Two hundred stores in 10 years, spanning five million sq.ft and 38 cities in India, and a turnover of Rs2,000 crore last year—impressive statistics by any standards. Yet, the most striking thing about Kishore Biyani, promoter of the Future Group of companies and its flagship, Pantaloon Retail (India) Ltd, is his ordinariness.
Much like the leisure habits of the estimated 150 million middle-class Indians who will throng his Big Bazaar supermarkets, clothing chain Pantaloons and other stores this year, Biyani’s own favourite pastime is unremarkable. He and his wife regularly go for an after-dinner spin on Mumbai’s Marine Drive in their recently-acquired Honda Accord, listening to old Hindi movie songs or the latest remixes.
Every other Sunday evening, Biyani and a group of 20 friends from college, along with their families, head out to Inox cinema at Nariman Point in Mumbai to take in the latest film—usually Bollywood fare, or an occasional English feature—over buttered popcorn. Then, over dinner at a friend’s home, Biyani does a frame-by-frame analysis of the movie, topped perhaps by a round of antakshari, which he always plays to win. “Everybody in India watches cricket and goes to the cinema, and everybody reads something; I’m no exception,” he says.
The next morning, celluloid mantras are distilled into a page of business wisdom which Biyani sends his managers, inviting their comments. Note this “Monday Musing” of 12 March, on the Will Smith-starrer, The Pursuit of Happyness, the true story of a struggling salesman’s journey to fulfil his dream. He says, “The film has influenced the way I spell ‘happyness’ now. Happiness with the ‘i’ makes it restrictive. It kills the largeness and the magnanimity of an expression as simple and unbound as happyness. The ‘y’ in happyness enlivens the sensation and makes it larger than life. Beyond giving consumers great product offerings, big bargains and holistic experiences, I believe that we are sharing/selling a component of happyness... (which) invites people to shop, eat and celebrate.”
It is from Bollywood that Biyani understands the trends that are transforming India, where half the population is under 25. He says, “We have to watch and use any good movie or serial that is popular. The theme we’re picking up now is that in an earlier generation, young people rebelled because they were not allowed to do what they wanted. This generation gets what they want, and are rebelling against the system. Rang de Basanti inspired movements for justice. Dil Chahta Hai taught us which places in India are accepting lifestyle changes. Salaam Namaste showed us where the idea of live-in relationships is being accepted. So, you pick up trends and a picture of India emerges out of this.”
It is one thing to be a Bollywood-watcher, and quite another to be a film-maker. Believing that this would be an effective and low-cost way for his brand to reach the Indian masses, the entertainment company that he co-founded made Na Tum Jano Na Hum in 2002. The film starred Hrithik Roshan, Saif Ali Khan, and Esha Deol, and the story centred on the Pantaloons store and brand.
The movie flopped, as did a second production. Says Biyani wryly, “It was my first taste of failure. It proved once again that the customer and the customer alone can decide one’s success or failure—Na Tum Jano Na Hum, (Neither you know it, nor I.)”
What did move fast off the shelves was the movie-related range of merchandise, lending credence to Biyani’s faith in Bollywood as a way of reaching out to all types of Indians.
Himesh Reshammiya, a popular Bollywood singer who endorses Biyani’s DJNC brand of jeans, says, “He definitely has the vision of India tomorrow. He knows how to connect with youngsters. Biyani knows what is ‘cool’.”
Hema Malini, film star and MP, is similarly inspired. She says, “I admire his simplicity despite his big achievements. Like him, I am a lifelong learner. I’ve been in movies and politics, and I now want to get a taste of business. I thought I’d bring an international women’s product line to India, and went to him for advice.”
Instead, Biyani convinced the star to co-create a range of home furnishings called Dream Line, for his Home Town stores. She adds, “I was fascinated by his passion to reach first-time home owners in lower-middle-class India. In the store, you will get everything you need for the home, A to Z, under one roof, at affordable prices.”
These days, while Biyani may have abandoned making Bollywood films, he uses its powerful storytelling techniques for all company pitches. A presentation titled ‘Lagaan’ shows the 11 “advantages” of the in-house Pantaloon credit card over the foreign ones. ‘Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi’ depicts the daughter-in-law who shops at Big Bazaar, getting value for money in comparison to her mother-in-law, who patronises the neighbourhood grocer. And a presentation much appreciated by foreign institutional investors is titled ‘Bunty Aur Babli’, with a voice-over from the movie in Amitabh Bachchan’s baritone, saying, “Yehi hai India (This indeed is India)”.
Says Vinod Gupta, one of Biyani’s old college friends, “Ever since I have known Kishore, he has had two desires—to make a film and write a book, it’s great to see both come true.” The autobiographical book, It Happened in India, which Biyani has co-authored with business writer Dipayan Baishya, will be released on 20 April.
Sameer Sain, former managing director of Goldman Sachs, who now manages the billion dollars in funds he helped raise with Biyani, has already “remixed” an old Hindi film song:
Chodo kal ki baaten, kal ki baat purani,
Naye daud pe nikale hain,
Likhenge nayi kahani, Kishore Biyani
(The past is old, that scene is done with;
It’s a new run now, and Kishore Biyani will write its script afresh.)
Name: Kishore Biyani
Title: Group CEO, Future Group
Qualification: B Com, HR College Commerce and Economics, Mumbai
Pursuits: Watching Bollywood films; listening to film songs
Claim to fame: Maverick entrepreneur and author, who has built one of the country’s largest retail chains from scratch in a uniquely Indian format, made Bollywood films and dabbled in celebrity marketing
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