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As a duck takes to water

Vishnupriya Sengupta | Updated on July 03, 2020 Published on July 03, 2020

Living proof: The company’s turnover peaked from ₹18 crore to ₹51 crore between 1989 and 1995   -  IMAGES COURTESY: CLASSICINDIANADS.BLOGSPOT.COM

For several generations of Indians, stepping out in the rain meant wearing a Duckback — boots or raincoat. It’s a story that has survived many monsoons

* Surendra Mohan Bose set up the company as in 1920 on his return from the US after learning about waterproofing techniques as a chemical engineering student

* His eldest son Debabrata, in the mid-’60s, got the Duckback logo designed by artist Ranen Ayan Dutt

* Current chairman OP Saxena acquired the company in 2014

The raincoat-clad school-goer walks through the shower and muddy puddles in her rubber boots, a waterproof school bag on her shoulder. Ask her if she knows about Surendra Mohan Bose, and she is likely to look surprised. What about Duckback? Ah, that’s a name she knows: Her raingear is all from the Kolkata company.

For generations, Duckback has served as an effective rain guard. The company has seen a change of hands in recent years, but Duckback is a name that Indians continue to connect with the monsoon — a century after the company was set up.

“The goodwill of the brand and stringent quality measures have ensured that our products are in demand. We market them through a strong network across India — from Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka to Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand and the North-East,” says chairman Om Prakash Saxena, who was a financial consultant for Bengal Waterproof Limited, as the Duckback company was named in 1982. After Saxena acquired the company in 2014, it was rechristened Duckback Waterproof Works Private Limited.

The company has gone through its crests and troughs. Bose set it up as sole proprietorship in 1920 on his return from the US after learning about waterproofing techniques as a chemical engineering student. In 1932, when his three brothers joined him as business partners, he turned it into a private limited company.

Curiously, though its products are known as Duckback, the term did not figure in the company’s names. In 1940, it was set up as the Bengal Waterproof Works (1940) Limited, a public limited company, at their Nazar Ali Lane house in Kolkata. Family lore has it that Bose, after returning from the US, was drawn into the freedom movement, and decided to channel his training abroad to make rainwear affordable for Indians.

As the demand for Duckback products increased, Bose acquired a 22-acre plot in Panihati in North 24 Parganas, West Bengal, for a factory that could handle bulk production. It produced rainwear, boots, hot water bottles, ice bags, gloves and anti-bedsore and hospital sheets. It also manufactured mining boots, pontoon bridges and anti-gravity suits that fighter plane pilots had to wear.

Over the years, brand Duckback lived up to the idiomatic expression — water off a duck’s back — from which the name was coined. Following Bose’s demise in 1948, his son Debabrata — the eldest of six siblings — inherited the company. Insiders say that Debabrata had completed his schooling from Darjeeling and was in England, studying rubber technology, when he had to come back home and take over the company. It was he who, in the mid-’60s, got the Duckback logo designed by artist Ranen Ayan Dutt.

“The story goes that after much cajoling by Debabrata Bose, Dutt decided to complete the long pending task one evening and created the logo of four water droplets,” says former company secretary Tuhinangsu Roy.

Former sales manager Bratin Ghosh, who was with the company for 35 years from 1975, describes Debabrata Bose as a “methodical, meticulous and compassionate human being with a laser-like focus on quality but no appetite for risk”. Every morning, he would sift through his mail to see how the company was faring, Ghosh recalls. “He personally oversaw complaints, and that is how we maintained quality standards.”

 

The company’s golden period was possibly from 1989 to 1995. “The turnover of the company peaked from ₹18 crore to ₹51 crore in that span,” says the then managing director Indranil Biswas, who stresses that he was mentored from 1973 by the owner as well as SK Das, a core team member. “We worked as a team to undertake the first modernisation programme, opted for product diversification and further restructuring, off-season discounts and planned expansion. We introduced PVC footwear with a leather-look and other such products,” Biswas recalls.

The downturn began post liberalisation in the ’90s. “Competition was tough and we started losing our retail market to Chinese products. People’s preferences began to change. They preferred the lighter, cheaper, use-and-throw type products which we weren’t able to manufacture,” explains Roy.

With time, rubber costs spiked, overhead costs increased and there was a shortage of working capital. There was no succession planning either. Debabrata Bose was a bachelor and family feuds prevented the next generation from moving in. “As there was no succession planning, the company was mismanaged and finally sold off,” Roy says.

Saxena had earlier told the BusinessLine that at the time of takeover, Bengal Waterproof had a debt of around ₹85 crore, and a labour liability of ₹17-18 crore. “We settled the entire liability of Bengal Waterproof by investing around ₹100 crore and took over the company in 2014,” he had said.

The company now has two factories — one in Ranchi registered under Duckback India Limited and another in Barasat in North 24 Parganas. It has a branch in Delhi, three manufacturing units in Kolkata and one in Mumbai under the management of fabricators with Duckback controlling quality, Saxena says. “While we are focused on the same products that Duckback is famous for, we are also looking at footwear products, and in terms of material both rubber and PVC to move with the times. In FY18-19, we had a turnover of ₹75 crore,” he says with pride.

Duckback, indeed, is waddling back.

Vishnupriya Sengupta is an independent researcher and works for a professional services firm

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Published on July 03, 2020
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