01 Oct 2020 16:09 IST

Is it back to the Future for Biyani?

Kishore Biyani built a unique retail empire, but the group spread itself too thin with a multitude of formats

The last few weeks have been full of news of the acquisition of the Future Group by Reliance Retail and what it means for the retail sector, logistics and warehousing, not to speak of competition like D-Mart and the consumers like you and me. Since brand-comm had the good fortune of being the PR agency for the Future Group for several years and I have nothing but the highest admiration for the founder Mr Kishore Biyani, or KB as he’s fondly referred to, I thought I’d write this piece and if it sounds like criticism it must be viewed as the anguish of a cricket fan when his favourite batsman fails in a World Cup final!

Remember Sachin and Johannesburg? In fact, my overriding emotion was a sense of regret at “what might have been” similar to another client of ours, BPL, which ruled the roost in the eighties and nineties in consumer electronics till the less-fancied and largely underestimated Korean companies stole a march and consumer hearts after liberalisation.

From brands to retail

KB started as a brand marketeer with his brand of trousers called Pantaloons which later became a formidable retail brand. He had his origins in the East of India and even today Big Bazaar, his flagship brand, has a dominant presence in that part of the world. While brands continued to engage him, I think he soon realised that retail was the heady excitement that he craved.

 

 

 

 

 

Big Bazaar was a truly path-breaking format starting with a name that might have offended the anglicised purist! In fact, it did cause a problem when he housed fashion under the same roof and morphed it to FBB! KB understood the Indian consumer like no other. His theories shocked the sophisticated marketeer when he said that Indians loved crowds and wanted the reassurance of crowds breathing down each other’s necks at the store! He realised that Indians had nothing much to do on Independence Day and Republic Day and coined the sabse sasta din!

I remember being in Delhi during such a time and the crowd at 5 am reminded me of Tirumala! A true visionary and a great discoverer of Indian consumer insights! And, yet, here too the seeds of discontent were sown when instead of focusing on a type of retail that worked, one heard criticism of the, at times, reckless diversification across a multitude of formats whereby the group spread itself too thin and, of course, the challenge of going into areas like insurance and branding. Sometimes business and life can give you a false sense of confidence when you feel you can do no wrong and everything that you touch can turn to gold. Sadly, management theories like “core competence” and concepts like “stick to your knitting” come back to bite you when things go awry.

A one-man PR army

To say that KB was anything short of the darling of the media would be an error in judgement. Media sought him out and he gave his point of view. I remember one particular instance, and coincidentally the question was about Reliance’s entry into retail, and what it might mean for him and he said something to the effect that it’s better to be killed by an Indian competitor than a multinational! Clearly, his stories were page 1 and like Richard Branson he knew the difference between what would make it to page 1 and what would end up as page 3! And, I remember telling my clients that there was a lesson or two to be learnt about handling media from the great man. Be accessible, have a point of view and be your normal self.

So what’s the learning for us from industry?

It’s always easier to give advice than to follow it, but some obvious learnings seem to emerge when you look at companies like these, BPL and Jet Airways. All are classic cases of what might have been.

● Do not think you are as good as your press releases

● Stick to your knitting

● Conserve cash for your main business, diversifications can hurt you

● And, yet, try to build a legacy

And this is precisely what KB did in creating a style of retail that was unique to him. He had the vision that thousands of intelligent, talented, ambitious employees followed and built scores of admirers who wrote about him, invested in his companies and admired him for his qualities as a professional and a human being.

I cherish my learnings from him and his companies and am sure that this sentiment would be shared by several others who had the good fortune of having business dealings with him.

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