Here’s the story behind how the IIT and IIM educated Damodar Mall, chief executive officer of Reliance Retail’s value formats, ended up making a career selling daal chawal
New Delhi: Retail veteran Damodar Mall has earned the moniker SupermarketWala for his hugely successful book with the same title as well as his contribution to shaping the course of modern grocery retail in India working closely with pillars of Indian retail like Radhakrishna Damani, Kishore Biyani and now Mukesh Ambani.
However, for Mall, who is now the chief executive officer of the grocery business of Reliance Retail Ltd. (RRL), becoming a grocery retailer was never part of his career plan. “Selling ‘daal-chawal’ as a chosen vocation for the educated son was not my parent’s idea of smart choices,” he wrote in a blog on Forbes.
It happened as a result of his visit to Sao Paulo, Brazil during his stint at Hindustan Unilever, which he joined after completing his postgraduate diploma in management from the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore after a Bachelor of Technology degree from the coveted Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay.
In Brazil, Mall saw successful modern retail in a developing market. Driven by the realisation that if it can happen in Brazil, it can happen in India, he returned with a project plan to start a modern supermarket in India. His project was for ‘Annapurna Supermarkets’ by HUL. When he did not get the required support from Unilever as it was not aligning with the FMCG behemoth’s global business model, Mall decided to take the entrepreneurial plunge.
He found a backer in the legendary stock market investor Radhakrishna Damani, who shared his vision. Together, they roamed the streets studying the supermarkets of the time Apna Bazaar, Sahakari Bhandar and Raigad Bazaar—all run by cooperative societies.
They operated Apna Bazaar franchises in Thane and Navi Mumbai which turned out to be an immediate success. Armed with the experience and learnings, D-Mart was incubated. Unfortunately, Damani and Mall parted ways and Mall then joined Kishore Biyani’s Future Group where he helped grow Food Bazaar from eight stores to over 150 stores and also set up the gourmet format Foodhall, from scratch.
With Reliance Retail, which he joined in 2014, Mall got a larger field to showcase his talents and expertise. “It’s like you started playing at Shivaji Park and then you got a chance to play at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. You keep adjusting your batting to the playing conditions you get,” said the veteran who has over two decades of retail experience in his cart about his journey from Sao Paulo to Smart Bazaar.
Under his leadership, Reliance Retail expanded its food & grocery basket with newer formats of supermarkets, hypermarkets, and speciality stores.
As the chief of Reliance’s value formats, Damodar Mall is responsible for the company’s entire grocery consumption basket—physical and digital. This includes FreshPik, Fresh Signature, Smart, Smart Bazaar, and Smart Point. In addition, he also oversees 1P Grocery on the e-commerce platform JioMart and the subscription-based platform MilkBasket.
While Smart Bazaar, Smart Point, and JioMart are on the value spectrum, Signature Fresh and MilkBasket are premium and FreshPik is gourmet.
Under his leadership, the company’s grocery business flourished over the years. Reliance today has over 2700 grocery stores. In the first quarter of the current financial year, the grocery business recorded a 59% year-on-year growth, while in the second quarter, it delivered a 33% year-on-year growth, led by Smart and Smart Bazaar formats.
Focus as a CEO
“Keeping pace. The further we go into India, the more we learn that people want our stores and the modernity they bring. How fast I can keep pace with that expectation and potential of the Indian consumer is my key focus area,” said Damodar Mall, CEO of Reliance Retail’s food and grocery business.
Recipe for success
Data is vital in understanding a customer. It forms the base of everything we do. But the edge comes from observations and societal insights. “Learning to observe the customer, being curious, picking up the insights and having the team culture to bet on insights, is vital. That, to me, is the spice of retail success. Data is the main substrate like daal or vegetables, but only those who have the habit of using correct spices will make interesting, retail recipes and tasty winning dishes,” Mall said.