There’s no doubt Suchita Oswal Jain was born with textiles in her blood and a strong instinct for business running through her veins. After all, she’s a third-generation member of the Oswal family, which meant growing up in India with the founders and operators of the Vardhman Group, a leading textile conglomerate boasting a rich history spanning more than 50 years.
As an only child, she regularly visited the company’s factories with her father, absorbing the business, delighting in the splash of colours and textures, and developing a natural passion for the industry. Surely her date with destiny lay right at her feet with the family company.
Not necessarily. A few minutes of conversation with the Vice Chairman and joint Managing Director of Vardhman Textiles reveals a formidable woman, one who clearly lives by her own decisions, particularly the one she faced three decades ago after graduating from university.
While many would have considered slipping into the family business a no-brainer, it required much more thought from Suchita. A lot of thought, followed by a conversation with the boss, her father and Chairman SP Oswal, the son of Vardhman Founder Rattan Chand Oswal.
Having armed herself with a Master in Commerce from Panjab University, the Accelerated Development Programme from the London Business School and Leadership Development Programme from INSEAD, Paris, Suchita was more qualified to secure a job with any number of global companies, or indeed, start a company of her own.
Joining the family business just because she could wasn’t an option for this ambitious woman. Genes or no genes, any decision to join Vardhman had to be based on all the right reasons. Fortunately for her and ultimately the company, there were plenty.
"I was barely 23 at the time," she remembers. "I wanted to do more with my life than take the easy option and just work for the family business. I wanted to be challenged and learn, use the company as a platform, a golden platform of opportunity to develop and expand, incorporate my ideas and my creativity. It was a passion, a junoon, fuelled by a strong drive coming from within.
"I knew there was so much I could do and that’s what attracted me, tempted me and pushed me towards the family business at that young age. It was the desire to do something, to achieve something, to be mentally stimulated. So, I spoke to my father, telling him I would like to train in the company, this great institution, built over nearly 55 years, and the number one leader of textiles in the country."
Suchita joined Vardhman in 1990, a young woman in an industry dominated by men and shouldering high expectations. She was an Oswal after all. But it was also a golden period, an age when India’s economy was opening up to the rest of the world and providing numerous and exciting opportunities for import and export.
It was perfect timing for Suchita to bring her fresh ideas and knowledge into the business together with her finely-tuned attention to detail.
Working her way through various departments, streamlining processes along the way, it took just a year for Suchita to turn the company on its head and introduce a woven fabric division.
Starting with a new factory at Himachal Pradesh, she began manufacturing greige fabric. Today, fabric manufacturing is the growth engine for the group with more than 200 million metres of greige fabric and more than 175 million metres of fabric processed every year.
Founded with just 6,000 spindles in 1965, Vardhman is the largest and most versatile yarn, thread, fabric and garment manufacturer in India, turning over more than US$1.1 billion a year.
The group is headquartered in Ludhiana in the Malwa region of Punjab state, an area commonly renowned as the ‘Manchester of India’. It is the largest spinner (over 1.2 million spindles) in the country, home to 24% of the world’s spindles and 8% of the world’s rotors.
More than half the revenue is generated from its production and process of yarn, nearly 30% from fabric and the rest from the company’s fibre and special steel business.
Vardhman employs more than 30,000 people in more than 20 production units spanning five states, including Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujrat and Tamil Nadu, exporting the bulk of its production to more than 65 countries.
It is one of the largest consumers of raw cotton in the country, sourcing the natural resource directly from worldwide markets to produce yarn and sewing threads used in multiple applications and fabric in a wide range of patterns and weaves to global clothing designers, including Gap Inc., H&M, C&A, Benetton, Uniqlo, Marks & Spencer, Target and others throughout Europe and Japan.
In fact, the company’s export strength has largely buffered it from downturns in regional textile markets when weaker competitors were severely impacted.
Even taking into account that India has the second-largest spinning capacity after China in the world, it’s difficult to get your head around Vardhman’s production numbers.
