One of the old Duckback catalogues has this advisory for customers on getting the best service from raincoats: “After the rainy season, apply some French chalk to the rubber side of the coat and keep it hanging in a cool dry place.”
French chalk? Even Nilufer Bose-Archment, a senior official of the company, looks perplexed, her raised eyebrows and upturned lips professing a certain helplessness about such things.
Then there are the Waterproof “Railway” Holdalls, Dak Bags for postal officers, Nor’Wester caps, Overshoes, which were worn by fine gents over their shoes, Rubber Heels for both ladies and men, Cyclists’ Caps, Racket Cases, Gun Covers, Wellingtons and contraceptives—and what the catalogue really does is tell you that Duckback, back in the days before independence, had spread its net wide even as a portion of its product range had been outrun by time. “We even had waterproof covers for horses,” says Bose-Archment.
Founded in 1920 in Kolkata as Bengal Waterproof Works (now Bengal Waterproof Ltd), India’s first waterproofing factory which produced the Duckback brand of rainwear, the company is now at a tipping point, says Bose-Archment. The old guard that held on tightly to the reins of the family-run business, especially Bose-Archment’s late uncle Debabrata Bose, widely respected for his professionalism, have died or are no longer active. Some reports hint at labour-related trouble at the company’s Panihati factory, on the outskirts of Kolkata.
The company, which has been facing acute financial difficulties since rubber prices shot up from Rs 55 eight years back to Rs 280 per kg around 2009-10, was sanctioned a corporate debt restructuring (CDR) package by the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) in March. According to author Amit Bhattacharyya’s second volume of Swadeshi Enterprise in Bengal: 1921-1947 , sales in 1941 totalled Rs 40.42 lakh. This figure increased to Rs 60.05 lakh in 1960 and Rs 1.18 crore in 1967. Figures for later years are unavailable. According to Arup Sen, company director, their annual turnover since the mid-1990s has remained more or less in the range of Rs 50-60 crore.
With the CDR package in place, Sen says, Duckback is poised for a comeback. “The plan is to raise production and expand our retail business with more Duckback exclusive stores and franchises. We also need to advertise for the younger generation of customer who might not be as aware of the brand as their parents,” he says.
In earlier decades, school life in Kolkata and other cities wouldn’t have been complete without a Duckback bag and raincoat, or a family vacation without the company’s holdall and air pillow. These customers, now parents, are likely to be Duckback loyalists.
Duckback’s ability to endure till replaced by a trendier option has also been its failing—an inability to reinvent, move from the holdall to the rucksack, one generation to the other.
In the drawing room of the century-old Bose family home in south Kolkata’s Nazar Ali Lane, one is drawn in to a different era of corporate living in Bengal. The room’s Burma teak walls, the cupboards full of vintage crockery and artefacts, the brochure with its illustrations of European-looking men in Burbanks, a long Duckback trench coat, cavaliers wearing berets and pulling away at pipes, indicate an old order.
Bengal Waterproof, though, was borne out of a swadeshi (nationalistic) mindset towards business. Founder Surendra Mohan Bose, states author Bhattacharyya in Swadeshi Enterprise, was not just a swadeshi entrepreneur like many others at the time, he was also a political opponent of the British. While in prison in Uttar Pradesh’s Hamirpur for anti-state activities during World War I, he became aware of the perilous working conditions of Indian soldiers, who didn’t have proper rainproof gear.
“Many Indian soldiers died because of lack of groundsheets, raincoats or boots. S.M. Bose, who had studied at the Berkeley and Stanford universities in the US, had an interest in catering to the military but the initial objective was triggered by nationalism,” says Arati Hosali (nee Bose), an elderly member of the family.
After his release from prison, Bose, along with his brothers Jogindra Mohan, Ajit Mohan and Bishnupada, went on to form the company, backed by a unique manufacturing methodology which came to be known as the Duckback process.
Like cola formulations, Bose-Archment remains tight-lipped about the Duckback process. She acknowledges, though, that it is this innovation in manufacturing, the secret mix behind the durability and goodwill of the product, that kept Duckback ahead of the competition.
That, by all reckoning, is the best bet when the brand seeks a revival in the liberalized marketplace; a carry-over of production values from the pre-independence era when Duckback advertised itself as “Entirely Indian—Indian capital, Indian labour, Indian materials and Indian brain”.
“It is true that we have not been able to keep pace with post-liberalization India, when the country grew at 8% every year. While the Indian consumer market grew by geometric progression, Duckback grew by arithmetic progression and has been conservative,” says Sen.
Duckback is still a good brand name, contends Arabinda Ray, an author and expert on corporate life, especially in Kolkata. His certification is not unqualified though. “The market for raincoats has dwindled a lot. People also use cheap raincoats for short-time usage.” Children, traditional Duckback rainwear users, travel by school buses where earlier they walked or used public transport, adds Ray.
Even though the company has ceded ground in the mass consumer space, it has found steady orders coming in from the defence establishment. For, unknown to many, the company has kept up its production of rubberized inflatable boats, G-suits for pilots, submarine escape suits and life jackets. But the time has come, Sen adds, for the company to regain growth in all sectors. Both Sen and Bose-Archment are new to the 92-year-old company. Both seem enthused and circumspect about the future.
After spending 20 years in the US, Bose-Archment returned to take charge of the export wing of the company a few years back. She speaks earnestly about the need to advertise Duckback as an “ecologically friendly” product which does not disintegrate easily, unlike the PVC-based products of competitors in the rainwear market, which “leach chemicals to your skin”.
Possibly, there is a realization that Duckback’s swadeshi line of promotion, used during the British period, may not hold water in the globalized mall space in India—and that only new initiatives and ideas can bring Duckback back from the depths of market nostalgia.
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