how to achieve what seemed so elusive then. After six months of having criss-crossed the country, I found myself in Chennai in September 2000. After a mandatory tiffin serving of idli and filter coffee in the evening, I decided to explore the shopping haven called T Nagar.
I simply followed the crowd that took me to a place teeming with people — Ranganathan Street. I had never seen so many shops in such close proximity to one another. Most of the people were headed to a place called Saravana Stores. Spread across five floors and selling everything from kitchen utensils to clothes and jewellery, discovering this place made me realise that I had found my answer.
Families spent a long time here and it was astonishing to see how the retail chain managed that kind of size and scale. Just how could anyone do so much out of one store? That question bothered me constantly. Utensils was the biggest business with clothing and food coming right after. Not a single customer left without purchasing what he was looking for. And people did not mind squeezing themselves through stacks of plastic buckets or walking past workers breaking for lunch. To me, it was a surreal experience. I’d never been on a pilgrimage before but a trip to Saravana certainly felt like one and I wasn’t in a hurry to forget the experience.
Here was a local brand that not only questioned but disproved everything that modern retail stood for. It was in sync with my own approach to life as a non-conformist. My team and I ended up spending several hours at different times of the day at Saravana. And we were convinced that we needed a mass store where parents, children and grandparents came together. That big outing would combine shopping, snacking and family time. We used that learning to great effect when Big Bazaar was conceived. The day the first outlet opened in October 2001 in Kolkata, I said a quiet thank you to Saravana.
This is the first of a two-part series. You can read part 2 here.