I see a large whiteboard, with a long to-do list, and a small desk, through my camera. On the side there is a double bed. The room seems rather poorly lit. This is the head office of Pankaj Vermani, based in Noida, CEO and co-founder of the lingerie brand Clovia. “It is a guest bedroom transformed into a workspace. I often end up sleeping here, which is not a good sign, ”says the 43-year-old. He’s been working here since lockdown last year.
Much like their product line, which is usually not visible to viewers, what is not immediately visible through the camera is more interesting. This is a room a few meters from the guest room, where Vermani’s wife and co-founder, Neha Kant works. With a larger desk, printer, and bra swatches scattered all over the place, it offers a better working arrangement than Vermani’s compact table. “I had a very interesting ‘cave man’, and Neha took it over. I kind of got kicked out of my room, ”he laughs, giving me a quick tour.
Vermani is an archetypal software engineer – a graduate of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) -Delhi in Computer Applications – and a serial entrepreneur, having started several businesses before founding Clovia in 2015 with his wife and designer Suman Chowdhury. of lingerie. The company claims to have three million users and an enviable footprint in Tier II and III cities. Despite taking a heavy toll on its offline retail stores during current and past closures, Vermani says it was profitable, in EBITDA level, for the past year, supported by high gross margins and a product line. expanded, which includes loungewear, sleepwear, maternity wear as well as covid-19 essentials like PPE coveralls and masks.
The bra pile begs the question: How does a tactile business migrate to the virtual world? In two words: Darwinian adaptability.
“This past March was probably the lowest I have ever been in my life. It was just the culmination of too many things. The cash flow stopped completely, we were in a very difficult situation as an organization. In the first wave we weren’t even ready, we didn’t know what that meant. Stress in business, stress in life, worrying about your people, worrying about your family. It was just chaos, ”Vermani recalls.
The company responded by setting up three teams: one to deal with immediate cash flow, another to keep customers engaged, and a third, longer-term task force to plan for the end of the lockdown.
“It worked really well for us. We were able to generate a lot of capital, put it back in the business. And the last two quarters have been literally unprecedented for us. We have seen growth of almost 15% per month on average over the past four and a half months, ”he says.
The infrastructure has adapted to the new reality. For example, a team of runners now transports samples of new designs between sales, production, and design teams for approval because joint in-person meetings cannot be arranged. Quality assurance, production and merchandising teams continue to make factory visits, in a controlled manner, following all protocols and standards, and only in case of safety, he says.
Vermani has adapted his leadership style when working from home. He found he was calling his co-workers late at night and was losing sight of limits. Now he sets an alarm for 9 p.m. to remind him not to send WhatsApp messages after that. After 8 p.m., he drops a message before asking someone to call him. He avoids WhatsApp messages on Sundays (leaving emergencies aside). Instead, he writes them up over the weekend so that he can send them out on Monday morning. “These are the hacks that you have to deploy for yourself because when you send a message, someone is obligated to respond. You have to become a lot more responsible. I call it a controlled communication channel,” he says.
Some of the company’s Darwinian instincts were so good that they could even predict and prepare for an increase in certain product lines. They drew lessons from countries in Southeast Asia when the Sars took place and realized that many births had taken place immediately after the Sars lockdown. “By a similar calculation, we said we should be ready for an increase in maternity clothes by December and January. It worked for us. Our maternity clothing line, as a line, has grown. We spent a lot of energy on it. It’s a funny anecdote, but it worked from a revenue perspective, ”says Vermani.
Go BY THE playbook
Adaptability is of course an essential entrepreneurial trait, but it is not the only one demonstrated by Vermani.
It is collaborative, following the classic playbook of the co-founders of building a management team with complementary skills. Vermani, Kant and Chowdhury bring their technology, sales and design and supply chain expertise respectively. This troika has now grown. The company recently announced that Sharen Jester Turney, former managing director and president of global lingerie brand Victoria’s Secret, is partnering with Clovia as an advisor.
Vermani is optimistic. Its mission is to generate income from ₹1,000 crore and build an international brand in India.
And he’s pragmatic, leveraging the technology to handle a complicated supply chain of dozens of storage units, necessarily produced in small batches to minimize inventory costs.
It is the blend of these entrepreneurial traits – adaptability, collaboration, optimism and pragmatism – that has allowed Vermani and his team to continue to navigate the pandemic.
But above all, he espouses a trait that I have not observed in too many businessmen: he is a feminist. In the same way he ceded the best room in the house to his wife, I guess he absorbed a feminist philosophy distinct from her. She was behind the launch of Clovia, based on her observation of the mismatch between demand and supply in Indian lingerie retailing. After extensive market research and validation, Vermani embraced the idea.
Now he professes:
“A well-fitting interior garment is not the property of the privileged few. There is a very, very big opportunity to democratize this whole ecosystem. Can I bring an international product into the hinterland of India, with the price that it can absorb?
“A woman has enough battles to fight. Can we make it easy for you? Good underwear can change a woman’s life.
“70% of our organization are women. 40% of our management team are women. Almost 40% of our board of directors is made up of women. As an organization, men are a minority, and we are very proud of that…. Come to think of it, this organization clearly has a much better emotional quotient than a lot of other places I’ve worked with.
Some reasons why he does what he does.
Aparna Piramal Raje meets with business leaders every month to study the links between their workspace design and their working styles.