WILDCRAFT – THE EVOLUTION OF AN INDIAN OUTDOOR BRAND

A Wildcraft showroom; this one is at the Inorbit Mall, Navi Mumbai (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

A Wildcraft showroom; this one is at Inorbit Mall, Vashi, Navi Mumbai (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

This is the updated version of an article originally published in 2011.

Over a decade ago, we were fast approaching the departure date for a mountaineering expedition.

The experienced team members had imported backpacks.

The rookies lacked anything comparable.

We headed out to meet a gentleman near Churchgate in Mumbai, who had brought to town large backpacks made by Wildcraft. Those days, Mumbai had no Wildcraft dealer; this man was an aspirant. A black and green `Zanskar’ by Wildcraft – that became my first serious expedition size-backpack. Months later, I made the journey to Bengaluru and the garage-shop in Jayanagar, Wildcraft functioned from. I was merely doing what many did. For us, Wildcraft was the backpack we heard of, searched for stores selling it and eventually made the pilgrimage to Bengaluru to buy.

That was years ago.

Now Wildcraft has over 100 exclusive stores nationwide and many more shops that retail its products without being exclusive to the brand.

Wildcraft’s genesis almost 25 years ago was similar to how many outdoor gear businesses started. There were these folks addicted to outdoor sports; they scouted around for gear, found little and instead of complaining, decided to make it. Dinesh K.S, Co-Founder, Wildcraft, belongs to that league. He is an engineer given to rock climbing and mountaineering. It wasn’t long before he was forced to choose between his job at an electronics company and, expeditions. Those days the economy was just opening up. Bengaluru was a hot spot for garment-outsourcing. The basic raw materials for making outdoor gear could be chased down locally or traced to suppliers overseas. Enter Wildcraft.

Photo: Shyam G Menon

Photo: Shyam G Menon

Wildcraft’s first product was a chalk bag born from climbers’ needs. Its first major product was a dome tent. The tent wasn’t for sale but it gave the company’s founders a taste of the Indian market, which had neither volumes in outdoor gear nor viable price points. The company shifted to backpacks; everyone in the outdoors needed one.

Born from hands-on experience, Wildcraft products were relevantly engineered. They were also well designed unlike some of the other competing indigenous products, which were functional without much attention to aesthetics. Using outsourced manufacturing facilities, the company made backpacks, sleeping bags and a modest range of outdoor clothing besides selling imported climbing hardware. It also had a services wing catering to outdoor activity and management programs. A small garage was office and shop.

However the struggle for scale continued. With the country very low on active lifestyle, the Indian market for outdoor gear was abysmally small. Help came from an unexpected quarter. The IT boom provided relief. As software engineers poured into Bengaluru, the demand for laptop bags and smart daypacks rose. A product line thus opened up which was sufficiently big for the iconic but small-volume outdoor gear business to piggy back on. Dinesh recalled a specific instance. Wildcraft makes a sleeping bag that packs really small. Whenever Bengaluru faced a bandh (shutdown called by political parties) and IT companies wanted staff to overnight on premises, they placed a large order for this sleeping bag. Alongside, orders for daypacks continued. Still, brand Wildcraft lacked a road map as visited manufacturers in any overseas market with well entrenched outdoor lifestyle.

Around this time, Dinesh became a mountaineering instructor with the US-based National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), splitting his time between courses in India and the US. Wildcraft drifted. There was a churn in the original set of three partners running Wildcraft. Two new faces joined, whose actions have redefined Wildcraft. Although not from the outdoors, Gaurav Dublish and Siddharth Sood were MBAs working overseas. After studying the business and drawing up plans, they invested, joining Dinesh as directors. In a nutshell what they seem to have done is harness Wildcraft to ambition, forcing the brand to articulate what it wants to be thus checking that drift. The services wing was shut down. Between services and products, when viewed through the prism of scalability, products appealed more.

Photo; Shyam G Menon

Photo; Shyam G Menon

Globally, outdoor brands broadly fall in two categories – strong activity-based niche brands associated with a few products and large brands straddling a range of products. Wildcraft’s initial phase was the former. Could it have continued there? “ Numbers matter when it comes to sourcing and negotiating better prices. Numbers are everything today, so you must have more sales counters,’’ Dinesh had said in 2011, when this article was first written.

By early February 2015, the once reclusive Wildcraft had 100 branded retail showrooms in India. There were 20 franchised outlets. Most of these 120 outlets were profitable save five to six outlets, which opened recently. Approximately 25 per cent of company turnover came from its owned and franchised outlets. The balance 75 per cent was from distribution, large format stores, online portal sales and institutional sales. In 2011, its top five showrooms were already past Bengaluru-centric; they were Jayanagar (Bengaluru), NOIDA, Kochi, Chandigarh and Vashi (Navi Mumbai). By 2015, the same mix was Lucknow (opened in October 2014), Mumbai Linking Road, Vashi (Navi Mumbai), NOIDA, Jayanagar and the outlet at Mantri Mall, Bengaluru. Wildcraft became a one crore-company in 2007. It crossed the Rs 100 crore-mark in turnover in 2013-2014. “ We should be Rs 160-165 crore by the end of 2014-2015 fiscal year and sail past Rs 250 crore by 2015-2016,’’ Gaurav said. Over the past few years, the company grew at a CAGR of 60-70 per cent, which over the next three to five years should settle to around 40-50 per cent. “ Basically, we grew by 100 times in seven years and plan to grow by ten times from where we are now in five years,’’ Gaurav said.

