“If you are not embedded into different cultural movements happening across the digital space, you are not passionate about what is happening around retail technology,” says Sanjeev Mohanty, Managing Director & SVP – South Asia, Middle East and Africa, Levi Strauss & Co. He believes that to get the most of an opportunity, one’s mindset is the first that needs to change and adapt. It is then that the passion for the product, for retail technology and the passion to get the best talent will allow a brand to survive and thrive.
Speaking at the Phygital Retail Convention that was hosted in Mumbai between November 10 and 11, Mohanty shared with an eager audience his ideas, his view on where the Indian retail sector stands today in comparison to global counterparts, and his own learnings throughout his career.
“Having passed out of the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) in 1995, I gave an interview at Levi’s that had launched in India the same year. They were looking at hiring a management trainee for merchandising. I was in the final two, but got rejected by them and graduated without a job from NIFT. That was an interesting start! Post that, I went to Bengaluru (then Bangalore), stayed there for three months, and took up the role of designing graphics for a tennis line at a t-shirt factory in Tirupur. When working on the factory floor packing cartons, I would always try and see whether the mix of paint and pigment used on the t-shirts sitting in the factory at 45 degree Celsius worked. I was making sure we didn’t have too many rejections while printing. While my colleagues and classmates, many of who went to MBA institutes, were attending conferences in fancy offices, I thought of my career being a long and hard journey. I came back to Levi’s as Assistant Product Manager (then progressed to being Product Manager),” he shared. Over the years of his career, the most important lesson Mohanty learned was the power of building a leadership team and the power of diversity. One of the things he notices in retail groups today is the lack of diversity. There are very few women leaders.
Mohanty’s subsequent tryst with Levi’s was when he was offered to run the South Asia business. “The team was outstanding, we managed to set the business up for success, and we managed to get into the Middle East market. Then, we started to run the Africa market and a bit of Turkey and other markets as well. It has been a tremendous run,” he added.
Learnings of a Successful Career
The most important takeaway for Mohanty is the belief in oneself and that one is destined for greatness. “You cannot be brought down by your current circumstances and continue to think big. Indians have made a mark in finance, technology and consultancy. When you talk about Indian professionals, they have made a mark and they are respected globally. It has taken 20-30 years to break through that. We have companies like Apple, Google and Hindustan Unilever where Indian professionals have made a mark and are respected. The challenge has been that in the fashion business, we don’t have Indian brands on Fifth Avenue or any global high streets. Therefore, we are not seen at the forefront of fashion. Whenever you think about how you come across, you need to think like a global leader; you need to be aware of what is happening globally and you need to think large. Even as a Product Manager, I used to think about the key trends in fashion globally,” he shared.
What is Holding India Back?
Mohanty believes that Indian brands somewhere lack a global ambition. The Indian market may be large, but companies and brands are not thinking long-term and not creating the right DNA. “If you look at local brands, they start well, but then they try to deliver everything to everybody, which is a dangerous game to play. When you look at all the global brands, they started off with a unique design signature and a brand philosophy that stuck with them for some 30-odd years before they went on to expand to other categories to become a global brand. We talk about Zara and H&M today; they were in a single city with a few stores for 20 years before people got to know about them outside of their country. They stuck with a single DNA, a structure, and created something unique. The issue I see is brands trying to be everything to everybody; formal wear, casual wear, kids’ wear, ethnic wear from the same brand without having the time to develop it further. Unless we are able to scale and create an identity which is so unique that you can go global, that is not going to happen. Hopefully, there will be brands in another decade or two that will be able to stick to a unique identity, one that can be centred on our strengths in textile design and heritage,” he added.
Stepping into Bigger Markets
Levi Strauss & Co. has promoted Mohanty to head its commercial operations in its largest markets – the US and Canada. Mohanty, who is excited and nervous in equal measure about the new role, said, “The fear is how you will be seen as a leader. At this stage, you know the craft; the same principles are applied at a different scale. What is important is to know how to carry the team forward. You are in one of the most advanced markets in the world in terms of retail technology and fashion trends that evolve quickly. The scale is vast! Any mistake made here will get amplified to $2 million, and a mistake made in the US market gets amplified to $30-40 million. The fear of making a mistake is always around. Once you are in a leadership position and have an outstanding team, those mistakes don’t happen. You need to listen to your team, you need to listen to your gut, and you need to look at data.”
Build as You Grow
Mohanty believes that India is brimming with both talent and competition, but one thing that keeps people from being successful in the long run is that often, they let early success get to their head. “As a young leader there might be an environment where you are a little insecure about your position; there are so many people who want to pull you down and everyone is watching you under a microscope. What I learned in the last few years is that great leadership is about shrinking your presence to a level where your team’s presence is amplified. You need to be so sure about your leadership that you don’t need to be in focus. It is always about the team; if you can make the team win, make them look good and if you can stand behind them when a mistake happens and absorb that, it is absorbed by the board and everybody around you. You need to be a servant leader and serve the team and the company,” he concluded.