The name “FabIndia” is synonymous with Indian craftsmanship. But FabIndia represents more than just craftmanship – it is one of India’s most recognizable retail brands, and more importantly, a success story in real social impact. From a three-employee company at its inception in 1960 to over 900 employees-strong company with 90,000 artisans and 180 store locations in 2015, FabIndia has come a long way in terms of human capital management. It is also embarking upon an aggressive expansion strategy outside of India with stores in Singapore, Dubai and UK, and would be soon entering markets such as Philippines and Hong Kong.
Considering the theme of our current newsletter – HR in social impact enterprises – CIIE decided to have a candid chat with Mr. William Bissell, Managing Director of FabIndia. Mr. Bissel is a second generation entrepreneur, whose father John Bissell founded the company in 1960. We spoke with Mr. Bissel on what it took to build the talent pool that is core to FabIndia, and how the company was able to leverage it.
On picking the right people
My father, John Bissell, founded Fabindia in 1960 as an export company. He had a very good sense of people, and always seemed to pick the right person for the right position. While starting up, there was a determination to showcase Indian handloom textiles while providing equitable employment to traditional artisans, which led to the foundation of FabIndia. Moreover, there was a strong belief that there was a strong and real need for a vehicle for marketing the vast and diverse craft traditions of India and thereby help fulfill the need to provide and sustain rural employment. Building Fabindia has truly always been a team effort.
On growth-stage challenges in hiring
We have been incredibly fortunate as far as finding and retaining talent is concerned. Of course there were challenges given the pace of growth we were following in terms of people and policies. Most of our earlier hiring happened through employee referrals, ensuring adherence to our ideology. But that became difficult to maintain when we grew at almost two new stores a month. Rapid scale-up was therefore balanced with a lot of policies and systems. Overall, we’ve been lucky enough to attract really amazing people who believe in Fabindia’s ethos and mission. Our team members have tended to be very committed, and generally stay with Fabindia for a long time.
On motivating and retaining employees
I have found that at the end of the day, most people really do want to feel that their job makes a difference. A key component of our team staying so highly motivated is that we all really do believe that our work is important, and that Fabindia has a positive social impact,” says Mr. Bissell. As part of this effort, on its 50th birthday, FabIndia announced that nearly 700 of its employees will become shareholders of the company. We felt that it went with the beliefs of the company. As stakeholders, they have developed a sense of ownership towards the company and this makes for a great motivational factor for retaining employees.
On organizational culture
Organizational culture has always been incredibly important for Fabindia. We look for and attract people who have an understanding of and passion for our products, and who believe in our values, mission, and guiding principles. We create long-term relationships with people, give them regular work, pay them on time and treat them well.
Words of wisdom for current and aspiring entrepreneurs
I believe you need to be focused on what you want to achieve, and have clarity of thought. When you are hiring your first set of employees, make sure that they believe in the company and its ideology. It’s going to be a long road ahead; hence it is important that everyone sees it as more than just a job.
“How did we grow this big?”
In writing this post, we came across this article in which Meena Chowdhury, former Chairperson at FabIndia, while working on the company’s annual financial report, fondly recollects:
“Bissell would shout across the dividing screen to ask: “How many people do we now employ?” One year I said 20, the next year it was 40 and the year after that, I think, I said 82.” A dead silence would follow this exchange, so Meena would go over to assure him, and find the same look of exasperation, worry and unanswered questions writ on his face. “…Meena,” Bissell would say year after year. “How did we grow this big?””