From the new range of Wildcraft backpacks (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

From the new range of Wildcraft backpacks (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

As Dinesh pointed out in 2011, the transition attempted is towards becoming a big brand, retailing a variety of Wildcraft products founded in outdoor DNA. Gaurav had tweaked it slightly for better perspective – as yet there is no global outdoor brand from the tropics. The company now has its own factories – two in Bengaluru; the other in Himachal Pradesh, Speaking of the old Bengaluru facility and the then new factory in Himachal, Gaurav and Dinesh had said in 2011 that both facilities were cost-competitive despite location in India. In manufacturing, the challenge then was raw materials, which players in China and the Far East had better access to. Asked for an update, Gaurav said that Wildcraft had manufacturing costs that matched those prevailing in China. However more recently emergent manufacturing locations like Vietnam and Bangladesh would be hard to beat.

The Indian market too is changing. In the past several years albeit in small volumes, brands like La Fuma, Millet, Quechua (from Decathlon, which has a major presence in India), Berghaus, Petzl, Beal, Camelbak, CAMP, Cassin, Rock Empire, Boll, Evolv, Boreal, HEAD, Coleman, Coghlan’s, Deuter, Lowe Alpine, Columbia, RAB and Hi-Tec, became available in India, not to mention standard fixtures like Victorinox. Some brands entered and quit or withdrew to study the market better; others continued. Fact is – thanks to growing momentum in the sports segment (across sport categories) and the progressive adoption of active lifestyles, the market has grown. Although price point and which sport will grow are still a matter of debate – and within each vertical’s story, an often inconsistent narrative – the Indian market is firmly past the stage of being ignored. Running, the most visible symptom of active lifestyle, now spans urban India. From tryst with two or three large Indian brands, the domestic bicycle market now hosts the who’s who of international cycling. Things have changed. Gaurav estimated the total market relevant to Wildcraft at two billion US dollars annual sales. He pegged the outdoor gear segment at $ 500-600 million; outdoor apparel at $ 800 million-1 billion and outdoor footwear at $ 800 million-1 billion. The `outdoor’ reference used here is defined on the basis of product design, materials used, construction and intended application for sports and outdoorsy activities.

Needless to say, two product segments Wildcraft was studying in 2011 (and which it has since acted upon) were shoes and apparel. By early 2015, the company had a line of outdoor clothing and footwear. These lines of business separate the big brand from the small one. Internationally, big outdoor brands get 60-70 per cent of revenue from apparel sales. The company now has a design team which conceptualizes products and lays down the specs. Depending on the product, there is an element of outsourcing; for example, the company’s footwear is sourced from China and Indonesia. “ Around 95 per cent of what we sell is made by us,’’ Gaurav said. None of Wildcraft’s expansion can happen without money. Gaurav’s primary concern in 2011, as regards future plans, had been funds. Private equity may be an option, he had said.

Dinesh K. S, Co-Founder, Wildcraft (Photo: by arrangement)

Dinesh K. S, Co-Founder, Wildcraft (Photo: by arrangement)

In mid-2013, news reports first emanated of an upcoming deal. Silicon Valley based-venture capital fund, Sequoia Capital, invested Rs 70 crore in Wildcraft. The money, Gaurav said, should take care of the company’s need for funds till 2017. It would be used to pay down debt, enhance production capacity, expand retail footprint, meet working capital needs and generally reduce the leverage of the company. The most visible aspect in the Wildcraft story is a brand grown big – especially the push in the physical retail space. Is that wise when e-tailing is exploding? According to Gaurav, 15-20 per cent of Wildcraft’s revenues come from e-tailing. He believes that seen from the brand’s viewpoint, all channels have a role to play. E-tailing gives exceptional convenience and choice to customers. At the same time, it is typically being fuelled by discounts and Wildcraft, he said, does not wish to discount. Second, he said, “ in the lifestyle space, touch, feel and fit will continue to remain an intrinsic part of the buying experience.’’ There is also the fact that the growth numbers recently reported in the Indian e-tailing segment are from the industry’s initial growth phase; its steady sailing will be at more settled growth rates.

While all this provides vignettes of the Wildcraft story from a business and financial perspective, what may matter for the Indian outdoor enthusiast – the type who made the pilgrimage to Bengaluru years ago to buy Wildcraft’s backpacks – would be something else.

