The founder of Vasanth and Co started with a Rs 8,000 loan and a Rs 22 donation to build a Rs 10 billion retail empire.

Vasanth and co founder Vasanthakumar in a maroon shirt and black pants sitting on a chair in one of the Vasanth and Co outlets
Voices Profile Sunday, August 30, 2020 - 14:52

In the early seventies, when Congress leader Kumari Ananthan was addressing public meetings, his younger brother H Vasanthakumar was testing the market for wooden pens from Kanyakumari called 'Kumari Pens', at a cost of just four annas. And that’s the start of the business journey of a man who, with a loan of Rs 8,000 and a donation of Rs 22 from a friend for a small shop in T Nagar in Chennai, went on to make Vasanth and Co – a Rs 10 billion retail bizhouse.

Vasanthakumar’s is not just a rags-to-riches story. It is also a tale of pioneering the Hire Purchase or instalment model (now called EMI) to expand retail trade, taking FMCGs, household appliances and furniture to the middle- and lower-middle-classes. He was the deliverer of the dreams of poorer people to own TV sets, mixies, grinders, washing machines and refrigerators – things that they saw and admired in TV ads before Vasanthakumar made it possible for them to afford them.

In the wake of economic liberalisation and the spurt in advertisements of corporate companies, especially multi-nationals, the corporate sector was not aware that it had created a longing, an insatiable appetite for materialism in sectors which did not have the purchasing power. In effect, it targeted a tiny sector with purchasing power. On the other hand, Vasanth, with his uncanny ability to sense the pulse of the people, found a way for their appetite to be partially quenched.

After he completed his graduation and post-graduation through correspondence course ("I wanted to work while I study") Vasanthakumar's first job as a sales representative for VGP company provided him the first clue. He began on a meagre salary of Rs 70 a month. An experiment in providing appliances in an instalment scheme was underway, and Vasanth had to call on the customers to collect the instalment amounts. It was then that he got vital feedback about consumer demands and needs.

Later, he quit and wanted to set up shop on his own. A customer had shut down his shop on South Usman Road in T Nagar, and Vasanthakumar approached him. He got the shop on the condition that he would pay Rs 8,000 in six months' time. He made a signboard using a wooden board from a packaging box. A friend, Bhaktavatsalam, gave him Rs 22 which was all Vasanth had as capital.

That was in 1978. With limited money, he began selling cane chairs and iron boxes. He implemented the plan to offer customers products on a Hire Purchase model. Customers would have to pay by instalments till they had covered half the cost of a product. Vasanth and Co. would then provide the customer with the product. The customer would pay the remaining half, again in monthly instalments. Customers found the model workable. And slowly, Vasanth began to expand, offering mixies, grinders and household appliances.

This turned out to be a mutually beneficial, win-win situation for both sides. Vasanth never used strong-arm tactics to recover the money. He backed the people. The carrot of getting more products from him once the first transaction was completed was enough incentive for people, especially women, to clear the first scheme. Over a period of ten years, many poor and lower-middle-class families achieved their dreams of having mixies and grinders of their own, which reduced their drudgery.

With the arrival of TV sets, and the ability to watch cricket matches and song-and-dance sequences from Tamil films, a new wave of materialism engulfed the market. Vasanth was ready to tap it, using the same HP model.

At the same time, Vasanth and Co endeared itself to the customers by its strategy of giving priority to after-sales services. Vasanth and Co set up customer grievance centres and mechanisms, a 100-line call centre and booths with separate staff to handle grievances.

He also approached big companies with offers of bulk purchase of electronic goods. He clinched a deal with Ashok Leyland for supply of 960 TV sets. Soon, manufacturers came to him with offers, and he passed on discounts to customers. The annual year-end, New Year sale for three days soon became a looked-out-for event as customers waited for the discount mela to make their purchases. Business soared for Vasanth, and he began replicating the model across Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Puducherry.

Vasanth tapped the huge rural market. "People don't realise that a huge market lies there. More than 60% of my customers are in rural areas,” said Vasanth when I met him a few years ago and wanted to know the secret of his strategy. "People there have aspirations too. And there was no one to serve them. The combination of service centres along with the sales pitch worked well in Tier-2 and Tier-3 areas as well.”

Vasanth and Co moved to 84 branches, with thousands of staff.

Vasanth learnt from his failures too. Vasanth and Co developed its own products but customers preferred Vasanth and Co to be a retail company, selling branded products which they knew and trusted, and were not willing to experiment with other brands. After a few years, Vasanth gave up manufacturing, and concentrated again on sales of branded products.

He followed the path of his brother Kumari Anandhan in politics, winning elections to the Tamil Nadu Assembly in 2006 and 2016, and to the Lok Sabha in 2019. However, it was his performance as a retail tycoon that drew awe and admiration throughout the country.

From a turnover of Rs 5 billion in the year 2007, he managed to double it by 2020.

In 2006, his affidavit before the Election Commission when he successfully contested the Assembly elections revealed assets of Rs 36 crore. Vasanthakumar disclosed an annual income of Rs 19.87 crore in his 2013-14 Income Tax return. This rose to Rs 28.93 crore in 2017-18, according to his I-T returns. In the sworn affidavit filed before the EC in May 2019, he disclosed assets worth Rs 412.45 crore. This showed an increase from 2016, when he again successfully contested the Assembly elections, his affidavit showing assets to the tune of Rs 332.27 crore.

Actor Rajinikanth and his wife Latha released the autobiography of Vasanthakumar called 'Vettripadi Kattu', in which he revealed the strategies behind his successes. When some of his staff suggested using actors and actresses in the ad campaigns of Vasanth and Co, Vasanth turned down the idea and promoted his own photo. "People know me and identify me with Vasanth and Co. My story is of the need for self-confidence and hard work. People have to get that message about our company,” he would say. Thus, the image of Vasanth looms large on the company stickers and ads, with the characteristic smile of Vasanth, a self-made, grassroots, pragmatic man who could give MBAs a run for their money.

Views expressed are the author's own.

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