The man who would be Sultan

February 4, 2018

The man who would be Sultan

 Instep Exclusive

A forty-five-minute drive at 10am in the morning takes one through the obstacle course that Shamoon Sultan must navigate every single morning to get him to the Site Area in Karachi, where his factory is. This monstrous route, which I take to interview him, is dominated by beasts of trucks and trolleys and traffic that would make even the world’s most congested freeway look like a green meadow. Most of it is outlined by the hyperactive Karachi Port, where massive containers reassure one of Pakistan’s economic stability, if such a thing exists. And it does, if you’re to believe Shamoon Sultan, the man who has taken Khaadi from one humble store on Zamzama in 1998 to an international chain of 58 stores across the world. The smallest and most remote would be in Mandi Bahauddin and the most prominent, perhaps in Dubai Mall, where Khaadi opened last month.

He’s done it by carving a unique path for himself. Shamoon gets to work well before office hours begin, expertly evading the noise and chaos of peak hour traffic. He’s just as effectively blocked all noise and chaos out of his life. Shamoon says he’s achieved what he has by staying focused.

"For the past 19 years I have literally worked for almost 12 to 14 hours a day," he says, as we sit down to talk after taking a tour of the spectacular Khaadi building. "I have never taken a gazetted holiday off in my life. I have never taken a Saturday off. Even on Saturdays when everyone else is off and the entire office is empty, you will find me at work in a tee shirt and shorts. And that is the best day for me."

But what do you do on Saturdays, I ask him?

"I dream. I plan my next week and the direction to take. It’s not just about putting in the hours; there has to be a mission, there have to be goals that need to be set.

"I have always given myself very short targets but now," he adds, "for the very first time, I’ve actually sat down and made a plan for five years. After 19 years I have a five-year plan. I am actually very nervous about it.

"Basically, the problem is that Khaadi and retail in Pakistan sort of started at the same time; the industry was so new, we were growing and learning together. In 1998, when I started, there was nothing on Zamzama. I remember Amir Adnan and Deepak Perwani being there. They were the pioneers who started retail. I think retail in Pakistan really started evolving after 2012, after Dolmen Mall opened up, creating that retail environment."

A lot of people say that the reason why ready to wear is difficult to sell in Pakistan is because there is a very small middle class segment and either you have people under the poverty line or people who are so affluent that they don’t buy kurtis. Do you think that problem still exists?

"It has become a little better and I think it will become a lot better in the coming three to four years. The middle class will expand. Everybody is talking about growth; everyone is optimistic about the next few years so I think it is going to grow, for sure. The market has grown 20 times in the last 5 years."

Does the CPEC have anything to do with that growth, I ask as I spot a couple of Chinese men in the massive conference room.

"It should. Of course, any sort of travelling, infrastructure development is beneficial."

As a businessman in Pakistan, do you think the climate for business is good right now?

"It has always been good," he smiles, which brings me to my biggest query.

How do you stay so optimistic, I ask him; what is your backup plan?

"My plan is to expand," Shamoon says with utmost clarity. "I personally feel that one of the reasons why people don’t grow is because they start relying on Plan B. I believe there shouldn’t be a Plan B."

He believes in Pakistan’s immense potential but Pakistan’s potential has never been the problem, he says.

"I feel the problem with Pakistan is that we haven’t been able to make a lot of brands for Pakistan. We have been good in working for other brands and companies. I mean, how many brands are there in Pakistan - you can count successful brands on your fingertips. There may be fantastic businesses but in terms of brands I think we have not been good with packaging / marketing our products. That’s where we’ve lacked."

What has been the biggest obstacle in the growth of the fashion industry, I ask him?

"I can be very honest but I might offend people," he contemplates and then continues. "There are two types of people in the industry right now - there are those who have large mills and setups, which is absolutely great that they are investing in retail and fashion and they are growing and then there is one set of designers who haven’t been able to scale up. That’s been the problem. Most of the designers in Pakistan are only into high end clothing, and I don’t understand why."

