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Establishing footprint with ‘roti, kapda aur mall'

SOMA BASU

The Chairman and Managing Director of Milan Textile Enterprise Pvt Ltd , Lalji Vora, tells SOMA BASU how the brand-conscious customers' search for a basket of mixed products will soon end at Milan'em Mall

PHOTOS : S. James

WORKAHOLICNothing is small for Lalji Vora

Finally, the city is getting it -- the first mall ever. It is semi-ready now and mostly by this year end will be fully functional, filling in a huge aspirational gap of small town Madurai. And the man behind this great ‘landmark-to-be' is not a young entrepreneur.

Well, at 67, he is not too old either. But perhaps when many pa's and granpa's would be or wanting to enjoy a retired life, diehard businessman Lalji Vora has taken the plunge into an entirely competitive, innovative and daring world of retailing. “I owe it to the continuously evolving consuming audience of my karmabhoomi -- Madurai,“ he beams during the Weekend chat at his simple office inside his upcoming plush mall. The book, “It happened in India” by Kishore Biyani, on novel ideas in retailing, is yet another inspiration.

Lalji Vora is no stranger to the city. People mostly identify him with “Milan”, a high quality fixed rate readymade garments shop for the upper middle class, started in 1974 over 2,000 sq.ft in Amman Sannathi.

Today, in 2010, Lalji is all set to redefine the shopping culture of the locals, “It was over due because people living here too are equally aware of better lifestyle, products and services like their big metro counterparts. Our aim is to stop the hunt here. The mindset will also change further on exposure,” he spills his youthful charm underlining his basic business tenet. That, unless you change and expand, you can never grow.

Growth

Of course, this growth in prominence and trust has taken years of hard work, determination, foresight, proper planning and perseverance. He arrived here as a four year old with his parents and sister from a remote village in Kutch, Gujarat. His father, G.K.Vora, worked in “Truthful”, a readymade manufacturing company owned by Mr.G.P.Sangoye, a leading businessman and a Congress leader of yesteryears.

Down the years, Lalji married Sangoye's daughter Sarala in 1966. “It was the first marriage of the Gujarati community that took place in Madurai. Mostly our people went back to native place for such ceremonies. Our marriage was a big affair at the Kalai Arangam in Tamukkam ground and attended by several VIPs including T.N.Seshan, the then Collector of Madurai.”

While young Vora finished his education from Setupati High School and graduated in commerce from The American College, his father converted into a wholesale grain merchant and the Hemraj Lalji & Company on East Masi Street became a reputed name in the 50s. But his father did not envisage much future in the grain business and put his son in textiles by starting the ‘Libas Corporation', an ultra-modern garment manufacturing factory with imported Japanese Juki machines in 1965. With a modest production of 400 pieces a day, the company sold readymade shirts and children's garments across the country.

People's man

But Lalji being a people‘s man felt the manufacturing unit was robbing him the pleasure of moving with people. And he set up the first retail outlet, “Roopam“ in 1969. The shop inaugurated by Gemini Ganesan, marked a major change in city's retailing business. “We were the first shop to install glass laminated racks and attractive counters, illuminated signboards and showcase displays with mannequins. We were also the first to hire women as sales girls. They were about a dozen and to pick up and drop each of them we sent a lady guardian along.”

Today, the Milan group employs 125 employees in all their shops together, of which 70 are women. With success kissing his ventures, Lalji started another showroom in partnership, “Milan”, which also became the first ISO recognised retail readymade trade in Madurai.

“My father taught me simplicity, perfection, involvement, consistency and shouldering responsibility. Changing with time and moving with the trend became my goals and our children joining the business became the strength of our growth. The next generation has ushered in new thinking and formulated new systems of working,”he elaborates.

Demand from loyal customers made Lalji launch “Milan Shoppe” on Bypass Road in 2002. “We share a close relation with our customers. Word of mouth of our brand conscious customers has always played a crucial role in our business. Emboldened by their faith and confidence in us, we too readily experiment and take new bold steps each time,” he says.

He also remembers a talk by.Karumuttu.T.Kannan, MD Thiagarajar Mills, that set him think serious. “Mr.Kannan said, ‘time has come to think big. Risk will be there but you will have rewards also. In modern times, finance will not be a problem. You should have the courage to start and grow'. Soon after, I consulted my family and all my partners and that is how the idea of giving Madurai its first mall was born”.

“Everywhere the style of retail trade is changing. People do not want only shopping. They want entertainment and food also. Somebody has to take the risk and we once again wanted to be the pioneers. Today, I am confident that the mall will be a new experience for everybody who walks in.”

Spread over half an acre, the Milan-em Mall designed by well known Parsi architect from Mumbai, Khurshid Vazir, will be equipped with basement parking, an atrium to conduct events and launch new products on the first floor, which will also have premium brand shops in footwear, travel bags, watches, accessories, bed and bath, kitchenware, toys and the Trichy-based Femina Super Market. The second floor is dedicated to Milan‘s M-Mart. Third floor will be an exclusive food court with self- service separate kitchen and counters of all major and popular cuisines. The fourth and fifth floors have been earmarked for three mini theatres with total capacity of 500 seats, a ‘Kids Zone', fitness centre, and roof top dining. Spacious and glitzy with escalators to move across the floors, the mall is sure to become a hotspot in the coming months.

An absolute workaholic, Lalji Vora says “hard work is the only way to success and survival in a competitive environment.” Though with a strong foundation in textile business, Lalji Vora's vision goes much beyond the pret line. He is engaged in various charities as one of the founder members of the Gujarati Seva Samaj. “Good education to future generations and best medical facility to the ailing community are the two fields which need our attention,” he asserts. Known for his humility and helping nature, Lalji Vora is seen as a businessman less and philanthropist more.

Having created a benchmark for other readymade retailers in the city, Lalji Vora is now fully involved in the viability of his new project. “It starts with selection of the site, controlled construction cost, brand encouraging footfalls, right ambience and zoning, the brand mix and promotional activities and the ultimate purchasing by the end customer. Mall management is an important part of the mall's success.”

Lalji Vora is also the man who has proved that even businesses can be run in partnership for decades together. That speaks of his professionalism and acumen. Much the way he utters his words laced with hope: “Madurai may be still dubbed conservative. But it has lot of potential and is poised for a big leap. In his own way he has contributed towards the big jump. “And what a gift it is!” exclaim people going up and down the escalator for the first time inside the brand new mall, a pride of this small holy town.

FACTFILE


The Chairman & Managing Director of Milan Textile Enterprise Pvt.Ltd., Lalji Vora, is also the Founder Correspondent of Jain Vidyalaya; Past President of Rotary Club of Madurai West; Past President of Gujarati Seva Samaj; Past Master of Lodge Pandian; Vice President of Children Aid Society (Minor Jail); Executive committee member of Tamil Nadu Chamber of Commerce and Trustee of Gujarati Seva Samaj Educational Trust and Jain Medical Relief Society; Secretary of Jain Dispensary and Eye Hospital.


He runs Roopam in partnership with C.R.Shah; Libas (now defunct) with Mr.Hirji Dharod; Milan with R.R.Rathod family and Ramesh Gangar and family; Milan Shoppe with Mr. Narendra Gada and now Milan'em Mall is now run as pvt.ltd company with five members on Board.

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