She is the first woman after four generations to join the 95-year-old family business, Nalli Silks. She is also the one who has built it up into a globally recognised brand. “I am the fifth-generation family member, and building the brand on an e-commerce platform with my understanding of today’s generation and consumer sense,” says Lavanya Nalli, the 38-year-old Chairperson of the Nalli Group of Companies, who spent her childhood at her grandparents’ home above the first Nalli store (set up in 1928) in Chennai and grew up witnessing the loyal customer base that the business enjoyed. She graduated from Harvard Business School with an MBA in 2011, worked with McKinsey & Company in Chicago, and moved back to India in 2013, and into the e-commerce world as Vice-President at Myntra (Flipkart Group). Returning to India after six years, she observed how the country had evolved as style, design and personal expression were constantly evolving, and resolved to take the legacy business into the virtual world.
“Today we have 40+ stores and are rapidly growing in India and worldwide. I launched Nalli.com, and am building and running the e-commerce business of the firm. Nalli is already the number one destination in the country for saris, but I aim to showcase every aspect of the brand to the world, which goes way beyond saris. I have been instrumental in expanding the product range to trendy designs. Nalli Next, the sub-brand for the newer age woman, was conceptualized to cater to women of different generations, and break the perception that Nalli saris are only suitable for older women or weddings,” says Lavanya. “A lot of people still think of Nalli as only having Kanchipuram or wedding silks, but while Nalli has the best quality Kanchipuram, Banarasi, and wedding silks, it's not the only thing in our stores. It just happens to be what we’re known for, due to our market leadership in that category. We have six more collections in the pipeline, and the design language is very different from traditional Kanchipuram weaves. The craft itself is expressed in very different forms, ranging from digital prints to handloom weaves. We can only continue to maintain market leadership by constantly innovating, disrupting ourselves, and raising the bar higher and higher, for design, quality, range and price. I have given the heritage label’s legacy its own powerful online footing, as well as expanded it domestically and internationally. Nalli has stores in major cities of India as well as in New Jersey and California, and is set to open stores in Dallas, Chicago, and Toronto.”
Here are excerpts from a conversation with Lavanya Nalli:
When you took on the role of Chairperson of the Nalli Group of Companies in 2016, what did you need to change or add to the legacy family business?
In my second stint at Nalli, I wanted to set up the e-commerce division because - 1. I believed that this format was here to stay, and we should move fast rather than have to play catch-up later and 2. Nalli was a recognisable and trusted brand name across the country with a loyal base, and I felt we could now reach our Nalli customers wherever they were in the world, even if they didn’t have a neighbourhood Nalli store. That was my biggest focus. I also wanted it to be a profit-making business and put a prudent business plan in place, which we successfully achieved and are now running a strong business in a sustainable manner. In 2020-2021, I began building up the in-house design unit and turbo-charging it by ensuring that Nalli’s own designs (which we have historically developed, ever since our inception, as we hail from a family of weavers) were now not only made available to our patrons, but were promoted and marketed in a more innovative and new-age way, and launched in a more coordinated manner across all stores and sales channels simultaneously.
What are the challenges in running a successful family business and growing it in a different direction, introducing the modern touch? What is in the pipeline?
Our business has endured for five generations, and there are always challenges during periods of transition – be it succession of the next generation, introduction of professional talent into a hitherto family-run set-up, or a market externality disrupting our way of doing things. If an organization’s culture is held firm by a shared belief in core values, it is better placed to endure the vagaries of fate. In the pipeline is more and more innovation on product – we say ‘Product is King’ at Nalli, and we will continuously strive to bring out the most outstanding designs at the best quality, at prices that are fair to our weavers and yet extremely competitive in the market through continuous product-innovation and R&D. In addition, thanks to our network of 9,000+ suppliers, of which 2,500-3,000 are very active at any given point in time, we will always offer the kind of range to our customers that make us a category-killer in the sari market.
Lavanya Nalli with her grandfather Dr Nalli Kuppuswami Chetti (foreground) and father Ramnathan K Nalli |
Lavanya Nalli with her younger brother Niranth Nalli, who handles the jewellery arm of the business, launched in 2012 |
Earlier, women wore the sari out of habit. Now they wear it by choice and the number of regular sari-wearers is perhaps fewer. How do you view this vis a vis your business, and is Nalli doing anything to promote the tradition of wearing the sari?
