Sharp shooter

Ten years ago, mass clothes store Giordano Middle East was a mere twinkle in Ishwar Chugani’s eye. Today the executive director and former UAE darts champ tells Alicia Buller how he scored a bullseye with retail.

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By  Alicia Buller Published  April 16, 2006

|~|36-Image-5-200.jpg|~|WINNER: Chugani has already spearheaded the launch of 141 regional stores. Now he will concentrate on cracking India.|~|Ten years ago, mass clothes store Giordano Middle East was a mere twinkle in Ishwar Chugani’s eye. Today the executive director and former UAE darts champ tells Alicia Buller how he scored a bullseye with retail. His pens are neatly lined up on the desk, peremptorily sorted into matching colours. Everything is in order here. And the head office is eerily quiet, in spite of the clamour for 20 dirham t-shirts happening just a few metres away at the firm’s inaugural warehouse sale. Giordano is, quite unmistakably, a tightly run retail organisation. “I am an obsessive-compulsive,” says Ishwar Chugani, executive director of the Middle East clothes giant. “Sometimes it has been a problem,” he admits, “however, lately, I’ve learned to control it.” But, as much as you’d like to believe him, evidence of OCD still lingers: on his desk, and throughout his organisation. “I’ve got files in my office from 10 years ago, when I started the business here. And I could still tell you exactly where anything is,” he says with a flash of pride. And soon the table is flooded with papers, books and news clippings extolling the virtues of Giordano − from just about every angle you could think of. He even passes over a sheet depicting the number, location, opening date and exact footage of every single store in the region. (There are 141 of them, if you’re asking.) “I know exactly what is happening at any one point in all of my stores. I have web camera linkage to most of my stores so I can see them in real time from my desk,” he says. “And even when I physically visit my stores, I can tell just by looking in one of the shop drawers whether the team is working well together or not.” When pressed as to whether he is the retail version of Orwell’s Big Brother, his face drops: “No, it is just efficiency,” he says. “Information sharing,” he adds for good measure. He’s a funny chap, this Chugani. For a self-confessed obsessive-compulsive, he has the sunniest of dispositions − betrayed, only, by the intensity of his gaze. He is also wearing a crumpled Day-Glo yellow t-shirt that would look more at home on the beach than in a tidy steam-pressed wardrobe. “I’ve never been a suit man,” he says. “Like Giordano clothing, I like to keep things simple.” Established in 1981, Giordano International now operates over 1800 stores in 30 countries and serves up casual basic clothing to over 1.6 billion customers across the world. And it is not an understatement to say that the firm owes a sizeable chunk of its success to Chugani. The executive director opened the organisation’s first regional store in Dubai in 1993, in conjunction with parent company Emirates Trading Agency, and he hasn’t looked back since. He now oversees the running of stores in places as far flung as Saudi Arabia, Georgia and Iran − with more shops set to crop up in Southern India this year. He also pays passing homage to his dream of opening 1,000 Giordano stores in China, but, for the moment, at least, his imminent hopes lie with the retail growth boom throughout India. “I have 35 more shop openings planned across the region and India. And I’m not worried about them either, because it’s a tried and tested formula now.” Chugani says. “India will be a growth spot for Giordano. The population, in the South, particularly, is experiencing a 20% increase in disposable income − the young people are now experiencing the benefits of numerous IT outsourcing centres that have sprung up in places such as Hyderabad. That said, India is one of the places that we’re going to take on a bit more slowly. It is a huge place and every state in India is a like a country all of its own.” Chugani, like his stores, is something of an international mélange. Indian by descent, he was born and raised in the Philippines, which he says has given him his love of casual clothing and his informal attitude to management and people. “I went to the number one university in the Philippines but I still used to mix with all kinds of people. I don’t even think about where someone is from. I can communicate on all levels. Some of my former classmates are now politicians, for example. But when I meet them, I say ‘forget Mr. Chugani, call me Ishwar’ and vice-versa. This seems to go down quite positively and so it’s something that I always do.” He goes on to say that he moved to the UAE in the late 1970s to follow his entrepreneurial dream, helping to set up the hugely successful, but now defunct, Sinbad’s Wonderland theme