For an outdoor brand, Wildcraft has chosen the path less travelled in its journey to scale.

Remember Wildcraft? It was the backpack we saw, searched for stores selling it and eventually made the pilgrimage to Bangalore to buy. That was years ago. Of late Wildcraft's rising retail presence has the usually conservative Indian outdoor gear business intrigued.

Wildcraft's genesis two decades 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, but instead of complaining, decided to make it.

Dinesh K.S., Director, Wildcraft, belonged to that league. He was 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. Bangalore was a hotspot for garment-outsourcing. The basic raw materials for making outdoor gear could be chased down locally or traced to suppliers overseas.

Wildcraft's first product was a dome tent. It wasn't for sale but it gave 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 of hands-on experience of the wilderness, Wildcraft products were relevantly engineered. They were well designed too, unlike some of the other competing indigenous products that were too functional to respect 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 programmes. A small garage was office and shop. However, the struggle for scale continued.

The IT boom provided relief. As software engineers poured into Bangalore, the demand for laptop bags and smart daypacks rose, creating a sufficiently large product line for the iconic but small-volume outdoor gear business to piggy-back on.

Dinesh recalls a specific instance. Wildcraft makes a sleeping bag that packs really small. Whenever Bangalore faced a bandh and IT companies wanted staff to remain on premises overnight, they placed large orders for it. Alongside, orders for daypacks continued.

Still, brand Wildcraft lacked a road map. 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; it was in the red in 2003. To make up for the loss, it started franchise outlets. A few years later, a churn in the management saw two of the three original partners leave. Then, 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.

Big ambitions

In a nutshell, what they seemed to have done was harness Wildcraft to ambition, forcing the brand to articulate what it wanted to be. The services wing was shut down. Viewed through the prism of scalability, manufacture held greater appeal.

Globally, outdoor brands broadly fall into two categories — strong niche brands associated with a few products and large brands straddling a range of products. Wildcraft's initial phase could be associated with 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 said. He could be correct.

If you look overseas, some outdoor gear brands have grown to the top of their craft in niche areas. But precisely because of that they have either survived, independent and expensive, or become part of large, multi-product gear companies having other robust products to cushion the iconic niche brands. In India, this could mean either over-pricing oneself out of the market or getting stuck and fading or transforming.

Today, the once reclusive Wildcraft has 34 branded retail showrooms in India (including 12 franchised outlets); two are yet to break even. Approximately 25 per cent of the company turnover comes from sales at its 34 stores, of which 40 per cent is from company-run showrooms. The remaining revenue is from institutional sales, modern trade and trade.

Its top five showrooms are no more all Bangalore-centric; they are in Jayanagar (Bangalore), NOIDA, Kochi, Chandigarh and Vashi (Navi Mumbai). Wildcraft became a Rs 1 crore-company in 2007.

“We should be Rs 50 crore by the end of the current fiscal,'' Gaurav says. If plans go right, it should be Rs 100 crore by 2012-13 and Rs 200 crore over the next four to five years. For the last four years, he says, Wildcraft has grown at a CAG of 85 per cent; last year alone, growth was up by 150 per cent. The company now has its own factories — one in Bangalore; the other in Himachal Pradesh, both cost-competitive despite their location in India.

In manufacturing, the challenge is raw materials, which players in China and the Far East have better access to. As Dinesh points out, the transition attempted is towards becoming a big brand, retailing a variety of Wildcraft products founded in outdoor DNA. Gaurav tweaked it slightly — as yet there is no global outdoor brand from the tropics.

The market too is changing. In the last few years brands such as La Fuma, Millet, Quechua (from Decathlon, which has set up a B2B facility in India), Berghaus, Petzl, Beal, Camelbak, CAMP, Cassin, Rock Empire, Boll, Evolv, Boreal, HEAD, Coleman, Coghlan's and Hi-Tec, have become available in India, albeit in small volumes, not to mention standard fixtures such as Victorinox. Genuinely big outdoor brands, including The North Face, although represented through its owning company's local footprint, are yet to enter.

Shoes & apparel too

In the absence of a proper market study for India, only subjective estimates exist. Wildcraft believes the Indian outdoor gear market relevant to it should be worth $250 million; the range of footwear that could interest it is at $1.5 billion and the relevant sports apparel segment touches $1.2-1.5 billion (these are figures for a whole potential market).

Needless to say, two product segments that Wildcraft is studying are shoes and apparel. The latter is what separates the big brand from the small one.

Big outdoor brands get 60-70 per cent of their revenue from apparel sales. It is also no options foreclosed 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. “We welcome competition. The more the competition, the better the market buzz around outdoor products,'' Gaurav says. His primary concern for future plans is funds. Private equity may be an option.

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. The old school understands the organic, home-grown business.

Has Dinesh taken a 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.

(The author is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

(This article was published on June 29, 2011)
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