A bagful of determination

Nina Lekhi’s inability to pass a design test did not deter her from launching her own line of designer bags, which are now retailed across the country.

Tanvi Varma/Money Today        Print Edition: May 1, 2008

Nina Lekhi
Nina Lekhi, 42


Education: Diploma in screen printing

Previous work experience: Part-time jobs as salesgirl, apprentice designer

No. of years in previous business: About one year

Age at starting business: 19 years

Initial investment: Rs 7,000

Source of fund: Loan from mother

Company: Baggit

Turnover: Rs 9 crore (2007-8)

No. of employees: 150

1. FAILURE FIRST:

For Nina Lekhi nothing is truer than the adage, “Failure is the stepping stone to success.” As a bright student in school, she never thought she could fail in her first year at Mumbai’s Sophia Polytechnic, where she had enrolled, in 1983, for a foundation course in textile designing. “Naturally it came as a rude shock,” says Lekhi. “But it made me more focused and determined to achieve something.”

At the age of 18, she decided she would prove that she was creative and could earn a living as a designer. She took up temporary jobs with designers such as Shyam Ahuja and Mike Kripalani. “Even though the salary was not enough to pay for my conveyance, it was the learning that mattered to me,” says Lekhi. She learnt the most important fundamentals of doing any business: how to sell, manage inventory and deal with customers.

2. HUMBLE BEGINNINGS:

In 1984, Lekhi decided to take up a part-time diploma course in screen printing and interior decoration. Part of it was to keep herself busy as well as hone her artistic skills. She also took up a salesgirl’s job with Amarsons, a departmental store in Mumbai. It was her initiation into the world of commerce and where she realised that there was a market for fashion accessories, especially bags.

In 1985, she decided to take a plunge and launch Baggit. She had to visit wholesale markets in search of canvas, rope, fabric and other material needed to start her manufacturing venture. “My father was a bit worried at the idea of me making bags, since it meant travelling to places unheard of to get the raw material,” says Lekhi. However, her mother was a big support.

With an initial investment of Rs 7,000—borrowed from her mother—Lekhi was raring to go. To reduce overhead costs, she started off with absolutely untrained labour: the liftman and a security guard in her building would cut the material for the bags in their spare time while a neighbourhood tailor would sew the bags. She single handedly managed everything right from designing to sourcing to manufacturing, using her home as a warehouse. She put her creative mind to use to give varied looks to her bags— denims, patched bags with military badges, tattered bags for the young and hip and more.

Lekhi started off by supplying to her mentor Kripalini and also to her one-time employer Amarsons. In 1989 she opened a counter—a store within a store—in the Oberoi Hotel. The deal with Amarsons helped her keep the cash flowing as they paid her upfront. By 1986-87 Lekhi started organising her own exhibitions showcasing her talent as a bag designer. “If I wasn’t so focused, I don’t think I would have survived. I had a point to prove—that I was not a failure,” she says.

3. BUILDING BLOCKS:

 

Tips for starting out

• Be creative: Creativity is the most important skill in this business. You have to create new designs and keep up with market trends

 

• Find a niche: You must add value to what is already available in the market. By creating a niche for your product, you can differentiate

• Work hard: Initially you may need to put in 18-20 hours, considering it’s a manufacturing job and being on the floor (factory) is essential to be hands on

• Work as a team: You have to form a bond with your co-workers and get their confidence to ensure a successful business

• Set a goal: In order to grow, it is imperative that you have a vision of where you want to be

With a healthy order book, the in-house factory seemed rather small and manufacturing was shifted to larger premises in the Lalbaug Industrial Estate around 1990. To keep a check on expenses, Lekhi continued with her practice of hiring freshers to work for her. “The time spent training and showing them how to go about making bags worked as a bonding exercise. It helped build up the organisation,” she says. It has proved to be a boon in another way: her attrition rates are nearly zero, she claims.

In 1992, she opened Baggit’s first retail outlet, INXS, in Mumbai’s Kemps Corner. “Having your own store brings you in direct contact with your customers. You get to know their preferences first hand,” she says. Today, Baggit has five stores in Mumbai and is also retailed through stores such as Lifestyle and Shopper’s Stop across the country. In December 2007, Lekhi opened a store in Ahmedabad. From one manufacturing unit, the company now operates 10 and has clocked an annual revenue of Rs 9 crore, a huge leap from the Rs 50,000 she first earned in 1985.

Like any other business, Lekhi too faced hardships. She took a break in 2000 to give birth to a daughter and for the next couple of years spent time bringing her up. Business took a backseat during those three years. “That was the toughest time for me— trying to balance my family and business,” she says.

4. SCALING UP:

As volumes get bigger, there are more challenges. Initially, for Lekhi, it was difficult to manage changes in inventory and cash flows, which follows from changes in demand. “But soon you realise that these are temporary phases and since you suddenly just can’t stop manufacturing, you learn to manage better,” she says. The involvement of her brother, in the business has lightened her workload. He looks after the nitty-gritty of running the stores.

Staying abreast of fashion trends, launching stores in appropriate locations, rolling inventory into stores during season are all part of better management. “Also, in the fashion industry it is very important to be hands on,” says Lekhi.

That explains the strategy adopted by Baggit— everything from printing and weaving to manufacturing and labelling is done in-house. This also helps in keeping tabs on manufacturing delays, quality control, and research and development. Now besides bags, the company also retails wallets, belts, mobile pouches, caps and scarves (with prices ranging from Rs 225 to Rs 1,900) catering to all sections of women.

Baggit’s growth, claims Lekhi, is more to do with her team’s efforts than her drive. She has striven, she says, to create a work environment where everybody feels they have an equal share in the business.

5. LOOKING FORWARD:

Baggit plans to open 12 franchise stores across the country every year. The challenge for Lekhi is to move before bigger and more established players come in. “Either the big fish eat you or you become big,” she says. But more than competition, Lekhi’s bigger challenge is to balance her personal life and business. “I can’t ignore one for the other. I haven’t been able to crack it but am trying to find out how I can be both a successful business as well as a family person,” she says.

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