park for kids. Meanwhile he made sure to keep up his love of darts, a hobby he acquired while he was at university. “I was the UAE darts champion in 1984,” he adds, as if it was the most normal thing in the world. Chugani, you see, doesn’t look like Eric Bristow, and it’s not easy to imagine him hanging out with the corpulent Brits at Dubai’s Red Lion pub. “It’s just something I’m good at,” he says, adding that he still loves to practice on his board at home. “It helps me both to relax, and to focus.” Chugani’s willingness to join in the fun at spit and sawdust pubs cannot be taken as an isolated point. Here is a man that, despite running 140 stores, also makes every effort to make time to get onto the shop floor − he also says that most management staff in his organisation aren’t recruited from outside. They’re grown in-house, regardless of their prior experience. “I’ve always said that I don’t work for anyone, and they don’t work for me. They work with me,” he says. “Hence, the latest general manager I recruited for Saudi Arabia originally joined as a data entry in-putter, and one of my assistant logistics managers actually started out as service staff. If they have the knowledge and commitment, then they get the job.” “The reason I get up every day is because I know that I am affecting 500 lives [his staff]. In the beginning you don’t see it like that, but then you realise it’s you and all these other lives. In fact, I know plan to grow the organisation to 1000. So I’ll have another family of 500 staff.” What makes Chugani so sure that he will be able to keep the retail organisation growing at its current exponential rate? “We’re going to concentrate on our usual formula − which is looking at good locations and listening to the customer in terms of trends,” he says. “Giordano had a head start in the beginning because we were able to identify flagships locations in Deira in Dubai and Bur Dubai, and we were one of the first foreign brands to enter the UAE. We don’t worry about the slightly higher rents; we just get in there first. You shouldn’t waste time making decisions, just get in there.” He pauses. “But still now we have to concentrate on segregating our stores into concept and value − it’s called micro marketing. Because of our massive interconnected global database, I have immediate access to our buying database and it’s easier and quicker to understand our customers. It’s fun getting to know them.” The way it works, he says, is that there are some 600 styles available for purchase within the region and, of this number, a certain percentage can be tailored for local needs. UAE patriots tend to like linen trousers, as do their KSA counterparts, for example, while in Iran trench coats are popular. And all these styles can be adapted in terms of size, material, and pockets based in on individual needs. What’s more − crucially − the pervasiveness of the network means that changes can be made quickly. “The concept of unisex is no more, today’s shopper is about tailored convenience, his and hers,” Chugani says, adding that his customers are split more or less evenly between men and women. People are indispensable to Giordano − starting with the staff. “I reckon that, out of every 10 people that leave here, eight want to come back,” boasts Chugani. However, he then admits that he doesn’t have the statistics available to back this statement up. “It’s just a feeling I have,” he says. And the reason for this? “Well, we don’t stuff 20 people into a flat. I make sure all the employees get a nice central flat in Karama and we also provide good transportation. I try to keep it transparent because I know that if my people are happy, then that gets conveyed to the customer and then they come back,” he says, adding that adequate incentive programmes are important. And, again, Chugani’s perfectionist tendency rears its persistent head. “When I feel that things aren’t perfect, I order ‘Operation Clean Up’. That’s why these offices are 10 years old, but they still look fresh,” he says. “I’m the Taurus star sign,” he continues, “so I’m stubborn, but I’m loyal.” And, with this, he jumps out of his chair, wriggly and energetic in his yellow t-shirt, looking not too dissimilar to Mohdesh, Dubai’s Summer Surprises’ both loved and loathed mascot. Happy. Hyper. Serious. Tidy. Scruffy. Darts player. And prolific entrepreneur. Giordano’s overriding motto is ‘simplicity’: “It is from simplicity that all our other values follow. By keeping it simple we streamline our operations and that allows speed to happen. "The speed then allows you to create value because time is money and by keeping simple consistently you can offer your customers convenience,” reads one of the many pieces of paper the executive director has strategically placed on the table. But the beauty of it is: no matter how much Chugani protests, he is anything but simple.||**||

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