Vidyuth Rajagopal serves as the Managing Director of Celebrity Fashions and Joint Managing Director of Indian Terrain Fashions. The Chennai-based Indian Terrain Fashions was founded with the aim of providing men in India with premium smart-casual clothing. It opened its first store in Chennai in 2000. Two decades later, its products are available in over 1,000 multi-brand outlets, over 400 doors of large format stores, 200+ exclusive brand outlets, and as well as key e-commerce platforms. It has not only become a pan-India brand but has also been a leader when it comes to sustainability. Indian Terrain was the first Indian high street brand to get the Fairtrade Label certification.
A PGPMAX Alum, Vidyuth believes ISB played a pivotal role in turning around his business. We connected with him to find out how? Here is a summary from the conversation.
Tell us about yourself, your current organisation & role, and your professional journey so far.
I occupy leadership positions in two publicly listed entities. One is Indian Terrain Fashions where I am the Joint Managing Director and other is Celebrity Fashions Limited where I am the Managing Director. Celebrity Fashions is 32 years old company with second generation running the business and Indian Terrain Fashions is 20-21 years old. I graduated from a boarding school called Kodaikanal International School and did my Bachelor’s in Economics from Loyola College (Chennai). Pretty much one day after I finished college, I went to the factory and worked in Celebrity Fashions for the first three years of my career. At that time Muhammad Yunus (Bangladeshi Social Entrepreneur) was getting a lot of attention and the idealist in me drove me towards micro-finance.
I left Celebrity Fashions in 2009 and moved to Madura Microfinance and I moved to a little town called in South India called Kumbakonam for about a year and half to work in the microfinance industry. In 2011 I resigned my position at the company and joined Indian Terrain Fashions. The brand was getting a lot of traction in places like Central, Lifestyle & Shoppers Stop. It was really doing well, and we had a good chance to take it to the next level with departmental stores. I felt management bandwidth and leadership was something that I could help the business with. I had huge exposure to the retail industry and for the next two and a half years, I worked exclusively with the brand to build departmental store presence and pilot our own exclusive brand outlets in the Western & Central India.
I also wanted to learn a little bit more about the logistics industry, so I joined a company called Redington in Chennai and worked with them for about another 15 months. It was just prior to GST and the logistics industry had its own unique set of challenges at that time. It was like the wild-wild west back then. I think that was the experience where I found a lot of difficulty. There were back breaking hours as I was dealing with people from unorganised sectors including truck drivers, lorry drivers, and managing the whole situation was a complex learning opportunity that I would not have gotten elsewhere.
Late in 2014-15, Celebrity Fashions was looking at an opportunity to setup a manufacturing plant in Bangladesh. I was brought on to oversee the whole setup process. I chased learning wherever possible and wherever I had the opportunity. I never wanted to stay stagnant in a particular role. So, that’s how I think I came back to Celebrity Fashions. The company had gone public in 2005 and had faced a tough decade. I started at the lowest ranks, working as a junior salesman and over the next 5 years, worked my way to the top of the organisation. In 2018, I became the Managing Director. I have been lucky enough to find good people who helped turn the company around.
The Indian Terrain Fashions is a sister concern, so I have always been exposed to internal matters in the organisation at the board and the promotor level. The Covid-induced pandemic forced retail stores across the country to shut down for 3-4 months. Even though Indian Terrain had a 21-year legacy and a good standing in the Indian domestic market, the brand faced many challenges. I stepped in there to provide another shoulder to handle the stress during the tough times and navigate the brand through challenges. We also understood the speed and the adaptation of e-commerce in the customers’ minds. We didn’t want to be left behind and moved quickly on the path of building a robust e-comm business. I came in to support the existing management and the Chairman to ensure that we not only manage the existing business, market share and offline channels; but also make sure that the company moved quickly to build a strong online presence, as that is the future. Handling these two sides, the last 15 months have been crazy and have culminated in newspaper article about how the brand has made it through the tough times and there are not many Indian brands that have had a 20-year legacy. I believe it was the right time for us to come out and tell the finance community, the marketing community, and the brand building community that Indian Terrain is here to stay. So, both companies are in a very good positions for the years to come.
What inspired you to join PGPMAX programme then? Why ISB?
I think why I chose ISB is a very easy answer for me. I realised I had generated a good amount of experience in varied industries and wanted to add a management layer to my knowledge. I wanted to further my education from a place where I felt I would gain some value. I had already been exposed to a plethora of business opportunities and knew that if I was going to educate myself, it had to be from an institution with a great cohort to add a unique dimension to my experience.
I was looking at the opportunity learn but for whatever reasons I was unable to find the right programme. I felt a management programme should justify in terms of the learnings that I brought to the table and the learnings that I would get out of the programme.
I had always heard great things about ISB. I knew many alumni from the main PGP programme as well as PGPMAX. These are people I respect and admire and have followed their careers very well. So, I had an in-depth ringside view to what ISB has been able to create in terms of people and their skills.
When I had joined Celebrity Fashions in 2014, I worked my way up with hard work, and it was the company that was not going through good times. We had great customers, but we weren’t profitable in over a decade. So, it was a tough situation. I believe if you work hard, you learn how to run a company through operational excellence. However, that is a short-term way of preparing yourself. At some point or the other, business is much larger than just the operations. After taking over as Managing Director of a publicly listed company, there is a whole side of business that you are exposed to including the market, investors, and stakeholders. I realised a structured approach to business, to life and the world at large was necessary.
