Design and intent: It was the mid-1980s and the sartorial odds were ranged against Meena Bindra. Women’s wear was a barren scape and brands were wishful thinking; fashion designing was an alien stream, so there were few avenues for training in designing clothes. Worse, she was 41 and not quite brimming with youthful pizzazz.
Yet, Meena Bindra had passion. And time. Married to an army officer and with two kids, she led a nomadic existence, but had plenty of free time. More importantly, her fondness for fabric and colour had not abated over the years. So, in 1984, Bindra decided to design and manufacture the traditional salwar-kameez. “To my advantage, there weren’t many retail shops or malls catering to this space, and it seemed like the perfect time to get into it,” says Bindra.
Meena Bindra, 65
Education: B.A.(History), Delhi University
Age at starting business: 41 years
No. of years as an entrepreneur: 24 years
Initial investment: Rs 4,000
Source of funding: Bank loan
Company’s name: Biba
Turnover: Rs 87 crore (2007-8)
No. of employees: 500
Spreading wings: Her husband, stationed in Mumbai at the time, agreed. He arranged for a bank loan of Rs 8,000, of which she eventually used only half the amount to buy fabric, print suits and get a tailor. The experiment worked. She sold her first suit for Rs 150 and the entire stock was lapped up by family and friends. She was loaded with fresh orders and within three months had paid off the loan. “Though I could have ploughed the loan back into the business, I decided to reinvest and grow with my earnings instead,” says Bindra.
The word spread quickly and, in 1986, Bindra got her first big break when she supplied 80-100 suits to Benzer, an upmarket department store in Mumbai. It soon grew to an order book of Rs 10 lakh a month.
“This is when I expanded my team and spruced up my designs,” says Bindra. As she outsourced the manufacturing and the sales were outright, it kept the cash flowing. “This allowed me to work from home and be with my kids,” she adds.
Even as she began to spread wings in Mumbai, Bindra received a nasty surprise. In 1988, her husband was transferred to Delhi. “My only options were to shut down and move with him or find my own place in Mumbai,” she says. She opted for the tougher route, moved into a smaller apartment and “travelled every month to be with my husband”.
However, business prospered, and Bindra began supplying to other stores too. This was also the year that Biba was officially registered as a label, though it was only for acquiring a sales tax registration number. By mid-’90s Bindra was supplying to 15-20 stores, which included renowned names like Roopkala, Nalli, Kala Niketan and Sheetal.
Brand ambassador: By 1996, Bindra was well-established and bought an 800-sq-ft office in a posh Mumbai locality. Her husband had retired and sons, Sanjay and Siddharth, were ready to join the business. So she decided to move to Delhi, leaving Sanjay in charge of the Mumbai operations. They charted a growth plan and networked with the retail fraternity. “But we realised that in the long run it was important to sell under our own label,” says the 39-year-old Sanjay, director, Biba.
So, in 2002, Biba was launched as an independent label and sold through Shopper’s Stop, which had started selling its clothes two years earlier. “It was a big business move since the margins were lower, which meant we had to be more efficient,” says Sanjay. Expectedly, the business suffered, and took eight months to get back on track. Building the brand and marketing were the biggest challenges. So they hired windows for display, employed their own managers at the counters and invested in software. The efforts paid off and the revenues grew.
Success bred ambition, and in 2005, Biba bought merchandising rights for the Hrithik Roshan, Esha Deol-starrer Na Tum Jaano Na Hum. Biba’s sales grew and they signed on seven more films, including Devdas and Baghban.
In line with the expansion plan, the Bindras decided to open their own stores across India, moving from Delhi and Mumbai to places like Surat, Kanpur, Jaipur and Ahmedabad. Initially, it remained a low-cost operation given their ability to negotiate property deals, but as the volumes went up, they took a Rs 3.5 crore bank loan in 2006. They installed high-end software, redesigned systems and created an operating manual. They also hired consultants to increase efficiencies and implement formal practices across the board.
The future: Biba’s revenues have grown from Rs 1 crore in 2001 to Rs 87 crore in March 2008, the target for 2010 being Rs 270 crore. Besides multi-brand outlets, the company has 62 outlets across India. They also plan to go international with a launch in Dubai, even as they have brought out a new high-end line, IIFA Bling, which is associated with the IIFA Awards.
While her sons manage much of the business, Meena, at 65, handles design and product development in Delhi. She no longer has time to kill, but the passion remains intact.