William N. Bissell | The ethnicool entrepreneur

William N. Bissell | The ethnicool entrepreneur
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First Published: Sat, Mar 01 2008. 12 49 AM IST

Hands on: Bissel is big on teamwork.
Hands on: Bissel is big on teamwork.
Updated: Sat, Mar 01 2008. 12 49 AM IST
William N. Bissell is up half the night these days. Before you think it has something to do with Fabindia, the company he manages, hold your breath, for congratulations are in order. His son is just a few weeks old, and Bissell is a hands-on father. And to make sure that his four-year-old daughter does not feel left out by the arrival of a sibling, he and his wife (Anjali Kapoor Bissell, who is the vice-president, communications and public affairs, Indraprastha Apollo Hospital, New Delhi) have “co-opted her into being a partner in looking after the baby.”
Hands on: Bissel is big on teamwork.
Artisans who supply goods to Fabindia are also Bissell’s partners. “We have always believed in partnering with the groups of people who work with us in a meaningful way,” says the managing director of a brand rooted in Indian crafts and associated with a range of products from handloom garments, home linen, furniture, organic food and body-care products to floor coverings and, in the near future, perhaps even jewellery.
Bissell believes that in the long term, the benefits must flow both ways. “If that doesn’t happen, then, eventually, such partnerships become unsustainable,” he says, explaining why Fabindia spent the last few years setting up “supply-region companies” where artisans have shareholding stakes. He says perhaps this idea of community participation came out of the time he spent at the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) with Anil Agarwal and Sunita Narain. “It certainly also came from the realization that if you want quality products, then capital must be pushed down to the first level from where these products emerge.”
Another reason is that Bissell, and Fabindia, are on the move. The recognition that the brand was huge came to Bissell when a mentor (a man he would rather not name) asked him and his management team to carry out a simple exercise. He told them to ask people outside the company what they thought the size of Fabindia’s turnover was. “Take an average of the figure, and that should be the size of your turnover.”
The answers he got surprised Bissell. “Our brand identity is much, much bigger than we are currently. So, to be true to that brand, we have to close that gap.”
This February, Fabindia opened its 75th store, not in some fancy, upmarket location, but in Karol Bagh, New Delhi. Till the mid-1990s, Fabindia functioned out of a single, stand-alone store in N-Block Market, Greater Kailash-I, New Delhi. Over a decade later, the store count has hit 77 — and two more are planned by the end of this month. The “export house” now sells 95% of its goods in India.
“Ten years ago, the market was tiny here. It is evolving today. Two years ago, if someone said ‘Let’s open a store in Nashik’, I would have said it is not a practical option. Now, we are likely to be present in many smaller towns, provided the rents are not stratospheric,” says Bissell. The company also has three stores abroad (in Rome, Italy; Guangzhou, China; and Dubai, UAE), with some more in the pipeline in other parts of West Asia.
A big challenge was how to ensure that supply kept pace with expansion plans—without impacting product quality. Hence the 17 “supply-region companies” set up in craft hubs such as Jaipur, Bikaner and Jodhpur in Rajasthan, Chanderi in Madhya Pradesh and Bhuj in Gujarat.
Fabindia Overseas Pvt. Ltd. was set up by Bissell’s father, who came to India in 1958. He had left his position as a buyer for Macy’s, New York, to work as a consultant for the Ford Foundation in order to develop India’s export potential in the emerging textile industry. He stayed on in India instead of returning to the US, and set up Fabindia in 1960—a Delhi export house synonymous with chic and contemporary handlooms and crafts. Bissell—who took over as MD in 1999 after his father’s death in 1998—believed that the way forward was to expand in the domestic retail market rather than concentrate on exports. “Marketing firms talk about waves, and I think there is a wave out there where people want to be a part of the authentic Indian style and sensibility. These people tend to gravitate towards us because of what we represent.”
