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From Blackboard to Boardroom

Rahul Sharma / 4 October 2009

Raza Beig learnt the art of entrepreneurship very early in his life, but didn’t know politics would change his life forever and bring him into the world of fashion

ONE of the hard lessons that Raza Beig learnt as a young boy, when his film-maker father died, was that he had to quickly learn to fend for himself. The other was that he had to earn for his family that didn’t have much money, as his mother struggled to bring him and his five sisters up.

So Beig, now chief executive officer of the region’s biggest fashion retailer Splash, launched his business career early at the age of 13 when he offered to teach his laundryman’s son for free in return for the washing bill.

“It took me six months to teach that kid alphabets, but then he became one of the best in his class. That gave me the belief that I had the ability to teach. Slowly from one student it became five and I took it as a profession as I went into the first year of my junior college,” he tells me over a lunch of salad and fish. Before he knew it, Beig’s teaching had turned into a full-fledged business in Mumbai’s Bandra suburb where he lived.

“I taught for eight years before I gave up. I was repeating myself and there was no more fun. There was no new energy or story, it was just the subject. And I lost interest. By that time, I had hired teachers also,” he tells me, adding that he made enough to invest in a shirt-making and television cable business before religious riots in Mumbai in 1992 pushed him to move to the Gulf and make fashion retailing his business.

Beig made a fresh start at 24, when he gave up his business and applied for a job as a fashion buyer with Mothercare in Bahrain after reading an advertisement in a newspaper. “I never knew of a designation called fashion Buyer. It was very interesting, I read it, got all kicked and then hand wrote an application. I got a call and rest is history.” He says he went for the job because he knew he had a flair for fashion, he could also buy and negotiate — things he had learnt in his business in Mumbai.

Splash, which was launched in 1993, is today the largest fashion retailer in the region with around 90 stores in the Gulf countries plus Egypt, India and Jordan, Beig says. “The kind of depth and reach we have is unchallenged…we are in the mid-range. We would give fashion to consumers who have aspirations to buy designer, but can’t afford it.”

Beig says Splash understands the region’s men and women well and are sensitive to their needs. “Today, 80 per cent of my customers would be Arabs or Arab expats. Arab consumer is very, very well read now especially when it comes to fashion and they shop a lot. So they know what exactly the happening trends are. They are also not forgiving anymore. If you make a mistake they will dump you,” he says of his customers.

And while Splash would still register growth in a bad year as 2009, the market has been shaky, Beig says, adding that he would like to expand in Europe and compete with European brands there. “I compete with the European brands very successfully here, but I would like to do that in their own home markets. But this is not the time. So we will wait for things to change,” he says.

Fashion changes every day it has changed vastly in the region, Beig tells me when I ask him about how different it is to do business from when he started. “When we started, there were JC Penny, BHS, Sana, and there was a company called Fashionwear…and then came Woolworths. From the day we started, we were conscious about our buying. It had to be beautiful, nice, fashionable, good quality and with a great price,” components that attracted customers.

The fashion scene in the region was very different in the last decade. It was difficult to buy shorts, bodysuits or miniskirts. “Nobody did it. But there was need. People would at least wear a miniskirt at home and still feel sexy…so I broke a lot of norms at those times,” he says, confessing that he did get shouted at many times by his bosses who questioned his decisions.

Beig says one of the big factors for success has been Splash’s ability to keep pace with change. “I have constantly adapted to the change that is happening in the region whether it is my store fittings, buying procedure or budgeting systems. In the 16 years of operation, I have had four concept changes. I had three name changes; Splash started with signature and then went into water. Today I am proud to say that my store looks as international as many of my competitors; in some places, even better.”

For the CEO the favourite brand remains what he vends to others — Splash — but Beig does rue the fact that there is precious little that has changed in men’s fashion. “Unfortunately, you have to usually wear a shirt and a trouser,” he says in his matter of fact manner. The good part is that women’s fashion has turned on its head in the past several years.

“Excuse the language, but women’s fashion has been bastardised today in a way that everybody has ownership of it. Go back to the early 1990s or even till 2000, key pieces of designs were delivered by designers. Today, a couture-looking piece is a shape or a splash. Earlier, you went to a designer because you wanted exaggerated sleeves or hips. But today, it is available everywhere. It has changed very dramatically for women,” Beig says.  

He says women are changing too. “There used to be a class of women who would never be able to shop below a certain value. Today, they are saying...why I should pay so much for it when I can get the same design for a lot lesser.” This has obviously changed the way business is done.

“Earlier when I used to buy, we were a business of strong staples. We never went into couture, shapes or colours. In the last five years, we have focused on designs. From a team of two designers, we now have a team of 50,” Beig says, adding that the shift had helped Splash stay ahead in the race as the customer’s perception of the company changed.

At 42, Beig holds his mentors Micky and Renuka Jagtiani -of the Landmark Group — of which Splash is a part — responsible for his success and says Renuka was the one who moulded him into what he is. “She wants to bring out the best in an executive. Unlike other executives who try to hold things, she gives. If you have the ability to learn and train, she is the best trainer in the region. While Micky has given unconditional support, Renuka has taught me on how to approach things. I owe a lot to them,” says a grateful Beig.

He says after spending 15 hard years at building a strong retail brand he has made himself redundant in the company in a lot of ways. “I ensured that the team takes over and I don’t have any right of veto in the company. But I have an opinion. What I do is to ensure that once the decision is taken, I will evaluate the decision. And if it is good, pat, if it is not good, then…..we will talk about it,” says the man who prefers designer accessories and likes to wear Dolce & Gabbana suits.

“They have the best cut; they make a obese body like mine look good.” 

 Editor Rahul Sharma savours the idea of mixing work with pleasure for this column.  You can write to him at rahul@khaleejtimes.com

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