People see me as a CEO today but few know that I have been working since the age of 15," says Vinod Talreja, 50. His career graph goes back to 1976 when he took up a summer job in his home town, Jaipur, during his school vacation and was paid 120 rupees (about Dh10) for the 45-day assignment.
Talreja had to report for work at nine in the morning for the 12-hour job as a shop assistant. It was during this stint that his desire to become an entrepreneur took seed. At the age of 17, along with a friend, he set up a trading enterprise of purchasing consumer goods in Delhi and selling them in Jaipur. The business did well as the duo met the distributors' demands in Jaipur. He recalls Colgate toothpaste and Boroline antiseptic cream as some of the top favourites among his customers. The family, meanwhile, had no clue about this start-up venture.
Talreja went on to take the All-India public service examination (UPSC), even before completing college, to meet the 18-year age criteria. Back then, the exams were so stringent that from over 200,000 candidates, just about 5,500 would be selected. The success led him to his first government job. "Those were some of the toughest years of my life. I would attend regular college from 7:30am to 10am, then rush to be on time for work and work until 5pm. Between 5:30pm and 7pm, I would take care of my business, making sure the orders were delivered to our customers, and from seven to ten in the night, I attended a private college to make up for the regular lectures that I would have missed during the day. By the time I returned home each day, it would be around 11pm."
A cousin's visit from Spain filled young Talreja with the desire to seek a living abroad. "His lifestyle seemed very different from ours. I asked him if he could take me back with him to Spain. He said I would have to complete my studies first. Of course, my family didn't take my interest in seeking a life outside Jaipur too well. It didn't help that I was the youngest son and even more protected. So upset was my father that he stopped speaking to me for a few days."
Soon after Talreja graduated from Rajasthan University in 1980, the cousin forwarded his resume to Babyshop in Bahrain where he had moved to from Spain. A year later, the chairman of the company Micky Jagtiani invited him for an interview during his visit to Mumbai. "I was all of 21, skinny, impressionable, restless," he recalls.
Talreja didn't think Jagtiani was an Indian at first sight. "He could hardly speak Hindi and I could barely get a word out in English. I was completely taken aback when he enquired about my experience in retail. How could I tell him that I wasn't doing anything so major? In those days, the size of any business was related to jargons such as ‘one-shutter or two-shutter shop'. So, when Micky asked me the size of my store in square feet, I looked at him and simply said, "My shop is medium-sized."
Crediting Jagtiani for his natural intuition and ability to spot calibre, Talreja says, "Perhaps, he saw something in me that was right and offered me the post of junior sales person at Babyshop in Bahrain. The theatrics that followed at home are best left unsaid."
It was on August 5, 1982 that I first landed in a foreign country. Bahrain was hot and humid. I was driven by my cousin to his friend's place where seven bachelors stayed together. I barely slept that night, bewildered by the heat outside and the air-conditioned interiors.
Coming from a family that waited on you for every little whim, coping in a new country wasn't easy by any measure. I couldn't share my anxieties with my family as I knew they would ask me to come right back. The fact that a few like me who had arrived with hope had returned to India after a few months of hardship didn't do much to give any courage. And, yet, I decided to stick it out determined to prove myself. I was, therefore, left with no audience but myself to share my personal woes.
The first three months were the best periods of learning; it was like graduating all over again. Apart from job-related responsibilities, it taught me to control my emotions, stand on my feet and make decisions.
I started enjoying and even loving my job. It helped that I was working with a visionary like Jagtiani. A fully hands-on person, he would visit the store twice a week and interact with all of us. I moved from one position to another - junior to senior sales manager, assistant manager, manager, purchase manager and so on.
I started travelling around the world with Jagtiani, observed the way he dealt with suppliers, represented the company, negotiated, and built relations with suppliers. Jagtiani is a great mentor - he believes in empowering people and trusts their decisions. He thinks big. He would speak about Walmart and German quality and Japanese technology if he had to make any references. He would tell us that when we dream big, we achieve big.
I came to Dubai in June 1995 as the joint director of Babyshop - a concept that was launched in 1973 in Bahrain and 1990 in the UAE with the first store in Sharjah. In retrospect, it fills me with pride that I have been a part of the journey that has witnessed the growth of the store to over 120 outlets across the region. During my tenure, I have seen children who have shopped with us now bringing their own kids to the store. This gives us a sense of achievement as it clearly indicates the kind of brand loyalty we have created.
