“Hey look, suits!” exclaims Mark Ashman. We are walking out of the Trident, Gurgaon, and the lobby is crowded with men in grey and black suits.
“Are they Marks and Spencer (M&S)?” I ask him.
“Let me try and get close and if I hear a British accent, I am going to say chances are nine out of 10 that the suit is M&S,” he says as he sidles up to the group to try and overhear some conversations. “I think three of them are,” he points excitedly as he catches up with me.
Bag it: Ashman wants to shift M&S out of the premium positioning it has in India to the mid-range category. Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Ashman, CEO of Marks and Spencer Reliance India (M&S), clearly shares not just a first name, but also an excessive interest in suits with his employer. With a joint venture recently inked with Reliance Retail, Ashman is hoping that soon he will not have to keep an ear open for a British accent to spot an M&S suit.
Rewind 2 hours. It is 9am and I am meeting Ashman for breakfast. He is carrying a rather large M&S shopping bag, and over the next couple of hours extricates a considerable number of items of clothing from it to demonstrate M&S’ plans for India. Despite his icy-cool British demeanour, Ashman is buzzing as he points out design changes and price graphs and I only half suspect it is because of the five cups of cappuccinos he drinks during our meeting.
He begins by explaining why M&S in India switched from a franchisee model to a joint venture. “If you look at the India context and the scale of opportunity here, then to leave that in the hands of a franchisee is underselling an opportunity. It isn’t until you start investing your own money, putting some of your own people on the ground, that you can really start serving the market. The biggest change we have made is from a product perspective, to make what the Indian market needs,” he says.
Though M&S has been in India since 2001, it has had an air of overpriced dowdiness about it. Ashman has spent the last year trying to fix just that, ridding customers of their perceptions of the brand while cashing in on its high recall among Indians. “The Indian consumer certainly knew the M&S brand. But it was based more on their travels abroad. What I did not realize at the time of taking over the India operations was that their experience of shopping in M&S India was quite negative,” he says.
So Ashman’s first task was to end the relationship with Planet Retail, the M&S franchisee in India since 2001. Then, he scoured for a suitable joint venture partner and in April 2008, signed up with Reliance Retail. Since then, he has gone about sizing the Indian consumer and changing M&S’ supply, design and retail strategies so that they could become a “significant retailer in India and not just another foreign store”.
“I am wearing an M&S shirt today and I bought this in the UK. Notice anything different?” he asks. I shrug; it looks like a regular white shirt to me. “This doesn’t have a pocket!” He is shocked at my inability to spot that. “Now in the UK, less than 20% of the shirts have pockets, because there you wear a jacket and you can put your wallet, mobile phone and spectacles in the pockets of your jacket. But here, not many people wear jackets most of the year. So in India we only sell shirts with pockets,” he explains.
These are small nuances but they are crucial to M&S’ ability to endear itself to the Indian consumer. So Ashman moves on to Exhibit B, and pulls out a pack of socks from his bag. The socks, sold in packs of seven for Rs995, will now be sold in single pairs. An only-in-India deal for M&S, he explains. Next is a pair of trousers with pockets designed so that coins don’t roll out when you sit.
Ashman is an excited salesman as he displays things, and by the time he reaches the low-waist, skinny jeans that are tailor-made for the Indian woman, I concede that I am impressed. “This is why you should switch from Benetton (what I was wearing for the meeting and the antecedents of which he had enquired about in the first minute). You should visit our store, we have great products and now they are at great prices.”
The pricing issue is what keeps Ashman up at nights nowadays. He wants to shift M&S out of the premium positioning that it has in India and move it to the mid-range, good-value category. The best way to do this, he says, is to source from India, while keeping the company’s quality standards in view. “In the summer season just gone, about 40% of our products were sourced in India and Bangladesh; it was less than 20% a year ago. Within five years we’ll source 70% of our apparel from India,” he says.
Ashman started his career with M&S, UK. He describes himself as an intuitive retailer. “It’s been too many years of not doing anything else. I can walk to a store, watch a customer and understand whether we are on track,” he says. He has learnt a lot about India and the way we shop in the two years that he has spent here. Prior to that, barring a holiday in India 14 years ago, he had had absolutely no exposure to the country or its retail landscape. “The offer (to move to India) came out of the blue. I was really lucky that I asked my wife, Alexandra, how she felt about it and she immediately said yes. My children, Benjamin, who is 13, and Isabella, who is 9, have absolutely loved India. My son has even learnt to speak good Hindi,” he says.
Ashman and his wife were concerned about how their children would react to the poverty in India. But they have adapted well, he says. They make sure they stock bananas in the car so they can give them out to beggars on the streets. “It’s strange because when you are sitting in the UK, and if the children are not eating their food and you say there are a lot of people starving in the world, they look at you like you’re crazy. Now I don’t have to say that, they see it. What I hope is that it is a life experience that stays with them. I am sure they will be back here in the future,” he says.
Though he finds working in India frustrating at times, it is clear that the country has effortlessly gotten under his skin. He is amazed at the people here, from the staff at his home to the employees in his office. “They are all so eager to learn, so positive, so genuine,” he says.
I point to the slightly faded red thread on his wrist and ask him why he’s wearing that. “It’s a rakhi,” he says as he twists his wrists and disentangles it from his cuff. Who tied it? “My cook,” he says fondly. And in those two words, perhaps, lies the real story of how Ashman came East to change the way we dress—and how India grabbed him and made him one of her own.