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5 Pieces of Advice to Young Professionals Entering the Fashion Industry

(The following is the video and the text of the Commencement Speech by Devangshu Dutta, chief executive of Third Eyesight, at the Convocation of the batch graduating in 2019 from the National Institute of Fashion Technology, Patna, India.)

I would like to just share a few learnings from my own career. I hope some of these learnings will provide you some food for thought, and if they stick, I hope they prove valuable to you in some way in your own career.

I think as a graduate of a professional institute, there are 5 life-skills or attributes or pieces of advice that could be useful to you.

  1. Approach work in an integrative manner, not distributive: As you enter the industry, you will find that there is a tendency to specialize. Entry level roles are functionally specific. As an individual you need to make a special effort to not lose the larger perspective. As you grow in your career you will find that an ability to connect the dots and show others the bigger picture will be a more valuable skill than you can imagine today. So, if you are a designer, as about a hundred of you present here are, please spend time and effort understanding the intricacies of manufacturing, the nuances of marketing and the thrust of business development. If you are a merchandiser or a technologist, please make time to expose yourself to art, music, cinema – what might seem to you as entertainment (or even a waste of time) today will go a long way in preparing you for leadership roles, because you will be able to not only understand your own function but understand what makes the other parts of the organisation tick.
  2. Be available to others: No matter what work you do, it is never in isolation and depends on support of your colleagues and peers, within and outside the organisation. By making yourself available to others – whether to help in a professional situation or personal – you lay the foundations for relationships that will support you through your career and your life in ways that you cannot anticipate or plan. All professional success is built on foundations laid by others. The best way to express thanks for their contributions is by making yourself available to make others succeed.
  3. Learn. Learn. Never stop learning: As you graduate today, I hope you will have no illusion that you have learned everything you need for the rest of your career, and that you are set for life. The world is changing faster than ever, and so is the market and the industry. Make your skill set something that is refreshed all the time. If you don’t cultivate the hunger to learn, it is very likely that there will come a point in your career where you are feeling stuck and will not have the tools available to push yourself into a new trajectory or career orbit.
  4. Have integrity: Be honest to the work that you do, be honest to the organisation that you work for, to your colleagues, to your customers, to your suppliers, to your juniors. The word “integrity” has its roots in “intact” or “whole”. When someone lacks integrity, it is as if they have a split personality – thinking or believing one way, while behaving another way. The greater the difference between the two, the more energy you will waste. If you have integrity in life, if your thoughts, words and actions are aligned, all your energy will work in the same direction. I know this could be possibly the most difficult pieces of advice I’m asking you to follow, but I think it will pay off for you in building your career.
  5. Adopt a responsible approach towards the environment: As graduating students of NIFT you need to realise that you are becoming a part of the 2nd most polluting industry in the world after oil and gas! As India’s economic growth continues, the fashion, consumer products and retail sector are expected to grow as well. It is critical that today’s youth actually start questioning how this industry runs worldwide. Please don’t blindly accept that just because the global industry has worked in a particular way for the last 80-100 years, it is the right way. The fashion sector runs on planned obsolescence – i.e. products are planned to be discarded within a short time, even if physically and functionally there is nothing wrong with them. At a recent industry conference, I called fashion a “zombie industry” – zombies are supposed to be dead but they act as if they are alive, as they run about eating people’s brains. Don’t become another zombie in a zombie industry. Find ways to fight the waste created within and by this industry. If you can make it more sustainable, less wasteful, it is your own world that will be a better place to live in.

Thank you so much for patiently hearing me out. I hope some of the advice would have resonated with you, and will prove useful. I wish you all the very best and offer you my congratulations, on behalf of all the other alumni – welcome to the industry. Thank you!

New perspectives needed for food and agricultural growth

These are thoughts shared in an emailed interview with the AgriBusiness and Food Industry magazine (published in the November 2014 issue.)

A Perspective on the Indian market:

Our first word of advice to companies that are looking at India as an evolving and large market, is to acknowledge the fact that that it has very diverse cuisines and food cultures.