We continue to mark our footprint in new markets. We are also getting into franchising business and have entered into Pakistan, Yemen and Kenya, and aim to foray into Sudan by the end of the year. We are looking closely at the western and eastern African belt, as well as South-east Asia.
We did start in China three years ago, but due to the worldwide recession things did not work as planned and we had to force ourselves out of the country. Hopefully, one day in the medium-term we will go back with a winning formula that caters to the mid-value mass market segment, which is conscious about pricing and local fashion.
Babyshop creates over 4,000 new designs every season with our team of 12 designers; we also outsource designs for our licensed products. We turn around the stocks twice every season, which gives each item an average shelf life of eight weeks. We plan at least eight to 12 months in advance for the next season.
Babyshop in the UAE is set to crown its catwalk king and queen in October. The six-month campaign is moving forward with much vigour, having drawn responses from over 6,000 children between the ages of zero and 16 years. Of the lot, 25 brand ambassadors from 19 nations have been selected by a panel of experts and given a celeb-style makeover through sessions with photographers, fashion designers and choreographers. In the final phase of the campaign, we will select three of the best for the brand's 2011-2012 Fall/Winter catalogues that will run into nearly half a million copies for distribution across the Middle East.
It's not just the three finalists that will win the laurels. Huge exposure awaits the other brand ambassadors as well as they walk the ramp for Babyshop's first top-billed fashion show at one of the shopping malls in the UAE where we have a good presence.
Considering the campaign was marketed only on social media and through Babyshop outlets in the UAE, the response took us by surprise. The campaign is our way of providing a platform to children who wish to pursue a career in modelling and for mothers who have similar aspirations for their children.
The team and I are already putting plans in place for making the model hunt a permanent fixture in Babyshop's annual calendar and replicating the campaign outside the UAE.
My family is very important to me. I look forward to returning home each day after work and relaxing with my wife and children. If for any reason, the family is out for the evening, I choose to spend the time with my friends and return home only when I am sure that they are back.
I am fortunate that I have a close knit group of friends that I can turn to for social sustenance. Our friendship goes back in time and has grown richer over the years.
Until a year ago, I was a frequent traveller and that took away a significant part of my time. Despite the schedules I would keep, I took up golf as a good stress-buster two years ago. My decision proved highly demanding, which prompted me to quickly put my aspirations to become a golfer on the back burner.
Listening to music is one of my must-dos while driving. I have a rare stock of old Hindi songs that I am very possessive about.
My personal style? I like to stay trendy and make sure that I dress my age. More importantly, I try not to be what I am not. Among the gifts that I cherish is the Rolex watch that my wife Hina gave me on my 40th birthday. Having said that, I am not a brand-savvy person, but if I spot good value in a brand, I will go for it.
When I stand apart and take stock of myself, I can see that I have changed as a person. At 21, I was short-tempered and impulsive. Today, I have successfully overcome these traits and I am better able to manage my emotions.
Looking ahead, I guess I need to lighten up a bit more and learn to live life less on the fast track.
I never for once imagined that I would come this far in life where I am able to live my dream every day. Life has unravelled itself beautifully for me and I do not think there is anything I wish I could have done better.
Would it be difficult to call it a day? Well, Babyshop has been a part of me for 29 years. And, as a member of the board of Landmark, I will always stay connected with the business even if I am not running the day-to-day operations.
I have travelled around the world, however, I'd like to slow down the pace when I retire. Switzerland is one place I would like to go back to and Macau is another dream destination. Despite all the countries I have visited my heart still belongs to my homeland.
I am also hopeful that my parents are blessed with good health and long life. And, it is my earnest wish to be there for them as they advance in years. When I moved away from home on my first stint abroad, for the first two years, my parents would cry each time I called them; words seemed redundant. My father is as emotional today as he was then. Although my mother does not express herself as much, I would say she is the stronger person. I have much to thank her for although I have often wondered if I have let her know that.
I dream of the day when I can launch my children - daughter Smriti (16) and son Karan (15) - in business. I tell them that university study only provides the fundamental grounding and there is some learning in every facet of our lives - even while shopping for that matter! I strongly believe that keen observation and careful analysis will always stand them in good stead, regardless of their career choices.
Finally, I would like to thank Hina for being my pillar of strength. During my frequent travels abroad, she would cope with the family alone and be there for the children. Had she not been there for us, I would not be where I am today.
Vasanti Sundaram is a Dubai-based freelancer