Two years into the pandemic, virtual life continues to offer the occasional benefit. Practical travel constraints previously restricted Head Office visits to only a few Indian cities. But this edition takes me somewhere unexpected—to an industrial estate in Coimbatore. I am on a virtual walkthrough of the corporate headquarters of one of south India’s best known footwear brands, Walkaroo International. This is the office of Veluthedathu Noushad, 51, the managing director of the nearly 10-year-old brand, which posted a revenue of ₹1,500 crore in FY2021.
Like the headquarters of manufacturing companies across the world, Noushad’s office is distinguished by two features: functional and spacious workplace design. Through my camera, I see a cabin with a desk, seating, storage, LED screen, the mandatory clutch of awards for leadership and entrepreneurship, and not much else by way of décor or art. Outside, there is plenty of open-plan seating. Both aspects, functionality and capacity, are mirrored in Noushad’s business model.
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“It’s a lean office, I have the bare essentials. It has been recently updated with higher seating capacity and an open-plan office design. This turned out to be a boon post-covid because of social distancing. We expanded the office area because some training rooms have been made into seating areas. We also have operations in different locations across the country (12 manufacturing units and 20 depots),” says Noushad.
Bare-bones workplace design is reflected in a business model aimed at the bottom of the pyramid, with a stated intent to “democratise fashion”. During the pandemic, the company saw sales increase, as customers started opting more for Walkaroo’s entry-level footwear range. “Since our target customers belong to the mass market, majority of our offerings are sandals and slippers in the price range of ₹250-350,” says Noushad, specifying that cost management is critical to meeting the economical price points.
The physical capacity of the workspace is also reflected in the company’s hefty manufacturing capacity: it can produce 500,000 pairs of footwear a day, and usually manufactures over 400,000 pairs a day. The numbers make me pause. Nearly half a million pairs of footwear, every day. How do they manage to sell so much?
Growth by design
The answer lies in the game-changing role of design. It tells a story far larger than that of just lean manufacturing. With a team of 100 designers, Walkaroo produces 50 new designs every month. This investment is as much a choice as it is a necessity. “We offer a lot of varieties to the customer. If Indian companies are not able to give a fashion that has been launched, then normally imports of that fashion enter the market,” he says.
It sounds straightforward enough, but Noushad personifies an unusual transition—the shift from an engineer to a marketeer and now a design thinker. Trained as a chemical engineer, Noushad studied the footwear market and worked with the family’s legacy footwear business for several years before launching his own brand in 2012. It is not an easy transformation, in attitude or skills. I know several individuals with a technical background who have not been able to adopt a market-facing mindset.
“When you want to start something new, you have to do the entire work. At first, I liked the technical side, and I didn’t like the management side, it was really difficult for me to accept this management side, but there was no one else. I was forced to go to market. Slowly I liked it, and now I left this technical side, and I’m more on the management side,” Noushad admits.
The design language
Noushad’s design-thinking toolkit contains two essential ingredients: customer focus embedded with humility and empathy, and an alignment with manufacturing.
“My simple motto is to keep the customer first in any decision. Typically, our senior management team, including myself and directors, regularly visit retail outlets to directly interact with customers and understand their tastes and preferences,” he says. “Recently, we completed the visit to more than 3,500-plus retail stores in Tamil Nadu to assess the market and for feedback on the new launches planned for the Diwali season.”
This empathy with the end-user is reflected in an equally empathetic and pragmatic workplace policy for its manufacturing employees. “Typically we engage a young workforce hailing from different states across our manufacturing sites. We provide them with shared accommodation and canteen facilities as it is difficult for youngsters to find suitable boarding and lodging near manufacturing sites. We have been providing such facilities since we had started our business,” says Noushad.
Aligning design with production manufacturing is the other vital element of design-led manufacturing. Footwear is designed to minimise material consumption, the biggest cost element. The company also follows “demand-driven supply planning” to reduce obsolescence of stock.
Despite this self-reliance on design, on market knowledge and on manufacturing capabilities, Noushad’s design-thinking approach faces obstacles. He says the company is still dependent on China for machinery and new material. “For materials, each and every development is happening outside and if you want to develop new footwear, we need new material.” This is emblematic of Atmanirbhar Bharat, the potential and the challenges.
There are no front-page, venture-capital valuations headlining Noushad’s story. But it is a compelling case study about an Indian design-led entrepreneur who has created much-needed manufacturing jobs, resulting in tangible economic value. At a time of deep-rooted youth unemployment, what could be more important?
Aparna Piramal Raje meets heads of organisations every month to investigate the connections between their workspace design and working styles.