HARKIRAT SINGH, Managing Director, Aero Club (parent company of Woodland & Woods), studied at Harvard before joining the family business at age 30. Here, he talks of the Aero Group’s entry into the Indian market in 1992, and the strides it has made since then, including online focus, product rejig and accent on sustainability, that helped Woodland address recent pandemic disruptions
LEATHER HAS ALWAYS
BEEN OUR STRENGTH
I belong to a business family. Leather has always been our strength, and we ventured into shoe-making with the best of leathers that we developed in-house over the last few decades. The business was started by my grandfather and I’m the third generation in the business. My father took the business to the international platform around 4-5 decades ago, when we already had tanneries and plants at multiple locations (India being our production base and Canada our business base). The brand ‘Woodland’ was born because of our operations in Canada, and we take pride in being the pioneer in outdoor footwear that we developed as part of our dominance in Canada, widely known for the best outdoor locations in the world. It was in the early 90s that we were looking to expand beyond our areas of operation, including Canada and the USSR at that time, and decided to explore our roots, i.e., India, that was taking shape as a developing economy. It proved so successful that we decided to move our base to India and invest in the brand, that has grown into a large retail chain with over 600 stores across India currently. I have fond memories of working hard and introducing the first-of-its-kind, hand-stitched leather shoes in India. This was followed by launch of the first two exclusive brand outlets at CP and South Extension in New Delhi. The journey has been continuous since then, as we introduced best quality products and diversifed into new product lines.
TO OUR PORTFOLIO
We recently added deodorants to our product portfolio, as they are a much-needed, perfect companion for the outdoors. These unique fragrances capture a whiff of nature in an aerosol bottle and embody the sense of adventure that Woodland, as a brand, believes in. The demand for fragrances has been increasing over the last few years due to our busy yet exploratory lifestyles and Woodland fragrances serve that demand. To overcome the effects of the pandemic, our fragrances would remind you of nature and enhance the mood, evoke nostalgia and ideally induce the feeling of being on vacation.
Meanwhile, we have a special division – ‘WIL’ (Woodland Innovation Labs) – under which we develop innovative products in partnership with our global partners. Fleece brand Polartec is one of those. Through such collaborations, we develop niche products that are the backbone of the brand since they cater to the requirements of explorers as per global standards. This division is aimed at establishing a bigger platform to offer our services to consumers at large. The Polartec tie-up appears to have truly benefited the brand, as its offerings are in line with the core USP of Woodland.
DURING THE PANDEMIC
Like every other brand, the pandemic has been a setback for us too, since the running business suddenly came to a halt. But the footwear industry worked hard during this phase. Being second to China in the production of footwear, India has the potential to overtake it by increasing its home production of quality non-leather shoes along with the already blooming leather shoe industry. We have used our amazing manpower to get back on track and focused on getting the raw material from States within the country. Initially, it was a struggle, but we have gradually got used to being ‘atmanirbhar’. Moreover, as the offline stores were shut, we focused more on online sales. Going digital made us learn and mandated us to give a personalized experience to each consumer. This increased our connectivity with users and helped us retain them as well. There were hard decisions involved at every step - like shifting funds and manpower to the online department, re-thinking on all planned stratagems - but in the end, it is working in our favour.
WHAT SETS WOODLAND
APART IN THE MARKET
Our hard work, dedication and our attempt to create a personalized experience for each consumer keep us growing in this competitive world. We believe in changing with the times while always being a sustainable business. An expanded apparel line plus entry into specialized sports equipment and travel gear has helped us grow. Fashion and lifestyle chains of stores of the sub-brands of Woodland have been promoted more aggressively as a premium extension of the core brand. During the pandemic, we focused on providing footwear and apparel to the consumer that can help them remain safe and healthy and can be used as work-from-home and office wear as well. Offering the consumer more as value for money with uncompromised quality keeps us going. Growth with the opening of more stores and strengthening the segments that we are in, adding to our workforce were planned before this pandemic. We will progress with that plan once things get back to normal. Till then, our focus stays on growing our online presence and media.
CHALLENGES BEFORE THE
SECTOR & WHAT IT NEEDS
The fashion and footwear industry is dynamic and ever evolving, which makes it difficult for market players to stay updated with current trends, consumers, and market needs. Players who can adapt to the change with time are the only ones who are going to be in the game for long. Another challenge is ensuring sustainability in production and manufacturing. The fashion and footwear industries are considered to create a lot of dirt on the planet. We are working to incorporate more sustainable practices into the business; in fact, consumers are also opting for sustainable fashion over any other. But that’s not enough to combat the massive amount of waste and pollution that the industry creates. The footwear industry would need to work more towards sustainability.
We have been an eco-friendly brand since inception as that is what we learnt and practised throughout our operations in Canada, USSR and other countries. We have an initiative called ‘ProPlanet’ through which we have been investing in developing practices around usage of eco-friendly materials, processes, products and packaging and this is being followed everywhere, irrespective of the market we are operating in. This is a brand investment for us, on which our brand is built. An eco-friendly brand like Woodland can only co-exist with the environment (No Nature, No Woodland … as we say). We have invested in robotic plants that have helped us take care of the environment and employee health, along with assuring the best finishing standards for our products.
‘I ENJOY DRIVING RACING AS WELL AS VINTAGE CARS…’
Leather is not just business, it's a passion for me. I believe that there is no substitute for hard work. The market is interestingly competitive and dynamic and thus, one needs to find the right hook to grow the business. Determination and grit will take you a long way. Always keep the bigger picture in mind as you strive to achieve your goals. Self-motivation is the best support. Invest in teamwork along with hard work, and believe in your team. Also, one should accept mistakes and work towards fixing them. I truly believe in setting higher goals and working towards achieving them with a strong belief in my employees and working with mutual trust. To work well, a healthy lifestyle is a necessity. This pandemic has made us realize it all the more. Beyond work, I enjoy following my fitness regime and also cooking. I enjoy driving racing as well as vintage cars, spending time with my tablet and collecting watches.