In my own life I’ve seen the Indian woman’s attitude to the sari go through three shifts: wearing saris out of societal custom, rebelling against the sari as a protest against conformity and tradition and rediscovering the sari as an expression of their individuality, and embracing it out of choice, and not out of compulsion.
The third group of women are probably born in the 1990s and beyond, and have little emotional hang-ups about wearing a sari. To them, it’s an expression of their style and persona. If you look at the percentage of India’s women who used to wear saris on a regular basis, say, 40 years ago, and the number today, yes, it’s fewer women. But in modern India, more and more women are able to afford high-quality saris (which wasn’t always the case in the past), more women are able to own multiple saris for different occasions (not just the few that they used to be able to afford and had to wear), more women are moving into the urban, working force and have financial independence and disposable income that they are choosing to spend on themselves and on products that bring them joy. Nalli will always promote the stories that celebrate women, that celebrate fine craftsmanship, design and innovation.
Can you share some lessons learnt on your journey so far – especially real stories from the shopfloor - for upcoming entrepreneurs entering into the family business space?
I learnt the most from our most tenured salespeople. In my early 20s, I used to stand behind the sales counter and observe them, and ask a lot of annoying questions, and they used to patiently explain everything to me. I learnt the most about my customers and how women shop and what they look for (or not look for!) by observing them and learning from them with an open mind. Curiosity and an open mind can teach one a lot.
What next from Nalli? Going forward, tell us about your business expansion plans as well as long term growth strategy. Where do you want to take the brand from here?
We aim to be the No. 1 sari destination in the world. Today, we are the only organized player in the sari market, yet we have not even penetrated 10% of the organized sari market. That shows how much scope we have to grow and take our products to every woman who ever wanted a sari – be it an heirloom keepsake to pass on generationally, or a fun organza print for a night out on the town. Our value system of integrity and honesty has guided us for nearly 100 years; I am sure it will guide us for a 100 more. We are bullish in the immediate term, on our ‘Design by Nalli’ label, growth expansion across India and internationally, as well as expanding our own online channel www.nalli.com to be the No. 1 online sari destination in the world.
On outlook for the festive season
“For most of us, Diwali is about revisiting stories within ourselves when we visit home. The Soundarya collection celebrates these stories. The saris from this collection are woven in Kanchipuram in 4-ply pure silk threads. They are a true heirloom that can be passed from one generation to another. The collection takes inspiration from a myriad of iconography ranging from mythology to poetry, music to nostalgia of Diwali celebrations. The collection not only has traditional Korvais in traditional colours, but also contemporary saris in pastel colours. ‘Soundarya’ is an ode to the age-old tradition of weaving in Kanchipuram, a ballad of stories both old and new,” Lavanya says.
On her Favourite sari story: MS BLUE
Lavanya’s favourite sari story is the ‘MS Blue’ (the name given to a distinctive shade of blue, shot through with black and green highlights, that was used in saris woven specially for the legendary singer MS Subbulakshmi by master weaver Kancheepuram Muthu Chettiyar). “It is truly one of my favourites because in one snapshot it reveals so much – about India, about women and their love for sari, about Nalli, about weavers and their relentless pursuit of innovation, about passion and that quest to conquer that which has never been attempted before,” she says.
On customer evolution trends
“Women want to wear saris now for more and more non-traditional occasions, and so the versatility and convenience of a sari matters, in everything from fabric (wrinkle-free, breathable, easy wash and maintenance) to design. With the proliferation of social media, women no longer want to be seen in the same outfit more than once, and so for better or for worse, the pressure to be seen in a new outfit each time (or at least styled in a new way each time) is real,” states Lavanya Nalli.
A MOTHER, A BUSY ENTREPRENEUR…
Counted among corporate India’s fastest rising women leaders and an influential entrepreneur, the much-awarded Lavanya Nalli is an ambassador for the Government of India’s innovation efforts and the ‘Champions of Change’ programme. An Aspen Fellow, she is also a published author of three children’s books, and an avid fitness enthusiast. Under her leadership, the company’s revenues grew from $44 million to $100 million. “I have pretty much become a workaholic these days – my days are packed between Nalli, and my five-year-old son, who keeps me on my toes. Earlier, I used to write, draw and paint quite a bit. These days, I don’t have much time for hobbies, and I spend my downtime trying to get outdoors as much as possible for a day-trek or a good hike somewhere in the woods and away from the city. We are all human and bound to make human errors. The key is to keep striving to be a better version of ourselves,” she says.