Thorough planning helps accelerate growth and keeps the company focused, believes Bissell. So, while the last Fabindia vision plan dealt with organizing an effective supply chain system, the current one focuses on setting up more and more front-end stores, including some special format ones starting with a store scheduled to open in Hyderabad airport’s duty-free shopping area. The next vision plan is geared towards strengthening the company’s enterprise resource planning system.
I am meeting Bissell in his office, which is on the second floor of his residence in New Delhi. It is simply decorated space—with furniture from Fabindia of course. Dressed in a casual green pullover, Bissell talks animatedly about his favourite topics—Fabindia, the company’s vision plans, books, his mentors—but minces no words when he says: “I feel too many business organizations focus on the personalities of their CEOs rather than teams. Complex businesses are about systems, processes, delivery mechanisms, internal controls but, unfortunately, it is the myth of the invincible CEO that gets written about. I call that the Page 3-ization of our world.” An avid reader, he usually reads two or three books a week, and often gifts visitors or his staff copies of the books he enjoys.
One thing that comes through is that, apart from having a clear vision, Bissell is also someone who believes in swift execution. He is very hands-on with every aspect of what happens at Fabindia and a firm believer in the power of teamwork. Bissell attributes his way of thinking to the people he interned with as a teenager and to his father who, he says, was always keen that he soaked in as many different experiences as possible because “they broaden the mind.” Starting at the age of 14, Bissell has been a journalist, an environmentalist, and has worked in politics. “I have worked with Mark Tully and Satish Jacob at the BBC, and collected clippings for their library; I worked with Agarwal and Narain at CSE in 1986, when the environment was not on anyone’s radar; I even interned on Capitol Hill and worked for the re-election campaign of governor Richard Celeste. When I look back at these experiences, I think they really helped me understand things from inside out.”
A piece of advice from him: “When you work with people who are real masters, you learn by osmosis.” He thinks people should encourage their children to go out there and get internships and as much experience as they can. “Careers are not isolated into boxes any more, and you never know which experience will help.”
Apart from growing the store chain, Bissell wants to move the brand towards becoming a daily needs store rather than a special occasion one. “I want us to be in a place where Fabindia is woven into your life. If you want a lamp, you think of us; if it is breakfast jam you want, you reach out to us; if you want to buy something nice to gift, you should head out to the nearest Fabindia store. We never rest on our laurels. We have to think differently, that is the main focus of our plans.”
It’s quite clear that, like his father, Bissell is ahead of the times. The company’s projected sales for 2007-2008 are Rs300 crore, a full Rs100 crore more than the previous year. Sales have grown 40-50% annually over the last three years. In April 2007, James Wolfensohn, former president of the World Bank, bought 6% in Fabindia through WCP Holdings, a Mauritius-based company promoted by him.
“I think Jim Wolfensohn is a man looking for interesting ideas. For us, it was a mutual connection.” Bissell believes that Wolfensohn and WCP Holdings are committed to causes and are not like most equity funds which come in for a short while and then exit. “They have a commitment to making their money work. Their investment in Fabindia signalled to other people that we weren’t an NGO but a profitable business which conducts itself responsibly in the social context.”
While Wolfensohn’s investment has generated a lot of interest in the company, Bissell stresses that the investments by private equity funds such as Aavishkaar, headed by Vineet Rai, in the “supply-region companies” are a big deal, too. “To me, this is a mark of great pride, a sign that people believe in the brand Fabindia.”
CURRICULUM VITAE - WILLIAM N BISSELL
BORN: 10 June 1966 (New Delhi)
EDUCATION:Bachelor’s degree in political science and government, Wesleyan University, USA
WORK PROFILE: Set up a cooperative, the Bhadrajun Artisans Trust, in 1988; joined Fabindia in 1994 as a director, and became managing director in 1999
CURRENTLY READING: ‘Saving Capitalism From the Capitalists’ by Raghuram Rajan and Luigi Zingales
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First Published: Sat, Mar 01 2008. 12 49 AM IST