We discuss the Khaadi brand and the model it has followed, tapping into a purely Pakistani aesthetic, be it with the fabric they began with, the simple tunics, Khaadi lawn, ready to wear, Khaadi kids, menswear, Khaadi Khaas, accessories, Khaadi Home and finally, Chapter 2, which we’ll come to later. Not all divisions under the brand’s umbrella have been equally successful, I point out.

With so many different divisions under Khaadi, which one is the toughest to retail? What are the challenges as far as the designs are concerned?

"For the past few years we have been really focused on our unstitched business. I don’t know how many thousands of times we have grown in the last five years. Right now, I don’t think anybody is even close to the unstitched market that we have tapped into. There is a lot of focus on ready to wear now, mainly because it is our strategy to grow globally, hence ready to wear becomes extremely important for us. I firmly believe that if you focus on a certain thing then there won’t be any challenges. When you lose focus you will definitely come across challenges.

Because we were so focused on ready to wear and unstitched, our smaller concepts like kids, home, accessories and Khaas to some extent got a bit neglected. But now we’ve come back and realigned ourselves.

We want the company to increase threefold in the coming five years. How we’re going to do this – that’s the challenge."

What are the goals that you have set for yourself?

"Khaadi needs to be placed among the top 5 to 10 companies of Pakistan," he says with so much clarity and confidence that I am convinced he’ll get there. "I am not talking about profitability and top line sales but I am talking about governance, delegation of power, culture and policies. We’ve got a management trainee program that we have been running for a few years now and we’ve got kids coming in from LUMS and IBA. We want to be the best in every function that we do, be it HR, finance, marketing. We have to be the best now.  Till now the goals were to do well in fashion retail and to make Khaadi a retail brand of Pakistan. In the coming five years we need to make it one of the most prominent companies in Pakistan and that’s what the drive is. In the corporate sector we want to be better than Unilever and ICI.

"These days I am recruiting a lot of people for the next phase of growth and we have filled in key positions. Right now I feel like a captain or coach of a team who is about to go and win the World Cup. I’m absolutely loving it and I think the next five years are going to be phenomenal. I don’t know if we’ll be able to succeed or not but at this point it is very important for everyone to have a vision and set some goals; only then can one achieve them. You can’t just wake up one morning and expect it to happen."

It’s interesting that Shamoon speaks of his role as a coach, referring to winning a World Cup, because sports and fitness actually play a significant purpose in his life. His obsessive working habits are possible only because he is a "fitness person," he says. He loves to work out and he takes his diet very seriously. There is a huge bowl of chocolates on his desk, which he doesn’t even touch, he says with a determined look because sugar is his Achilles’ Heel, I’ve been told. We work through lunch for this interview but Shamoon doesn’t eat, relying on coffee served in beautiful Khaadi Home tea-cups for energy.

I also notice four massive portraits of sportsmen in his office. There’s Imran Khan for winning the World Cup, Javed Miandad for his infamous Sharjah sixer, there’s Squash champion Jahangir Khan and Hockey player, Shahbaz Ahmad, who led Pakistan to Olympic victory. Shamoon takes inspiration from these legends and hopes for the same kind of international recognition for Khaadi. It’ll take time, he smiles, but he’s getting there.

Khaadi is headed towards a fully operational corporate infrastructure; will this ensure that the brand survives beyond him? This is a concern that worries most designer-led labels in Pakistan, simply because most of them have not managed to create brands on a business model. Most of them are one-man operations that will die out with the designer.

"As I mentioned earlier, the last six months have been extremely busy because we hired McKinsey; I have set a target for myself that I want to achieve before I turn 50," he begins to explain. The door knob on his office door is a colourful 5-0, put up by his team as a constant reminder. "We have engaged McKinsey for the next three years and they are going to be our implementing partners for this strategy. Again, fantastic people to work with and they’ve been a great help.

