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Friday, September 22, 2017, 10:54
Flying well above the glass ceiling
By Duan Ting in Hong Kong
Friday, September 22, 2017, 10:54 By Duan Ting in Hong Kong

Women’s success in careers calls for bigger acclaim, says Ramesh Dungarmal Tainwala, CEO of Samsonite. He tells Duan Ting their ‘women first’ notion upholds the belief that both sexes are equally adept in their professions.   

Ramesh Dungarmal Tainwala, chief executive officer and executive director of Samsonite — the world’s largest travel luggage firm — says part of the company’s business strategy is to tap the digital shopping trend and explore e-commerce opportunities. (ROY LIU / CHINA DAILY)

Breaking the glass ceiling does not represent just the epitome of women’s accomplishments in business or their professions. It needs to go beyond that, espouses Ramesh Dungarmal Tainwala, chief executive officer and executive director of US luggage retail colossus Samsonite International SA.

The group’s “women first” concept — Tainwala’s retail brainchild — aims to be a dominant part of Samsonite’s future business strategy and to nail the misconception that its 107-year-old brand harbors a masculine character that does not appeal to women.

“That’s not true,” he tells China Daily.

“We want to upend that conception. Nowadays, women think differently and are more punctilious. They want to be treated equally, professionally and also in terms of competency. This offers us tremendous business opportunities.”

Samsonite International, which celebrated its centenary seven years ago and is listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, is convinced that women need even greater privacy than men inside their bags where they need discrete pockets, and its Tumi label has made it possible that its brand appeal to women has contributed to some 20 percent of the group’s total revenue.

I believe most of our shareholders are looking for value in our business, and we’ll continue to leverage our size and scale, invest more in research and development, technology and brand, to expand our business

Ramesh Dungarmal Tainwala, chief executive officer and executive director of Samsonite

Tainwala’s “women first” approach will go cheek by jowl in the group’s push to lift its online business and take it forward.

“E-commerce is one of our fastest growing channels and, today, it contributes 10.5 percent to our total revenue,” says Tainwala. In the next five years, the figure is expected to hit 25 percent.

He reckons their business on the Chinese mainland is slightly behind the curve as they’ve yet to speed up online operations by mid-2018, and the group’s renminbi net sales on the mainland grew by about 9 percent year-on-year in the first half of this year.

Mainland business, he’s convinced, has huge potential and he expects it to grow by 15 percent as China is one of the world’s most renowned internet markets and is experiencing consumption upgrading and consumer maturation. Chinese people are spending much more time on their mobile phones.

“The first time I went to work in China in 2005, the products were easy to appeal to Chinese customers. But, nowadays, consumers are far savvier to know the value of products, and the whole social communication ecosystem of the consumers is much more vibrant,” says Tainwala, referring to the rapid evolution of the mainland’s consumption business.

Important role 

Despite the rivalry between the online and offline sectors, he believes China’s traditional retail business still has an important role to grow, and the boundary between online and offline is becoming more and more blurred. The two ecosystems will become much closer.

Samsonite is teaming up with Colorado-based luggage and handbags online retailer eBags, which it acquired in May this year, to look into e-commerce opportunities on the mainland. Samsonite is already active on key mainland retail platforms like Taobao, T-mall and JD.

The focus is on investing in various brands continually to breed greater brand power.

“I believe most of our shareholders are looking for value in our business, and we’ll continue to leverage our size and scale, invest more in research and development, technology and brand, to expand our business.”

As for his pet “women first” project, which will swing into top gear from the second half of this year to the next five years, Tainwala says a lot of work remains to be done to get things right, including getting the right  products and, most importantly, making their brick-and-mortar stores look more women-friendly.

Most of the time, he explains, women would take men to a store while making purchases. The company also values its male customers as they’re its long-standing customers and has to provide them comfortable space to park themselves. He also aims to get more women to work through the concept.

Their first “women first” store is likely to be up and running ahead of this year’s festive season.

