‘Our Supply Chain will be our Competitive Advantage’

ABFRL’s Chief Supply Chain Officer, R Swaminathan, or Swami, as he is affectionately called is an unassuming man. At first sight, it is easy to miss how remarkable this kindly, polite man is. A closer reading of the man, however, reveals several amazing facts. For one, this veteran is a one-man map of the entire back-end of the garment business. As part of his wide and varied experience, Swami has worked across every aspect of manufacturing, supply chain, exports and has turned around several businesses. Second, he has the almost magical ability to communicate with everyone—across age and class. It is no surprise that he is one of the most loved bosses around.

Understated and always a silent worker, he is one of the pillars of the organisation and has been the face of ABFRL’s manufacturing and supply chain. He shares his thoughts on the important learnings in his journey in ABFRL which started in 1993, his leadership style and his ambitions for ABFRL.

What are the highlights and learnings from your journey in ABFRL?

My career has been a series of learnings. Each new role has taught me a new aspect of doing business and over the years, I have now acquired a complete understanding of the backend of the garment retail business.

Early Years

I had the opportunity of leading large manufacturing operations in the early years of my career which laid a solid foundation for my journey in our organisation. My first learning in manufacturing has been about focus on customer satisfaction. This is what I learnt from the turn-around of our weaving unit—if you focus on customers, you can turn it around. Not internal measures. This has stayed with me for the rest of my career.

After that I had the experience of turning around the contract exports business to a profitable division. It took four years. But with the confidence of my seniors, reorienting the teams and with patience it got done. This is one of the most satisfying parts of my career.

Becoming the Brand

Consumers may come to you for the brand, but ultimately what they take back is the store experience and the quality of the product. If the product is not in sync with the brand, it will cause a major dissonance. This is where supply chain comes in. It actually decides the profitability of the company and also the way that the consumers like or dislike the product.

When I was put in charge of the ‘fashion brands’ [current lifestyle brands] I learnt the complete supply chain from end to end. I learnt how to strategize about whom to buy from and where to manufacture, in India and abroad. That’s when I realised that supply chain could become the backbone of the business.

As a member of the leadership team of ABFRL for many years, what are your thoughts on the making and role of a leader?

Lesson 1: Be Fair

The ability to get the best out of his or her team members is the biggest quality for a leader. And this happens when you treat people well.

Lesson 2: Trust

When I started out, Vikram Rao was my boss. Despite the fact that I was a Management Trainee, he would talk to me every day. I learnt a lot from those interactions. My bosses trusted me. This is very important. It is only because of their faith that I was able to align my team to the required goals. After all, most of the actual work is done by the teams!

Lesson 3: Boost Young Thought

I enjoy working youngsters whenever possible. I believe young people love working with me. I am unaffected by the generation gap. But more often than not, they stay with me because they see value in working in the team. They can walk in to my cabin and speak anything with me. This accessibility means that there is enough learning for them. Young people’s business awareness is extremely good. As a business we have been able to leverage that. When we provide continuous learning and growth to the team members, we attract the best talent to the team and people look forward to working with us. This has been a big learning for me.

Lesson 4: Celebrate

As a team, we celebrate even small victories, and every success. That is the only thing that is important. We don’t need to have big parties, big outbounds … we do that once in a while. But we have to be spontaneous in celebrating small victories. That is the only thing in my opinion that has worked for me continuously.

Who is your role model?

I would say my leadership style is most similar to Mr Ashish Dikshit. Mr Pranab Barua is my role model in terms of decisive leadership. I have learnt a lot from him.

As Chief Supply Chain Officer, ABFRL, what are your top five priorities?

  • The first priority is to make supply chain the source of competitive advantage for ABFRL.
  • To drive digitisation and Industry 4.0 in supply chain and manufacturing with a vision to be the best in class.
  • To attract the best talent in supply chain and create future leaders.
  • To create best-in-class planning processes to achieve continuous improvement in inventory turns.
  • To create product obsession in the team to deliver very high customer satisfaction.

What does a typical day at the office look like?
I believe in being a hands-on person. I like to see on ground what is happening for myself. So most of my day I travel to the plants, warehouses, etc. I don’t like to make a judgement on what I hear or what I see or read. That is my strength. The rest of the time, I interact with my team or with other stakeholders.

What do you do for fun?

I went paragliding last year for the first time! It was a fantastic experience. We were holidaying in Nepal and my daughter insisted that we must all go paragliding.

I have also recently made a foray into music by learning to play the keyboard and have passed my first exam. My daughter and I both learn together. This is something which I enjoy, spending time with my daughter by doing some ritual together. This is how I connect with her, engage with her and spend time with her. I am very poor in music! (laughs)

What is the one skill/ attitude that you wish you had picked up earlier?

I wish I had become resilient early on in my career.

According to you, what are the five secrets to corporate success?

According to me, the five secrets to corporate success would be:

The capability to get the best from your team,

Continuous learning,

The commitment to excel,

The ability to be unbiased,

Speed in response.

Box: Quick Five
Passion: Spending time with my daughter
Dream Destination: Switzerland-it is indeed heaven on earth
Favourite cuisine: I love Keralite cuisine
Favourite books: The Goal, Good to Great and Start with Why
Favourite movie: I love comedy. Panchatanthiram, a Tamil movie, is a favourite

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