Both Indian and international companies wishing to enter this market for the first time need to understand and acknowledge that one-size certainly does not fit everyone.

The variety of finished products needed requires food companies to address smaller quantities and to have flexible production.

Therefore, suppliers of capital equipment and technology also need to be able to think about how they can make their solutions more flexible to adapt to changing market needs, and also to price them appropriately for the Indian market. Simply extending solutions that work in large, developed markets such as Western Europe and North America is not the best approach.

I would use the example of one of our clients, a manufacturer of bakery automation equipment, who have approached the market with an open mind. After initial investigations they have gone back to the drawing board and created production lines that have smaller capacity, can produce multiple products including Indian specialities, and which are techno-commercially more feasible for an Indian customer to adopt.

There is no reason to think that India’s food industry should follow exactly the same development curve as the west. The population is much larger, with significantly lower income, and needs that are far more diverse and changing far more rapidly than in most other economies. The technical and technological models for India need to be strongly focussed on four major attributes:

  • Water efficiency
  • Energy efficiency
  • Flexibility
  • Cost efficiency

Agricultural, horticultural and animal husbandry practices and technologies, as well as those in the downstream sectors such as food processing, need to perhaps even look at setting new benchmarks for accessibility and long-term sustainability.

Food processing and the Indian consumer market:

Food processing has been part of human history since we learned to transform hunted, gathered and farmed raw products into new foods through curing, cooking, culturing etc. This processing has been driven by mainly two major factors: to make the raw material into a product that is more palatable and easily consumed (for example, from raw grains to bread), or to extend the storage life of the raw material (for example, in the form of cheese, pickles, or sweets, or using cooling and freezing).

However, during the last century, processing has been driven mostly by “convenience” by providing partly or fully cooked options, to reduce the time spent by individuals in cooking and to instead apply that time to activities outside home. Social structures in India are changing, as individuals are migrating out of their home-towns to other locations within the country. The number of households is increasing dramatically, while cooking time and cooking skills are both declining. With this, out-of-home consumption as well as partially or fully-cooked packaged foods are bound to rise, leading to greater need of food processing capacities.

Also, with increasing industrialisation of food manufacturing, standards have become important both for efficiency and for safety. We’re seeing signs of such development happening in recent years in India as well – expectations of both consumers as well as regulatory authorities are higher with each passing year. The industry needs to invest proactively in better technology and processes in all areas – cultivation, handling, processing, packaging, storage and transportation – to raise the standards of hygiene, safety, traceability etc.

Food productivity needs urgent attention:

India is among the largest producers of many agricultural products. However, our yields per head of workforce, per animal, per hectare, or per litre of water consumed can be improved significantly. Not only is the population growing, but per capita consumption of most products will rise as the economic situation of each family unit changes. Better practices, technologies and know-how need to be acquired and applied to dramatically improve Indian agricultural productivity.

An interesting model of development to look at is the “golden triangle” approach followed by the Netherlands – active and intensive cooperation between the government, academic institutions and the private sector.

So far, by and large, academic institutions in India have limited themselves to “teaching” and have stayed away from actively collaborating with industry. Academic institutions and the industry typically connect only for the occasional “lecture” by senior individual from industry, or during the time of recruitment of fresh talent. Government largely limits itself to creating macro-level policies. More effective communication and coordination between these three legs could help to dramatically improve the standards in the agricultural and food sector in India and make the nation not just self-sufficient but significantly more competitive in both cost and quality of the final products.

Similarly, active collaboration within the industry itself is important to achieve combined growth, which can only happen if companies step beyond the usual industry association framework.

Local production and service of food processing equipment is an important factor:

In cases where the market is large enough, local production of the equipment should certainly be investigated because it can help to bring down the initial capital cost for customers, and also provide a quicker service and support base.

A first step that a company takes is to create a local presence, either through a distributor or agent, or by directly opening a sales and service office of its own. However, most international companies need to gain a certain degree of confidence in the market, both in terms of sustained demand and in terms of operating conditions, before they would invest in manufacturing in India, since it takes a whole different level of management commitment as well as financial involvement.