The Indian market has a devil in the details. It impresses with it numbers and capacity for volume. The more important question is what do you do and where do you go with these numbers because the nature of these numbers has a tendency to shape the personality of your business to what the Indian market is. This may not work well in the adventure / outdoor products space. To provide a metaphor – when you climb and your risk levels rise (with commensurate expectation from your gear), you have already bid goodbye to the bulk of brands out there and reposed faith in a few, which deeply matter as the ones you trust your life with. For an outdoor company, treading the volume market is a balancing act because in as much as it enjoys proximity to top athletes and access to testing gear in the world’s greatest wilderness spaces, it must be careful not to dilute that DNA as it sells more and more. In India, this challenge is even more unique for although you run into potentially promising business volumes, the country was never traditionally a hotspot for authoring outdoor DNA, something Wildcraft itself realized when it searched for good designers. Outdoor talent is hard to come by in India overwhelmingly wedded to the settled life.

Gaurav Dublish, Director, Wildcraft (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Gaurav Dublish, Director, Wildcraft (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Wildcraft articulates its growth thus – between the two potential business verticals of addressing the head-to-toe needs of the outdoor enthusiast and being an activity specialist, it has chosen the former. “ You can be one of the two,’’ Gaurav said, February 2015 in Bengaluru. This is fine strategy (the company already has apparel and footwear usable for the all the Indian seasons) especially when coupled with Wildcraft’s emergent desire to grow competence around the outdoors of the tropics. The bulk of the world’s outdoor gear companies groomed their DNA on experiences straddling the geography between the poles and the Tropic of Cancer / Capricorn. The equatorial belt and activities therein, didn’t attract as much. Addressing it will be engaging. But it will be a challenge, fitting such transition into the existing global narrative and perception of outdoor DNA. As Wildcraft courts business, some shifts are already showing. For example, the company is a large manufacturer of backpacks by volume. It has products devoted for rugged outdoor use, which have been recently improved as well. But the numbers-chase in the market has the centre of gravity in this business firmly in the small backpack category, especially in daypacks used by youngsters and such. You suspect a similar drift in the preference to go with head-to-toe as opposed to being activity specialist.

Wildcraft’s current strategy is fetching it revenues; in fact its revenues have grown sharply. That in turn, probably enhances its faith in the new strategy. But how can it stay convincingly ` outdoor’ despite the realities of the relatively non-outdoorsy Indian market where people buy outdoor stuff to seem outdoorsy than actually be out? Can volume play mislead an outdoor company into preferring the softer product segments? – This will be what any observer from the outdoors will track in Wildcraft’s evolution. Viewed thus, specialization in activity has its value. The reason you buy clothes for running from a shop that sells running gear or clothes and footwear for hiking / climbing from a shop that sells gear for the same, is because the irreplaceable and most wanted are also around. They add to the discerning customer’s conviction when buying related or more peripheral stuff. The outdoor DNA is actually all about zeroing down on the irreplaceable, the pure core. If you move away from that ethic, you sell more but in the eyes of the outdoor enthusiast, you just became the mainstream. It then becomes only a matter of time before the mainstream picks up the buzz from the hard-core and a brand loses its aspiration-value.

Photo: Shyam G Menon

Wildcraft shoes (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Some years ago, when the global outdoor products industry went through a spate of realignments, a few well known outdoor gear brands were acquired, while others joined larger coalitions – all of it meant to put together a comprehensive outdoor product-range under one roof. With over 100 branded outlets, Wildcraft has opened up a wide reaching physical retail presence and distribution pipeline. It wishes to be strong as head-to-toe outfitter assisting people to take up outdoor pursuits; it does not wish to be one-activity specialist. Will it use its channels for activity-specific gear that complements its head-to-toe business? In 2011, Wildcraft had not closed options as regards multi-brand retailing at Wildcraft shops, co-branding and joint venture manufacturing. In co-manufacturing there has to be tangible technology gains for Wildcraft. Quizzed further on this topic, particularly the potential for inorganic growth, Gaurav explained in 2015, “ we have not shied away from inorganic growth. We are open to it.’’

The market is not only buying Wildcraft products, it is also watching it. In the local trade with its share of stores begun by trekkers and climbers, Wildcraft’s strategy is often debated for departing from the typically cautious outdoor approach driven more by passion than appetite for business. The old school understands the organic, home-grown business model. Did the team take a real risk by scaling up? On the other hand, if Wildcraft succeeds, that would be a measure of the market. That is when the action would commence for businesses run by its critics as well. “ We welcome competition. The more the competition, the better the market buzz around outdoor products,’’ Gaurav had said in 2011.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is a composite of two conversations with Dinesh and Gaurav, the first in 2011, the second in February 2015. The financial and business data given herein are from Wildcraft; it is a privately held company. A crore is 10 million; one crore rupees is 10 million rupees. At the time of writing this article in February 2015, a dollar was worth little over 62 rupees. An article based on the 2011 chat appeared in The Hindu Business Line newspaper.)

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