Every day more than 650 metric tonnes of yarn is produced, with more than 50 tons of it processed; in excess of 15 tons of fibre is processed; more than 5,000 shirts are made; and more than 43 metric tonnes of sewing thread, most of which is sold to local suppliers.
Suchita is married to Sachit Jain who has worked with the Vardhman Group for almost 30 years, the last decade as Vice Chair and Managing Director of Vardhman Special Steels.
The couple are parents to daughters, Saumya and Sagarika, with Suchita taking 10 years out of the business to raise them. Since rejoining the company three years ago, Suchita has focused on market development, determined to not only maintain the company’s lead in India, but to lead globally as well.
"That is one very important mission and goal, meaning we have decided to be an integrated supplier in yarns and fabrics," she explains.
"To achieve this we have increased our capacity, our product range, category and mix while working on our technology, quality, innovation and product development. We’ve also improved our customer service and speed when it comes to our work and response.
"Our first goal has been to become a one-stop shop for the industry," Suchita adds. "We have increased our product line and the variety of yarn we offer to include blend, stretch, cellullosic, linen, polyester and acrylic, so our customers can find everything they need for their apparels. We are now India’s largest provider of stretch fabrics, including stretch yarns. Nobody makes the quantity and variety we do."
A larger range of patterned and printed fabrics has also been included. Vardhman had previously only produced dyed ‘solid’ fabric, but after observing trends and noting customer demand, the company branched out into producing a more versatile and popular fabric.
"We have added a larger capacity of fabrics, such as stripes and checks, to produce about 2.5 million metres per month," Suchita says. "We have also added printed fabric, an area we noticed was not being satisfied by our competitors and will be producing over two million metres of print fabrics a month. We have also added cellulosic fabrics, which are very popular and really gaining a lot of strength in the market.
"With our new lines and larger capacity for producing them, our customers such as Gap, Banana Republic, Target or Uniqlo can focus on us as one of their main suppliers." Suchita says Vardhman’s second priority has been to work on product development and innovation.
In the firm belief that creativity and collaboration must be encouraged among Vardhman customers and the market to stay ahead of the competition, constant investment must be poured into new technology.
"We never hold back in this area, investing in technology and automation and improving cost optimisation," she says.
"This industry is never static, it’s always changing and evolving and the only way to have the edge over your competition is to focus, understand the needs of the customers and respond quickly. We have to be proactive to create and develop the products they are looking for and this requires collaboration. Actually, you have to give them solutions, not a product, and that’s one of our greatest strengths. We believe in being proactive, not reactive, and continuously encouraging greater creativity is one of our main differentiating factors against our competitors."
To create this product leadership and get an understanding of emerging trends, Vardhman regularly sends its development teams and designers to scout markets throughout the US, Japan and Europe, visiting exhibitions and brands in the high streets.
"New products, new development – that is a mantra for us," Suchita says. "We search, we develop, we listen to our customers and look at other competitors so we are always ahead of the game. It’s continuous. You cannot stop.
"We are in the fashion business and our yarn and fabric are going into the fashion business, the apparel industry in Marks & Spencer and H&M shops, and more. We cannot be out of sight, we have to keep showcasing to our customers what we are developing."
Having become more proactive in the market, expanded the product line and invested in technology and production, Suchita’s sights are set on consolidation.
Her strategy is to ensure productivity, efficiency and manpower processes are met to be able to operate the company’s assets at maximum capacity and capability.
"This means improving our processes while maintaining quality," she explains. Over the next two years, we need to consolidate what we have while still developing and adding new products."
Corporately, the emphasis on development is just as strong, with Suchita spearheading upgrades to administration, HR and financial services.
The Vardhman Training & Development Centre (VTDC), spread over 2.2 acres on the outskirts of Ludhiana, offers classrooms equipped with modern training facilities, a library and residential accommodation for 50 people.
Each year, more than 200 training days are held, covering a multitude of topics including management, technology, culture, interpersonal and motivational skills.
The centre also offers sports and recreational facilities such as badminton, volleyball and chess. Meanwhile, Vardhman’s Manav Vikas Kendra’s program provides mentors and counsellors for new recruits with an emphasis on attitudinal, behavioural and functional training.