With the announcement of the government’s “Make in India” initiative, hopefully more international companies will come forward to take advantage of the changing operating environment in the country.

Golden Geese, Steel Safes

(Contributed to the BusinessWorld cover story – “What 2 Expect in 2010”, issue of January 4, 2010)

Everything that can be said and assumed about the Indian market is true at some level of granularity. Very simply, in India there is a segment for every product, an opportunity for every service, be it ever so small. But when bubbles are bursting all over, as the Noughties Decade comes to a close, the puzzle that is Indian consumer market also warrants a fresh look.

For most of the Noughties Decade India has seen Generation-C, the “Choice” generation, coming of age. They have moved over from being “secondary customers” consuming off their parents’ incomes, to entering the work-force and becoming customers in their own right.

It may sound trite, but Gen-C customers have grown up with many models of 2-wheelers and 4-wheelers and colour television with multiple channels. They have many more career options and many more opportunities in each career. Not only have they grown up on a diet of choice, they have also grown up with much higher confidence about the future, about their place in the world and what they can expect. And they have infected the outlook of generations older than them as well with a similar confidence.

Therefore, for most of the decade, it has been a distinctly rosy picture for consumer goods marketers and retailers. Business plans routinely expected 20-50% annualised growth, and businesses even delivered those figures on some basis or the other. Organizations as diverse as retailers and management consultants were inspired by India’s age-old image as the Bird of Gold. Supermarket chains mushroomed like never before, department stores and speciality retailers grew their footprints, quick-service and casual dining expanded covers, while electronics, durables, leisure companies, and car brands all counted India among their hottest markets.

Product off-take reflected this outlook. Amongst the FMCG sector, while basic items such as the bath and shower segment demonstrated a steady annualised growth of about 7%, premium cosmetics galloped at almost 20% a year. While the relatively mature 2-wheeler market grew at just over 7.5% annually between 2002-03 and 2008-09, the 4-wheeler passenger vehicle market demonstrated growth of almost 14% a year in the same period.

All this was before the recent rude interruption.

A speed-breaker began showing up in the consumer market in late-2007 and grew larger through 2008. Once the global financial markets melted down in late-2008, media sentiment turned acutely negative about the Indian market as well. And, eventually, with uncertainty prevailing around the world, consumer spending in India did take a hit. Consumers cut back on the frequency of purchases or traded down.

On the trade side, retail businesses began acknowledging that stores were performing below plan and went into rationalisation mode. For branded suppliers, where some of the growth had come from stuffing the pipeline and filling new shelves, wholesale order books became thinner.

Yet, as painful as the economic scenario might have appeared, the Indian consumer market has shown remarkable resilience. Demand in smaller cities and towns has remained robust. Regional brands, especially, found plenty of opportunity to grow in markets and geographical regions where they were under-penetrated or absent.

And as the mood lifted through the latter half of 2009, consumer demand clearly moved back up. The speed at which the demand rebounded would suggest that the Indian market was relatively sheltered from the global economic storm.

However, there are some critical differences to understand.

On the one hand, Gen-C’s confidence shook for the first time – a generation that has only seen upward mobility, witnessed job cuts and salary freezes or declines even if only second-hand. Comparisons with the Great Depression may be exaggerated but it is a scenario they can now imagine as a possibility. At least three new professional academic batches have or will have moved into the job market under these sober conditions. On the other hand, tremendous inflation in basic costs supports some amount of uncertainty about the future. The fact that many of the Gen-C would have just begun or would be about to begin families serves to only heighten such anxiety.

So, let’s recognise two immutable facts about the Indian consumer market in the current environment.

First: that the ancestral “steel safes” are back, at least figuratively if not literally. Customers do want to save more for now. And if they are spending, they want to feel that they are extracting far more value than the price they are exchanging across the counter, value that will last long after the transaction at the store. In recent years, this inherent ‘value orientation’ of the Indian consumer was neglected by many. Now every product, service or brand must aim to deliver this sustainable value, and demonstrate the value repeatedly.

