Emerging Entrepreneurs

tohl has more than a little skin in the game

Vinay Kamath | Updated on November 11, 2019 Published on November 11, 2019

Manish Kawlra, Managing Director, The Sac & Satchel Co   -  Bijoy Ghosh

Leather goods maker wants to scale up from online to boutique stores

Manish Kawlra stands testimony to the fact that anyone from any background can emerge a successful entrepreneur with perseverance and right timing. With a master’s degree in economics and management from the prestigious Delhi School of Economics in the mid-1980s, Manish was gunning for the civil services, entrepreneurship far from his mind.

Dissatisfied with his ranking, Manish switched to marketing, and after working in the consumer goods space in Delhi for a few years, he joined Gaitonde, a leading leather conglomerate at the time, based in Chennai. Here he learnt the ropes of the leather export business and also spearheaded the launch of the Gaitonde brand of footwear in the domestic market. He didn’t know it then, but the Gaitonde group and its founders would play a key role in shaping his future.

Early days

Manish quit the company in 2002 and found himself at the crossroads. Handheld by some of the contacts he had built in the leather goods industry over the years, he decided to strike out on his own, instead of taking up another job.

“I had never thought of becoming an entrepreneur but when the opportunity to start up came my way, I took it,” ruminates Manish at his office-cum-shoe uppers factory in the Guindy Industrial Estate in Chennai.

His Carpe Diem moment helped him, indeed. Shoeline, the company he founded, has been manufacturing and exporting shoe uppers and leather footwear to premium European brands for the past 17 years. His companies employ around 800 people as it’s a labour-intensive business. Shoeline produces 15,000 pairs a week.

 

 

 

While success and awards (from the Council for Leather Exports) came in for his export business, at the back of his mind was the thought of launching a brand for the domestic market, using the skills and design sensibilities garnered in the export business.

Along the way, The Sac & Satchel Co was established to export small leather goods and bags to brands in France, UK and the US.

Taking online route

The brand tohl (meaning skin in Tamil) was introduced by The Sac & Satchel Co as a line of high-quality leather accessories towards the latter half of 2013, in a limited way in the Chennai area. “We decided to scale up the brand and tohl was relaunched in August 2017 with our online store www.tohl.in,” says Manish. tohl sells a wide variety of leather goods online for both men and women, ranging from handbags and wallets to lap top bags and luggage among a whole host of products.

Says Manish of his foray into the domestic business: “Having been in the industry for long with both manufacturing and marketing knowledge I recognised an opportunity for premium leather accessories. I felt there was enough room in this market dominated by brands like Hidesign and Da Milano to create and scale up a well-designed, high quality line of leather accessories retailed at affordable prices.” The brand is positioned in the ‘affordable luxury’ segment with prices ranging from ₹390 to ₹13,000.

As Manish says, tohl brings to the brand the same level of sophistication and design sensibilities that it makes its leather goods with for the export markets.

“Since we are in the business of export, we have access to the latest trends in silhouettes (shapes of bags), colours, textures and finishes, enabling us to bring the latest in fashion and style to the Indian consumer,” adds Manish. Having a consultant designer stationed in New York also helps.

Apart from its own online store, tohl products are available across fashion portals such as Myntra, Jabong as well as TataCliq, Snapdeal and Amazon. Having gained a modest level of traction in online sales, Manish says, “We will now focus our efforts towards establishing a strong presence in boutique stores, large format stores and select multi-brand outlets. Eventually, the aim is to establish our own ‘feel tohl’ stores in key cities and in prime areas. A first tohl franchise store may spring up in Bengaluru soon as the brand has enough products in its portfolio now to stock a whole store.

Eyeing venture capital

The retail foray is self-funded and Manish is looking for venture capital or private equity for The Sac & Satchel Co to expand the business. “Retail is an expensive business and it will take a while to break even,” he acknowledges. Even as plans are on to scale up tohl in the local market, Manish wants to take the brand to markets in West Asia and South-east Asia. From leather goods, he wants to extend the brand into categories such as light weight leather garments and leather home furnishings where there is a huge opportunity for an organised player. Footwear is a large category that it may consider at a later stage as well.

Competition will be stiff in the local markets and Manish is under no illusion. Apart from premium leather goods brands such as Hidesign, DaMilano, Nappa Dori, and more recently Kompanero, the competition will also be from non-leather brands such as Baggit, Lavie, Caprese, Lino Perros and others which offer low-priced synthetic products. But, for now, Manish is not letting competition get under his skin.

 

Published on November 11, 2019
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