A stitch in time

Tirupur’s textile industry is slowly, but surely, leaving its knotty past behind, discovers Rahul Sachitanand.

April 4, 2008

It has taken us 90 minutes to reach the outskirts of Tirupur from the Coimbatore airport, about 60 km to the south-west. A journey that would have been an unremarkable drive down Avinashi Road, eventually branching off to places like Bangalore and Mettupalayam (the gateway to the Western Ghats), is literally painted red. Festooned with an assortment of communist flags, buntings and cutouts to celebrate the ongoing CPI(M) conclave being held in the industrial hub, we’re told that we’re lucky to get a taxi at all, since all modes of public transportation have been commandeered for the party conclave.

Dollar doldrums: DSP Knittings Kumaar is relying less on buyers in the US
DSP Knittings Kumaar is relying less on buyers in the US
At Tirupur, a textile hub that till recently was in similar high spirits, the mood is sombre. Rapid 20 per cent annual growth rate is history, and the industry witnessed its worst downturn ever in 2007. An almost 15 per cent appreciation of the rupee against the dollar saw at least 50,000 job cuts by exportoriented firms and job-work outfits spread across the town of 600,000 inhabitants. Despite all the doom and gloom, textile exporters feel the worst is behind them and they are devising ways to put this once-booming industry back on the growth path. “The industry faced a torrid time last year; some hiccups like the currency problem were unexpected,” admits A. Sakthivel, Chairman, Poppys Group and President of the 600-member Tirupur Exporter’s Association (TEA).

The rising rupee dealt a body blow to the industry, resulting in a 15-20 per cent decline in export revenues last year. The exporters in this city, mainly focussed on the lucrative US market, were caught completely off-guard. “No one expected the dollar to slump like this. Units like ours had to return to the   drawing board and completely rechart our strategy,” says D. Senthil Kumaar, Managing Partner, DSP Knitting Company, which saw its turnover decline from a high of Rs 30 crore to around Rs 7 crore today.

Training hands: NIFT-TEAs Shanmugham plans to kick-start an institute by June
Shanmugham plans to kick-start an institute by June
Now, Kumaar has reworked his strategy: Defocus on the US market (he now gets his revenues evenly from the US and Europe) and build a vertically-integrated unit at a 40-acre plot of land close to his existing facility. “We need to wake up to global competition and streamline our operations,” says Kumaar.

Already, Indian exporters have been edged out of several low-cost segments at the bottom end of the market—China’s scale and infrastructural superiority is adding to their difficulties. “It takes us up to 120 days to deliver a large order.

Status shift: Tirupurs new district status will ensure funds for its upkeep
Tirupurs new district status will ensure funds for its upkeep
My Chinese competitors can do it in just 60 days,” says Raja M. Shanmugham, Director at Warsaw International and Chairman, NIFTTEA Knitwear Fashion Institute.

The dollar downturn apart, the industry seems to have boundless issues to deal with—including a 10-15 per cent increase in raw material prices, especially of cotton yarn, and infrastructure bottlenecks. “We’re fined for operating on Sunday, if we use state power,” moans Kumaar.

Doing its bit for the town, TEA has spent Rs 1,000 crore from its own corpus on basic amenities, including a drinking water system. Now that Tirupur has been declared a district from April 1 this year, it may finally get a much-needed shot in the arm. TEA also has help at hand in the shape of industry-specific solutions, courtesy a tie-up with Microsoft and the National Manufacturing Compet-itiveness Council (NMCC) under Project Vikas, an information communication technology (ICT) project to improve the competitiveness of SMEs across the country. This IT-centric project has multi-pronged scope—from portal redesign to development of webbased ERP solutions and even implementation of e-learning solutions.

Fresh Cut: Sakthivel of Poppys Group looks beyond the worst
According to Anil Varghese, Group Head, Emerging Geographies, Microsoft India, the software giant will handhold the TEA for two years under this programme and has over a dozen partners working to develop industryspecific solutions as part of the deal.

“There are 200 large exporters, 150 mid-size companies and 3,000 small contractors here; so the implementation is widespread,” says Sanjay Kumar Gupta, CEO, TEA e-readiness Centre, a swish new facility at the heart of Tirupur that serves as the nerve centre of this tech upgrade.

A key part of this programme will be beefing up the tech skills of thousands of employees of member companies, says Gupta. It also has plans to meet the demand for people once the industry kicks into top gear once again. By June this year, NIFT-TEA Fashion Institute’s Shanmugham hopes to have a Rs 10-crore, 120,000-sq. ft textile training facility ready at Mudalipalayam on the outskirts of Tirupur.

Away from these people issues, Sakthivel and his colleagues are also working on redefining the contours of the local industry. For starters, companies are beginning to move up from ordinary garment manufacture to value-added textiles, which will realise much higher prices.

Next, they are also looking to expand their seasons—graduating from just spring and summer wear to producing heavier autumn and winter collections for their customers. To achieve this, they need to get acquainted with more complex (read: blended) textiles and ensure that they can manage more intricate manufacturing processes.

Finally, vertically-integrated manufacturing appears the way forward, and 40-50 TEA members are already moving to this model and many more are lining up investments to make the transition.

By all accounts, Tirupur’s textile industry appears to have turned the corner. Nonetheless, it’s still waitand-watch on how well the new moves work.