Secondly, each business needs to look at the lifetime value of a customer if it can. Rather than cutting the golden bird open and trying to extract all the golden eggs at once, one needs need to keep the bird well-fed, happy and healthy, and enjoy its rewards over several years. Rather than creaming the market, pricing, branding and distribution need to be structured for a sustainable relationship with the customer.

Some businesses will work better than others in this market, and strategies will need to be adapted. A lifecycle approach may handy in identifying the business segments which might meet the steel safe criterion, or the golden goose criterion, or both.

The first segment that comes to mind is weddings. Wedding expenditure is seen as a “social investment” for both the families, and the actual items bought are an investment into the couple’s future together. So, bridal trousseaux and wedding wardrobes, wedding arrangers and catering, and household goods provide significantly more tangible and intangible value than the money spent.

Similarly, “first child” isn’t usually a segment in any marketing handbook, but should be. The couple’s first born, especially if the baby is the first in its generation will usually get a disproportionate amount of attention and spending on clothing and utilities. A baby’s growth into a child, of course, can provide a relationship and marketing opportunity that can last for years, but the first 2-3 years are specifically valuable. What’s more, given India’s demographic dividend in the form of a sustained under-30 age group, baby products have a sustained and growing value as a market.

As the child grows, there are clear indicators of current and future value that can drive purchases. While base schooling is an essential expenditure, extra-classes and tuitions are a high-value discretionary investment that parents are choosing to make. Sports, on the other hand, however essential they may be to a child’s development are often seen as a distraction. That is, unless the child is attending sports coaching and the parents have an eye on helping the child create a career from it – in which case, a coach who is apparently good, branded equipment and kit are definitely worth investing in. So a cricket coaching franchise might just be the ticket to fortune, while a toy company may struggle. Some may decry the decline in art, craft, philosophy and fundamental sciences, but these are not on the list of priority of most parents. In the short to medium term, parents would continue to disproportionately push their wards into academic disciplines that are seen to develop marketable skills and pay well. Expect continued growth in the engineering, medical and management education market, but also in other vocational disciplines.

On the other hand, everything is not an investment for the future. Present comforts may also provide extra value, through convenience.

Some of these comforts may be as small as enjoying out-of-home exotic meals (pizza and pasta still qualify as exotic for the bulk of the population). Or if eating out looks out of budget, ready-to-eat and ready-to-cook meals are an easy substitute. Jubilant, Yum, McDonald’s, Haldiram, Sarvana’s, Nirula’s and the thousands of other casual dining and snack food chains have a long clear highway of growth ahead, as do snacks and packaged food companies such as Nestle, Britannia and ITC.

Brown goods and white goods that offer comfort and convenience – coolers, water heaters, convectors, air-conditioners and kitchen gadgets – continue their onward march, despite the huge shortfall in electricity. Even if the big brands struggle with their price points and overheads, regional brands and private labels will continue growing strongly in these segments.

Health is another area for significant investment. With prevalence of lifestyle-ailments, from stiff necks to high blood pressure, basic pharmacists to cardiovascular specialists are all in demand. Anticipate significant growth to continue in over-the-counter medication, medical devices, as well as clinical and hospital care.

At the other end of the scale, with decent and adequate public transport lacking in most cities, we can expect personal vehicles to increase multi-fold, despite the small blip in 2008-09. About 60 million 2-wheelers and over 10 million passenger vehicles have already been added during the decade, and the growth trend looks set to resume from 2010, unless there are significant oil price or vehicle taxation shocks delivered by the government.

And as consumer confidence resurges, more overt displays or personal spends will return as well, including apparel, footwear, home products, accessories, vacations, fitness and recreation, but we would expect them to follow behind the higher priority “safe” or “geese” segments.

Finally, the one thing that marketers in any product need not be really concerned about whether there is a future in this market. Even, Hindustan Unilever, a mature FMCG company with very high distribution penetration built over decades, still counts less than 60% Indians as its customers.

Surely most companies have a much longer road ahead before they need to be worried about their markets becoming saturated.