For the first half of 2017, Samsonite posted a 1.2-percent, year-on-year surge in net profit to US$83.4 million — a flat growth, mostly held down by the cost of acquiring Tumi.

Net sales in the first half of this year came to US$1.59 billion — up 31.8 percent year-on-year — with the Tumi brand accounting for sales of US$296.9 million. Net sales in North America, Asia, Europe and Latin America expanded 53 percent, 19.8 percent, 24 percent and 19.4 percent, respectively.

Tainwala sees a brighter 2017 second half, with the company’s core business  expected to grow by a comfortable 7 to 8 percent year-on-year, and Tumi to grow by double digits, driven by brighter prospects for the travel industry, while the acquisition of eBags has brought the company technology, experience and a pool of talents.

Bid for more markets

“We’re already a global enterprise, so we operate in a decentralized manner and continue to concentrate on all brands and markets, including Asia, Europe, North America and Latin America, to focus on the future.”

Currently, the group has about 50,000 points-of-sale worldwide, and is adding 300 points-of-sale annually, but the pace of adding physical points-of-sale will slow as we focus on driving e-commerce growth, according to Tainwala.

Samsonite will continue to develop technology. He says the smart luggage concept is very much there, and technology is making human beings freer from repetitive jobs.

The group is also preparing, with six to seven years of efforts already pumped in, to launch a new tech product, TUMI Global Locator — a wireless tracking device designed to provide travelers with specific information on the whereabouts of their luggage and travel bags.

The device has got off the ground in North America and will be in the global markets in the next six to nine months.

In future, customers can communicate with their bags, let the bags follow them and detect the speed of walking based on people’s words of command. Samsonite is working on that too.

Besides technology impacting the industry, Tainwala says the real challenge is that the ecosystem of shopping and marketing is changing, affecting their business, so are airline regulations.

The company will keep investing in building brand power, but Tainwala warns that the emerging development of social media and so many other ways of communication is making marketing much more complicated.

‘In money-spinning, we just don’t have a language’

Ramesh Dungarmal Tainwala hails from a humble Indian family, having started working as a bank employee for one-and-a-half years for as little as US$50 a month. It emboldened his desire to try his luck in entrepreneurship.

“If I work for 35 years as a bank employee, I still would not be able to buy a house and I don’t want to continue living in my village,” he laments.

Tainwala joined Samsonite International as a vendor in 1992 and went on to become a joint-venture associate four years later when Samsonite set its sights on developing the Indian market.

He was asked by the group’s then chief executive officer in 2015 if he would like to help manage Samsonite’s business in China, more as a friend in the beginning because, in those days, their business in India was still 10 times bigger than that of the Chinese mainland.

“Frankly, I didn’t know anything about China then and I was very poor when it comes to language. It was very tough wading into unknown territory in the beginning. But, it soon turned into a very interesting opportunity for me,” reminisces Tainwala.

He realized that a businessman’s language is only money, but he still upholds the principle that money doesn’t have a language and a businessman can understand the business part very well despite language barriers.

Perhaps, the turning point came in 2008 when Tainwala became an officer of Samsonite. “I began enjoying working in different places, experiencing different cultures and working in different markets where I don’t understand the language.”   

His fortunes grew by leaps and bounds in 2012 when he was invited to join the Samsonite board of directors, culminating in his appointment as the group’s CEO just two years later.

“We need to trust people and hire talented people in the sector,” he says of his management philosophy.

He would advise his children not to stop dreaming. “Today’s limitation is the limitation for a lifetime and the limitation is only in our mind. We spend much time thinking what we’re going to do. Break big dreams into small dreams rather than day dreaming. You can be prime minister of India. You can be Bill Gates.”

His real passion in life is to be a farmer when he calls it a day, having grown up in a farm and his parents being farmers.

“I want to return to my hometown and start farming again after retirement. I’ve bought a farm outside the city. I do enjoy working with my hands.”

Contact the writer at tingduan@chinadailyhk.com

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