"The reason why we did all of this is that Khaadi is a good Pakistani brand and we want to make it a global brand and again the most critical thing is that the legacy of the brand should continue for years. This was necessary in order to build an organization and institute, look into the structure that we have made and also keeping in mind the brand and business continuity as well, so that if one person leaves it shouldn’t matter.

The story behind Chapter 2

In 2017 Khaadi reverted to its roots and introduced Chapter 2, an exclusive range of hand-woven fabric, constructed in fashion forward silhouettes and clothes that featured zero print and embroidery. Shamoon talks about the idea behind it…

"Chapter 2 is actually the concept we started out with (in1998) but because we wanted to scale up we stopped doing it. Also at that time we didn’t have the resources to scale it up. We had a few weavers back then who made a few pieces that would come in to the store and would be sold in no time. We had to let go of it. Two years ago Saira and I thought to go back and look into it seriously. This in the long run will become a Khaadi CSR project. I said this to my team some 15 years ago that the only way to revive craft is to create a market for it. That’s the way to go about it and to create a market we can’t be pricing it so high or selling it from a boutique - one might make a brand out of it but what will happen to the craft itself?

"The craftsman doesn’t care about the craft; we have to realize that. What he cares about is feeding the family, children’s education, getting his daughters married off. If the craftsman would get a decent amount of money in any other profession, he will go for it. But to create the market we need to create scale, we need to be affordable; this is how market dynamics work.

"I am not talking about 400 weavers; I am talking about 40-50,000 weavers. How do we do this… we are planning to open up more Chapter 2 outlets across Pakistan. There aren’t many weavers so the whole idea is to engage ourselves in one of the vocational schools over here, get people in, vocational training, handloom weaving and give them jobs for hand looming. And what better way of sustaining a craft than to create jobs. This is what Khaadi envisioned in 1998 but at that time we sort of shifted because of the market and thank God we did or we would have missed out on the whole journey. Now is the time to do this."

"Even if I leave, the brand should continue. There should be enough people to take over for it to continue. It is very important and people have done it in the past."

Do you see your children coming into the business?

"Not at all. I don’t believe in businesses going to the next generations. A business should be corporatized and transitioned before the next generation comes in. We need to stop looking at what’s going in and start looking out. That is the only way to grow. People talk about Khaadi as the national brand of Pakistan. It is a huge responsibility. Before I retire or die, nothing will make me happier than making this into a Pakistani brand that is recognized worldwide."

Shamoon has been on this road for almost 20 years and there’s a five-year plan that will take him through the next phase in Khaadi’s life. Major changes are already being implemented – in-house production has been wrapped up and all manufacturing is being outsourced, the Khaadi factory will pack up in the industrial area and transition into corporate offices in Clifton or Defence very soon; having McKinsey on board will ensure that corporate strategies for growth are implemented effectively…this rocket is all set to launch.

What is the one quality that has helped him achieve everything, I ask him, hoping to end this interview on a human angle as opposed to a corporate one. I’ve already gotten glimpses into his life, met his wife Saira who overlooks the design department, and discussed his favourite vacation spots where he takes his children twice or thrice a year. His personal dream is to own a private jet, he smiles.

What is the one quality that has gotten him here and will take him further?

"I’ve never compromised on anything," he says, "and I’ve never taken any shortcuts in life. I’ve given my best in everything I do, been very honest about everything – about my work, about my dedication to my employees and to everybody who works with me. Honesty, integrity and commitment I think are the elements that make one successful; to never ever compromise on that and remember there are no shortcuts.

"There was just one day in my life that I was demotivated enough to not go to work," he refers to the Khaadi controversy that disoriented him last summer; we agree that that is a discussion for another day. "But that just made me stronger; it fuelled Khaadi even more. I feel we are ready to explode!"

The man who would be Sultan