Bengaluru: When Kerala’s umbrella tycoon Thayyil Abraham Varghese died in 1968 without a succession plan in place on his brand, the seeds of a rivalry that would one day spawn bluetooth umbrellas, selfie-stick umbrellas and GPS umbrellas were sown. Alappuzha-based Varghese had founded St. George umbrellas in 1954, a brand which monopolized the market until his death. The battle for his legacy saw the demise of that brand, and the emergence of two new umbrella brands by his descendants: Popy from Davis Thayyil and John’s from his cousin Joseph Thayyil.
Every year since, the two rivals have raced to come out with innovations before the monsoon. The state’s residents have seen many interesting and some truly bizarre innovations from the two companies during their decades of rivalry.
This year, Popy has GPS-tracker enabled “I-Track" umbrellas while John’s has “I-Auto", a battery-operated fully automated one that opens and rolls down at the press of a button.
There have been fancier versions in the past—reversible umbrellas, Teflon-coated umbrellas, ultraviolet-shielding umbrellas, umbrellas with built-in torch, thermometer, compass, whistle and even water guns.
When John’s came out with five-fold umbrellas—they fit in your pocket after five folds but can open up to a regular size umbrella—Popy responded with “Nano" umbrellas that do the same but with three folds, and at a much cheaper rate. Next year, John’s responded with “Atom", cheaper five-fold ones of the same size as “Nano".
“When I started, I spent a lot of time thinking what my cousin would be doing. It wasn’t just the brand name but the family’s prestige was at stake," said Joseph Thayyil, over the phone. Davis Thayyil echoed similar thoughts. “When you have a legacy it becomes more of a strain to keep up with it," he said over the phone.
But over the years, they have become less worried about the other, realising their strengths and weaknesses, and are now on speaking terms. Popy considers itself catering to an expensive range while John’s caters to the mass market.
“But now I’m more relaxed, since we are both established," Joseph Thayyil said. “I’m not competing with him anymore. When Usain Bolt runs, you judge him based on his previous performance, not by the person who came second," said Dannis Thayyil.
The umbrella business is seasonal, depending on the rains, and is not an easy one to crack. Sharp price hikes are not possible which would upset its middle-class market. Again, though Kerala typically gets a long period of rain, it is not the biggest market for umbrella makers, given its tiny size.
But John’s and Popy have been able to sell 70-90% of their umbrellas by the time monsoon is over every year, increase the ticket price on a yearly basis, and still make decent profits. Both companies clocked a turnover of about ₹ 60 crore and ₹ 100 crore respectively in the previous fiscal, as per the two Thayyils. The “I-Auto" alone costs ₹ 5,800.
Ever since the 1995 split in the house that Varghese built, the two companies hold brainstorming sessions during October-December period to prepare for the next monsoon, a tradition that still continues.
So what’s next for the companies? May be an umbrella that follows you, laughs Joseph Thayyil.