21 June 2021 12:19:28 IST

Malathy Sriram writes poems and short stories for children and adults, as well as book reviews and articles of general interest. She is a post-graduate in English Literature from Ethiraj College for Women, Chennai. Her work has been published in Indian Express, Deccan Herald, Mirror and Femina. She has edited website content and is the editor of The Small Supplement, an online magazine for children with articles on history, science, arts and culture, sports, technology, companies and brands, mythology and short stories. Reading, teaching English, listening to music (all genres) and singing complete her oeuvre.

Ramraj Cotton, wrapped in comfort and culture

The company’s success hinges upon understanding customer needs and making innovation a top priority

Ramraj Cotton is reportedly the first company to receive the ISO 9001:2008 certification from German TÜV SÜD for veshti, banian, and shirt, was founded by K R Nagarajan. The man who made the humble dhoti a ‘brand’ to reckon with was born into a Tirupur-based agricultural family. He showed signs of entrepreneurship as early as his school days. Despite the lack of money, he convinced the publisher of a newly-launched children’s magazine ‘ Balamitra ’ to make him an agent for selling the magazines in his region.

In 1976, he joined a small shop selling dhotis / veshtis . While he spent quite a bit of time travelling (especially in Rayalaseema, where demand was high) for sales, the job also helped him interact with weavers, who would arrive with woven cloth and wait the whole day to be paid a pittance for their labour. Their abject poverty made a deep impact on him and in many ways, helped shape his future business.

Early beginnings

Nagarajan left his job after about a year and a half to start a dhoti business with three friends. But finding his share of the capital for this venture proved tough; the business failed and he was left with unsold stock worth more than ₹80,000. He hit the streets of Rayalaseema again to sell dhotis .

Ramraj Cotton Founder K R Nagaraj

He was successful in disposing of the same and in 1983, started his own business and called it Ramraj Khadi Traders. The name ‘Ramraj’ combined his father’s name Ramaswamy and his own name. The new firm had just one table and chair in a small room and the proprietor travelled extensively by cycle to sell his products.

The years spent in learning the dhoti trade had made Nagarajan realise one thing: the products were of poor quality — even to the extent of tearing suddenly — and hence cheap. This was why the weavers also got paid so little. But demand remained high, with people willing to travel with extra dhotis to replace torn ones.

What if the quality were to be improved? Naturally, the price would increase. But would people be willing to pay higher prices for better quality dhotis?

In 1986, Nagarajan made his decision to start manufacturing dhotis himself. ‘Quality without compromise’ was his mantra. He was reportedly inspired by the example of Mahatma Gandhi who wore a dhoti everywhere he went. But compassion for the weavers’ plight was another and more important reason.

It was a period of drought and farmers had been hit hard. Nagarajan approached relatives, friends and others in the farming community and persuaded them to manufacture dhotis for him. To improve the quality of the dhotis, he sourced cotton of a much-higher count.

This naturally resulted in the price almost doubling. Determined to pay the weavers more for their products — so that they could have three meals a day and even afford shirts — he pitched his story to several merchants, promising high-quality dhotis at higher prices. He outlined his basic reason for the same and offered to buy back unsold stock.

After a week, when he set out to get a feedback, the very first retailer whom he had approached asked him to send more stock as people liked his dhotis and were willing to pay the higher price.

Making dhoti mainstream

There was no stopping Nagarajan after this. In 1987, the name of the company was changed to Ramraj Cotton (Ramraj is the trademark of ENES Textile Mills). By 1990, the brand was beginning to make inroads into the public consciousness.

But the dhoti was still not an ‘apparel of choice.’ Most retailers kept them stocked on the lowest, unseen shelves of their shops. Customers bought them only for home wear and festival/ marriage occasions and preferred western wear for moving about outside their homes.

This did not discourage Nagarajan; it just meant that he was moving into the next stage of the battle — changing the image of the dhoti and creating a premium market for it as a ‘respectable’ and accepted mode of dressing.

But the actual decision to step up advertising and change the perception of the dhoti was made when he and his friends were invited to attend a wedding function at a five-star hotel. His friends, who came in western wear, gained admittance; but since he was in a dhoti, the security personnel denied him entrance.

This led to two important outcomes. First, Nagarajan decided that from then onwards, he would switch permanently to dhoti -wearing at all times and at all places, and he would ‘walk the talk’. Second, it led to the aggressive ad campaign in 1995-97 that showed men occupying the top positions in their respective fields clad in dhotis and being received with respect and fanfare everywhere and by everyone. The jingle ‘Salute Ramrajukku salute’ that accompanied became extremely popular.

As sales shot up, Nagarajan also realised that he would have to identify pain points among dhoti-wearers and correct them. The black belt that several men wore to secure the dhoti was replaced by a white belt that would not be visible through the shirt. Later, other innovations — like Velcro for fastening the dhotis and pockets in dhotis for keeping wallets/mobile phones — targeted youngsters uncomfortable with the wrap.

Rapid expansion

In the decades that followed, he expanded into manufacturing white cotton shirts, hosiery and lingerie. Today, the product range covers more than 2500 varieties in dhotis, shirts, t-shirts, shorts, track pants, knitwear, fabric (cotton, linen, silk), accessories (handkerchiefs, belts, towels) and kids and women’s Collections. KN 95 masks offering 95 per cent filtration are also available. The popular brands from the Ramraj stable include the premium, costly Minister shirts (with very high cotton count, three-ply weave, and mild transparency), which are quite in-demand among politicians, especially ministers; Linen Park (shirts and fabrics); Little Stars (kids’ dhotis and shirts); and GenXT (adjustable pocket dhotis).

Despite the expanding portfolio of products, over 95 per cent of the revenue is said to come from the sale of dhotis and shirts. Sales are highest in Kerala, where dhotis are preferred everyday wear.The company’s turnover was around ₹1,300 crores in 2020-21.

Ramraj Cotton’s manufacturing units in Erode, Tirupur, Madurai, Coimbatore, Sankagiri and Bangalore house the latest technological equipment. Windmillsgenerate eco-friendly and economical power for these units. The company has a network of more than 140 showrooms across South India (including 105 company-owned outlets) and tie-ups with 15,000 retailers across the country.

Apart from ads aimed at promoting the use of dhotis for all occasions, the company has launched the ‘ Vetti vaaram ’ (Dhoti week) campaign for luring youngsters and empowering weavers. Nearly 50,000 weaver families are supported by Ramraj Cotton. Cricketer Ashwin Ramachandran and film actors Jayaraman, Rana Daggubati and Venkatesh are brand ambassadors for Ramraj’s products.

Ramraj Cotton has set its sights on north India, planning to introduce a line of Kurta-Pyjama sets. The company’s products are exported to Singapore, Mauritius, Dubai, Malaysia and Sri Lanka. It’s e-commerce platform is doing well and it also has a robust presence on Facebook, Twitter,YouTube, and LinkedIn.