…..and that makes him the retail raja -The Story of Kishore Biyani

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When Big Bazaar opened its doors, it also opened with it a completely new chapter for retail in India. As commonly referred to as the poster boy of Indian retail, Kishore Biyani can easily be credited of changing the way India shopped. He set a trend for many to follow. And the journey still continues….

From setting up the first Pantaloons store in Gariahat, Kolkata in August 1997 and then the first Big Bazaar in Mumbai at the High Street Phoenix Mills in 2002, Kishore Biyani has redefined a lot many rules. But as he better puts it across for us, “I based everything on one philosophy: rewrite rules but retail values. Chase your dreams but don’t compromise on your belief system.” Today, with a pan India presence, Future Group is a well-known household name. From products to insurance to real estate, the company has its wings spread far and wide. To come to think of it, end number of accolades fall short for Kishore Biyani and his empire that he has built – right from scratch that too!

The story of his journey is pretty well-known. A lot many times it has been discussed and spoken about at various seminars and conferences. We all know what led to the inception of Pantaloons. Perhaps, keeping the context of the 7th anniversary issue in mind, it is only apt then that we talk about that makes him what he is!

As with most other children belonging to a middle-class family in Indi, Biyani’s childhood was far or less on the same lines. School, friends, organizing society events, cricket and college. But what perhaps was different was his approach to all of the above.  Reminiscing the early days, Biyani shares, “We were the quintessential Indian household and watching movies was a family passion. In the evenings, our grand-father would give us lessons in Indian values and we all would assemble around him. Once a year, we were required to read the whole Ramayana and occasionally visit the Hanuman Mandir at Lohar Chawl in Mumbai, none of which I particularly enjoyed. From a fairly early age, I was completely against any religious practice or rituals and was quite open about it. I was always eager to get into an argument with my elders at the drop of a hat.”

Adds Biyani, “From the very beginning, I was obsessed with rationality. To make me do something, someone had to give me a very good reason or offer some amount of logic. May be I had read somewhere that human being are rational and that stuck on, so I never had qualms in breaking dogmatic rules. In fact, I liked being a rebel in an extremely traditional family.” For him, this attitude of his to question everything has helped him in many ways.  As he puts it, “If things are accepted the way they are ongoing, then there is little scope for anything new to come up.”

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From early on, Biyani had his goals in place, not defined to anything in particular but he was sure he had to do something different – something that would be known. His first mental mentor was Dhirubhai Ambani. Shares Biyani, “In college, we used to visit Oberoi’s Samarkand restaurant at times. The reason why I liked to visit this hotel was because I came to know that Dhirubhai Ambani came to the hotel’s health club almost other day. Even if I could get a glimpse of him, I would be overjoyed. Reliance in the early 1980s had established itself strongly. I was quite fascinated by the company and its growth. I started reading about business during my college days and Dhirubhai Ambani was my first mental mentor, my personal role model.  To me, he was a living proof of my belief that irrespective of one’s background, it was possible to scale the heights of success.” Elaborating on this, he further shares, “I did not have a mentor and most successful entrepreneurs don’t necessarily have the luxury of having one. I created  my own ‘mental’ mentors, studied various subjects ad eagerly sought knowledge. I strongly believe that there is a hard and arduous journey that one has to undertake alone.”

Having a background in Commerce, Biyani went ahead to pursue vocational training in typing, he then did a course in import and export of garments and joined a programme run by the silk manufacturers’ association – Sasmira. As he says, “At one point, I almost decided to become a chartered accountant and even cleared the preliminary exams. But then I figured that CA coursework was too specialized and not meant for me. Rather than a specialist, I wanted to be a generalist  – a jack of all trades and master of some.”

Biyani’s first brush with retailing was when as a teenager he visited the Century Bazaar store in Central Mumbai. Recounting his experience then, he shares, “It was bigger and brighter than what it is today. It had low ceilings that made it seem crowded and everything was sold over the counter, from vinyl records to apparels. The sheer size of the place and variety of merchandize got etched in my mind. It was probably then that I decided to create something similar or even better than this.” Towards the final year of his college, he started visiting his family office at Kalbadevi in Mumbai. Not too happy with the way the business was being carried out, he decided early on that he wasn’t going to continue in the family trade. As he shares, “I saw little reason in becoming the ninth member of the family to get involved in the same old routine. What I found very disagreeable in the business was the obsession with the financial control. The business was following a modified version of parta, a traditional form of accounting practiced mostly by the Marwari community in India. This system allows ibe to micro—manage, but it doesn’t help one to grow the business. And if there are only accountants in each part of the business, where are the entrepreneurs going to come from?”

Biyani categorizes entrepreneurs in three categories – creators, preservers and destroyers. For him, his father and uncles, much like most other entrepreneurs in India, were preservers. “I consider myself to be both creator and destroyer. A continuous process of change and of growth has to be there in every business. If a business doesn’t grow and evolve, it is not an enterprise at all,” shares Biyani.

With this bent of mind, Biyani went ahead to carve a niche for himself and his group across various categories and in the  bargain he was often asked – “What is your core competence?” Some companies make only cars, some make only steering wheels and some make only ball bearings. But how does a retailer sell insurance, run restaurants, manage private equity funds and charge  brands for airing their advertisements on LCD screens within his store? Explains Biyani, “The notion of core competency is no longer defined in terms of a single product or service. It has to be defined in terms of knowledge, ideas and intangible assets. Our core competency lies in understanding and delivering to Indian consumers. We wont make steel, neither will we build cars or set up large petrochemical  complexes. But wherever there is a direct customer interface, we will try to capture some values in some form.”

–          Zainab Morbiwala

As penned for STOrai 7th Ann Issue

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