I’d also felt that I had enough experience with me to contribute and so it’d be fair for me to join PGPMAX. The cohort and peer-peer learning at ISB is great. You get to delve upon business problems through case studies with fantastic professors.
Apart from that I had our business in India, and I did not have 2 years to go outside, study and come back. I had to keep it running while I was learning. Going to ISB for one week and staying there was very helpful because it gave me an opportunity to think and process a lot of things that I was learning in the context of my business back home. The structure of the programme and the fact that it was in India, made PGPMAX an ideal choice. In the hindsight, I think it was the right place at the right time for me to look at the PGPMAX programme.
You are now MD of Indian Terrain and Celebrity Fashions. Where do you think your career was headed before you took the programme and how has the overall ISB experience affected that direction?
I think just with the ownership mindset that I had and the dedication & hard work I was putting into the businesses, reaching these two positions would not have been a challenge. This is what I always wanted to do. But I believe after ISB my hunger and my ambition has grown because I understand what the possibilities are. I think my general perspective of the world has grown and my ability to think big has grown. I am positive that both companies (which we have), will benefit from my experience from ISB. Now we are ready to open our wings and fly.
I think the ability to think big, and think beyond, in just the business that we have at present is something that I have inculcated as a result of my exposure at the time that I spent at ISB. The kind of people you meet at ISB motivate you to think big. That’s the biggest learning experience I had with PGPMAX.
You told us you like to learn from every experience, and you are an entrepreneur. When in your career you did you decide to pursue the entrepreneurial track and how has the PGPMAX programme helped you with that?
I don’t think there was a specific time. But I think PGPMAX programme helped me to look at things in a lot more structured manner. Our business before was people dependent and run by me and a few others. Now we are looking to build a more process driven business from the leadership level to help it grow on its own. Hopefully, we can set a bar in the market for how apparel manufacturing businesses should be run.
I think the exposure to people coming from different industries and experiences at PGPMAX helped me expand my perspective. The professors helped me understand the inner workings of global companies – how they were started and built over many generations. When you take those key insights and break it down into very simple operational steps, it doesn’t seem like rocket science. That’s another big benefit that I had from ISB.
What are the lessons you took back to your business from PGPMAX?
When I first joined the company, I thought businesses were all about making profit. That’s all that mattered. I think that’s because I was running a company that had not made a profit for a long. When I came to ISB, one of the most interesting classes for me was on financial decisions where I learnt that businesses were not only about making a profit or a loss; but also, were about the market and creating maximum value for shareholders. For me, that was like the most fundamental change in my thought process. I am still trying to keep up with what we learnt in that class three years later.
The resident faculty as well as the visiting faculty at ISB were phenomenal. The learnings you gain during PGPMAX is really a mind opener. Like I said, I came from a background where we were fighting for our survival. So, to think at a holistic level and scale really switched many perspectives on and continues to do so till date.
What are the ISB memories that you still connect with most profoundly?
I met a lot of good people at ISB. The campus was fantastic. The professors, like I mentioned before, were amazing. A lot of times I went to the faculty with real life problems that I had. They were very willing to listen and to help me out with my problems. I keep in touch with most of them. Honestly, that is the one thing that I remember the most – how generous they were with their time for us. A lot of them were visiting faculty who came from abroad and had one week to get a lot of things done. Yet they never hesitated to spend hours discussing business problems and guiding us. I think that’s my biggest takeaway from the ISB programme.
Today I think if my company has turned around, the professors at ISB have played a great role. Just listening to me and giving their point of view helped in the turning around the business.
What is your philosophy of a good leader? What nuances of leadership did you pick up during the programme that were worth applying in your profession?
I think we are all born leaders in our own situations. Anyone who takes responsibility for the things that are happening to them is a leader in some perspective or another. For me leadership is essentially going through tough times in life and just never letting your head drop. There is a poem called “The Man in the Arena” by Theodore Roosevelt that narrates that you just have to keep competing every day and that makes you a leader by itself because most people don’t. We choose to look for inspiration in the stories of Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk when we ourselves have all gone through personal & professional ups and downs and found the strength to come through these experiences stronger.
In the end of the day, longevity in a business is about survival. Even Tata Group has gone through many phases, and they are here today because they survived. One of the things that I always tell my colleagues is that there is a leader is inside you. You just must find the instances in your life where you exhibited leadership and you have got to draw inspiration from those instances. For instance, mothers are the best leaders I know. The amount of multitasking they do in a day alone makes them an ideal leader. That is the definition of leadership for me.
What is it that keeps you buoyed and relevant? What do you cherish doing in your spare time?
After ISB and at the phase of my career where I am, even if I try to, I can’t stop thinking about anything but my business. ISB gave me the fuel. It sparked something in me that makes to keep going and building. There is no spare time that I get, and I am always thinking about my business. It doesn’t tire me. For me, being a leader, sometimes even just exposing myself to what’s happening in the external world keeps my mind fresh and keeps me relevant. However. It is not like I am replying to e-mails 24 hours a day, but my mind is constantly trying to find new opportunities, technologies, and ways to grow my business.
I do exercise on a regular basis and have focussed a lot on my health over the last two years. All of this is just to ensure that I am more productive at work. I am also a part of Young Presidents’ Organisation which is an international forum of businessmen. You have got to ensure that you are constantly exposed to other businesses to stay relevant. In essence, people around me keep me going. Keep me fired up and relevant.
The spark of that was lit in ISB. So, I think if anything I have to thank ISB.
If you must encapsulate your ISB experience in just one word or a phrase. What would that be?
Clearly ISB is the spark of energy in my life. So – Think Big, Build Bigger, Grow to be the Biggest.