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Marcelo Villagran | A 38-year fetish for footwear

Marcelo Villagran | A 38-year fetish for footwear
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First Published: Fri, May 01 2009. 09 57 PM IST

Sole mate: Villagran has dabbled in every aspect of shoe-making from manufacturing to marketing. Jayachandran / Mint
Sole mate: Villagran has dabbled in every aspect of shoe-making from manufacturing to marketing. Jayachandran / Mint
Updated: Fri, May 01 2009. 09 57 PM IST
Included in the dossier of information I receive about Bata India prior to my meeting with the company’s managing director Marcelo Villagran is a spreadsheet with 99 rows of information. The sheet is Bata India’s audited financial results for 2008—Bata closes its financial year every December—and on the top right of the sheet is a little oval logo emblazoned with these words in bright red letters: “Best Ever Results”. For the year ended December, Bata India declared a net profit (after tax) of around Rs6 crore.
Sole mate: Villagran has dabbled in every aspect of shoe-making from manufacturing to marketing. Jayachandran / Mint
The largest font on any line in that entire spreadsheet is reserved for the last one—Bata’s campaign slogan: “Be surprised. New range. Great prices.”
The man I am about to meet, and what he has done with Bata India, has already surprised many people. But when I meet him in his unassuming office perched on the top floor of the Bata building in Gurgaon, Villagran is humble and soft-spoken to a fault. My first question is about his company’s “best ever results”.
“Every year, year after year, you must have best results. That is normal. That is how it should be in business when an economy is growing. But we did something that was beyond normal,” explains Villagran. Indeed, in 2008, Bata India’s net profit jumped by around 58%. Remarkable even in a growing Indian economy, says Villagran.
Bata India’s turnaround on Villagran’s watch has been nothing short of outstanding. When the veteran Bata hand moved to India after stints all over Latin America and Canada, the company was making losses, most stores were in poor shape and no less than seven employee unions had persistently blocked any attempt at reforms or a turnaround.
It was in such a scenario, in 2005, that Thomas Bata, the then doyen of the Bata Shoe Organization, asked Villagran to take over one of the multinational corporation’s most prized possessions—the Indian operations.
What happened to Bata India after that is prime material for business school case studies and perhaps a book or two. Villagran, in just a couple of years, transformed the ubiquitous brand beyond recognition. But when I point out how the business media attributes much of this success to his managerial skills, Villagran stubbornly refuses to take credit. “The business in India at the time was not normal. Stores were open when customers were not there. The range was not good. My job was to restore things back to a normal situation. Then things will automatically improve,” Villagran says.
Just a few floors below where we sit is a large Bata showroom that embodies much of the change Villagran brought into the 1,200-plus outlet network. Inside the store, salesmen bustle about in red Bata T-shirts in between racks and shelves of a mind-boggling variety of shoes. The most iconic examples of the Bata range, no-frills school shoes, now occupy one of the smallest sections of the store. Instead, shelves upon shelves are devoted to chunky Power sneakers, high-quality men’s formal shoes and an extensive range of women’s shoes. A fashionable, high-heeled number in red suede, with a little suede floret over the pointy front, may be no Christian Louboutin, but it’s pretty nifty stuff for a Bata store.
“You need to give people good range. If you give them choice at a good price then they will come. When I came to India our range was not good. But our brand was very, very strong,” explains Villagran in English thickly accented with the inflections of Latin America.
Villagran is a native of Chile, the reed-thin nation that runs 4,300km down the west flank of Latin America but is less than 200km across at its widest. Born and raised in Santiago, he enrolled in the commercial engineering programme at the University of Santiago. “It was a five-year programme and you also had to work in companies as part of the course,” points out Villagran. After his bachelor’s, which he is careful to remind me included courses on marketing (his favourite), finance and other managerial subjects, Villagran stepped into a very good job market—“Like it was in India two years ago.”
In his first job he was in charge of sales in a large part of Santiago for a company that made accounting machines. I ask Villagran what memories he has of his first job. Villagran thinks about it quietly—after all, the 38 years that followed would be devoted to Bata—before leaning back in his chair and laughing: “I made a lot of money in that job.”
Villagran remembers taking the accounting machines to companies and then telling them how the device could help streamline processes. “I would show them how it would save their time...how it would help in the office,” Villagran recalls. He sold a lot of machines and commission was good.
And then came the move to Bata in 1971. How has he managed to stick with an employer for close to four decades? “I did so many different things. I have worked in every department. And I moved through seven countries. Nobody can work in one company for 40 years if they sit in one office and one building. Bata has been very good to me.”
It quickly becomes clear that Villagran is much more comfortable talking about Bata and the shoe business than he is about himself. He talks effortlessly about the need for good shoes, wide ranges and big stores with good salespeople. But finding out about his hobbies and social life requires some prodding. And his simple office reflects this focus on work. The walls are covered with pictures of Bata stores across India and the shelf is full of trophies and certificates and a remarkably accurate stuffed toy version of the Hush Puppies mascot: a droopy-eared Basset Hound (Hush Puppies is one of the more premium brands of footwear sold by the Bata chain).
Villagran, I am told, is a workaholic who spends most of his time in office. And since his family lives in Chile, his weekends are devoted to Bata as well. On further questioning, he says he spends almost every weekend travelling to Bata stores all over the country—the weekend after we speak he was booked to go to Gangtok and then Kolkata. I ask him where his travels have taken him in India. Without blinking, he responds, “Everywhere.”
Over the course of the last four years, he says, he has managed to travel to every state in the country. When I look at him, amazed, Villagran swivels around in his chair to look at a map on the wall. And then he turns around to confirm: “Yes, every state.”
In a rare interview he gave to the media a couple of years ago, Villagran had mentioned that he had no friends or family in India. I bring that up and ask him if the situation has changed. “My wife visits very often. But otherwise no change. I still don’t have many friends here.” I ask him why and Villagran brushes it off, only saying that it is a little difficult to break into the social circles here.
He also gets little chance to pursue his passions of sailing or biking in landlocked Delhi, where the roads are potholed and the flyovers are purveyors of death.
So what next for Marcelo Villagran? He proudly says that he has developed a second line of leadership in India ready to take over if and when he moves on. “Today we have good people in the office. The transformation of our people is not 100% complete. But we are training and helping them improve.”
Otherwise, the Bata loyalist says, he is ready to go “wherever my company wants me to”.
Curriculum Vitae | Marcelo Villagran
Born: 25 March 1942
Education: Graduated from the erstwhile commercial engineering programme at the University of Santiago, Chile
Current Designation: Managing director
Work Profile: After briefly working for an office automation equipment firm, Villagran joined Bata Chile in 1971
What’s In A Name? While always careful about what he says to the media—“We are a public company and must be responsible with media statements”—Villagran is wary of how his name is mentioned. His surname is often misspelt
Favourite Shoes: Villagran leans back in his chair and sticks out both feet: “Hush Puppies. They are so comfortable.” Villagran hasn’t worn a non-Bata brand to work in 38 years
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First Published: Fri, May 01 2009. 09 57 PM IST