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Making millions on home improvement

September 11, 2004 14:17 IST

Usha Varadarajan is reticent about her early life and believes it's best to start her story at the point where she became an entrepreneur by setting up a small export company, Kashika Enterprises, in a small rented room and with a bank loan of Rs 25,000.

The business grew steadily over the years and eventually Varadarajan expanded into the domestic market  --  and The Next Shop was born. The product portfolio has now expanded to include every imaginable home product. Meanwhile, the original export business is still going strong, with a Rs 15 crore (Rs 150 million) turnover.

With time, Varadarajan knows she'll have to play a less active role in the running of the business  --  but for now she's very particular about every aspect of it. ("Make sure you get the name right," she says, "it's shop, not store.")

I don't want to talk too much about my life before I started the business. Suffice it to say that around 1982-83 I was at the crossroads of my life and had to start from scratch.

During trips abroad I had been exposed a lot to the retail scenario overseas, and I had also done a course in textile designing from a night school in New York in the late 1960s. So it occurred to me to start a small export company.

I began operations with one sewing machine and one tailor, in a rented room. The most I could borrow from a bank without collateral was Rs 25,000 so I made do with that to start with.

It was a simple start  --  I like doing things slowly and steadily, and don't believe in running when one can walk. So we made and exported only cushion covers at first, and then after a couple of years we gradually began expanding on a modest scale  --  by making table linen and bed linen.

Everything was made in-house at the time. It took a lot of hard work to build contacts and find buyers who would take our products  --  this was pre-liberalisation and things weren't as easy as they are now.

In 1991, my daughter Rathi joined the business. She wasn't too keen at first, and I wasn't going to coerce her, but she changed her mind later  --  after working briefly with Citibank, she said she wanted to join me.

I made her do a course at NIFT and then put her through all the possible levels of work. Today, of course, she's a lot better than I am; she looks after production and monitors orders while I oversee the finances.

After a few years the business was sufficiently secure and I thought it was the right time to get into the domestic market. So we opened The Next Shop in 1995.

The idea was to have a consolidated store for home products. Soon we started product diversification on a big scale, moving from textiles to all sorts of things that go into the making of a home.

We now deal in everything from glassware, ceramic pottery and lampshades to handbags and quilts. Recently, we have also introduced a range of products for children. These include quilts with specific themes that will appeal to children; baby gift bed sets; and educational toys.

Most of our products are now sourced from outside, but I maintain strict quality control over everything we retail. Meanwhile, the exports division is still going strong.

We have two showrooms  --  one in Delhi and one in Noida  --  and the third will soon come up in Gurgaon.

For now, there are no plans to move out of the national capital region  --  as I said before, I like to be slow and steady. But we have seen a growth of around 15 per cent in each of the last few years, and I am happy with that.
Jai Arjun Singh in New Delhi