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Carabin: Geared for success

September 04, 2004

Rajat Sethi didn't want to "make boxes and sell them to people", as he bluntly puts it. So instead of joining his family's corrugated box business, he and his cousin Yash pooled in their savings and started a company for manufacturing mountaineering and trekking equipment.

There wasn't much encouragement from family members at the time, but Carabin International grew through word of mouth. The company got a big boost a few years ago when it won contracts to import and distribute products of international companies like Camp and Ark Inflatables.

Carabin has also recovered well from the recent slump in tourism and is now making around Rs 1.5 crore (Rs 15 million).

My family is Delhi-based. My father was a businessman -- his company handled the packaging of corrugated boxes for Bata and other companies. Sadly when I was still in school, he passed away. Being the only son in the family, I was expected to keep the business going in some way.

But to be honest, I wasn't too enthused at the prospect of a conventional business. The idea of making boxes and selling them to people didn't excite me.

So in 1993, when I was still in the 12th standard, I decided to start something in partnership with my cousin, Yash. Since my school days, I had been interested in mountaineering.

Whenever I got the opportunity, I would catch the bus to Manali, or go on a trek or rafting, or join a jungle camp. And consequently, I was only too well aware of the shortcomings in the equipment available in India at the time.

To begin with, there were very few options for buying mountaineering or trekking gear. Worse, the quality was poor despite the equipment being exorbitantly priced.

I remember once buying a sleeping bag and a rucksack for a trip to Leh. The dealer assured me that it would be suitable for temperatures down to minus 5 degrees C.

But when I got to Leh, the equipment was inadequate though the temperature hadn't touched even zero degrees! In short, I knew there was a need gap.

Of course, my relatives were aghast; they wanted us to stick to a tried-and-tested business. But Yash and I went ahead. We pooled in Rs 250,000 each and started Carabin.

Little investment was required for a place to start our operations, because we still had the factory from the earlier business. Most of the money went into buying the machinery and the nylon fabrics, hiring tailors and conducting research.

We also started advertising on a modest scale and built up contacts with travel agencies and tour operators.

We started by manufacturing tents, rucksacks and sleeping bags but over the years, as the business was consolidated, we also got into more technical equipment, like that required for rock-climbing, rafting, etc.

A lot of planning goes into the making of such equipment. For instance, for a rucksack to be of optimum quality, the weight must be equally distributed between the shoulders and the waist.

This may sound simple, but I remember how often during my mountaineering days I was saddled with uncomfortable, impractical equipment.

We continued to grow through word of mouth. Then, four years ago, there was a new development in the industry. Until 1999, the Indian Army had used equipment made in India.

But when the Kargil War broke out, there was a realisation that higher-quality gear was required, and so equipment began to be imported.

Foreign companies were looking for dealers and a couple of them -- including the Italian company Camp, Switzerland's Sigg and South Africa's Ark Inflatables -- entered into agreements with us. Since then, we've been distributing their products in India.

There was a lull in our business a couple of years ago, with tourism being affected the world over. But we are on the upward curve again, with dealers in Goa, Mumbai and Sikkim.

The armed forces account for a large chunk of our buyers -- but even a small order from them is around Rs 50 lakh-1 crore (Rs 5-10 million). While the scope of this business is small -- in the sense that there aren't many ways in which we can diversify -- we are on the lookout for more tie-ups with foreign companies.

As told to Jai Arjun Singh



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