The company also invests heavily in external business and development courses offered to ensure strong leadership teams are developed. Describing Vardhman people as "homegrown", Suchita supports a culture of developing young talent and promoting from within.
"They are attending programs and coming back to take on higher roles and responsibilities," she says. "We are improving our delivery to people, to ensure their capabilities are reaching their full potential, rotating them from different units to increase their exposure and development.
"All our top executives are from Vardhman and it’s been like that right from the beginning. We have never brought people in from outside, they have all been homegrown people. This has created an ethical culture based on honesty, integrity and transparency. We respect human values, we believe in teams and operating on openness, trust and the flow of ideas. These are the core values Vardhman has built over the past 55 years."
As a "learning organisation", Suchita says Vardhman is open to feedback, whether that is from its employees, customers, or other global companies.
Customer loyalty, some of it stretching back up to 40 years, is important and safeguarded by consistency.
"We retain our customers by always offering quality, supply and developments," she says. "It’s another important thing on which we judge ourselves.
"Whether it be with a supplier or a customer, we build relationships. After all, they help us grow. One example of this is allowing our suppliers of textile machinery, raw materials suppliers in dyes, chemicals and packaging, all our partners to experiment with new technology and equipment in our plants. We understand that once they showcase at Vardhman and Vardhman buys it, another 10 more will buy."
Another frontrunner for Vardhman is its commitment to CSR. For decades, the company has given back to the community, particularly in areas surrounding their plants.
SP Oswal established the Sri Aurobindo Socio-Economic and Management Research Institute, a trust which led to the opening of Sri Aurobindo Public School at Baddi, HP & Budhni, MP and Sri Aurobindo College of Commerce and Management, an affiliate of Punjab University opened in 2004.
Education is also a subject close to Suchita’s heart. "We have also contributed funds and assisted with building projects in five other schools," Suchita says.
"Students used to be sitting out on the lawn on grass, studying in the heat and rain, so we’ve built beautiful classrooms, staff rooms and toilets, which were non-existent, and installed water purifiers."
A Vardhman Block – 14 classrooms and two separate toilets – was built at the Ludhiana’s Giaspura Primary School to benefit more than 1,400 students, mostly children of workers employed at nearby factories.
Meanwhile farmers have benefited from the Village Adoption Program, a collaboration between Vardhman and Punjab Agricultural University, where farmers in 95 villages have achieved a 50% increase in their yields, higher than the national average.
Vardhman has also raised health standards by upgrading local hospitals and healthcare systems to ensure accessible, affordable and effective services. "We are not just here to earn the profits, we want to give back and make society a better place to live in," Suchita reflects.
"We identify projects, genuine projects, and contribute to them." Vardhman is also working hard on sustainability projects, particularly the prevention and control of water waste, air, noise and land pollution.
The Vardhman Environmental Sustainability Directions strive to minimise harm to the environment by introducing eco-friendly practices including zero liquid discharge, solar energy and recycled fibre.
"As far as our overall strategy goes, we are very clear we are going to remain in textile and we will only be in textile," she says. "That means we have to be sustainable and continuously focus on that area and improve it. It’s an extremely important benchmark for us."
There’s no doubt the future of this Indian conglomerate is bright with its endless capacity to create different products for a demanding market, its contribution to CSR and achieving sustainability.
Suchita takes nothing for granted. Always the consummate businesswoman, she understands the biggest challenge over the next two years will be to penetrate the industry even further. "Yes, we are doing well," she says.
"But we operate in a very, very dynamic and challenging environment, where we have to continuously scan international trends and be flexible. We have to adapt very quickly, make mid-term corrections, keep costs under control and maintain operational excellence, while all the time focusing on our people and ensuring our teams are motivated and inspired.
"We must stay connected to our customers, innovating and creating that edge in competition. We want our customers to know that Vardhman is always a strong committed partner to them, always innovating and exploring new solutions to meet their ever changing requirements.
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