An Interview By Nilooka Dissanayake originally published in the Small Business International Magazine.
I sit in the atrium awaiting her arrival. Throbbing with light music, bright colours, novel shapes and ideas makes me believe it the heart of the place. And it is. Everyone almost passes through it. Millionaire businessmen and little kids alike enjoy the light hearted ambience. It is the unseen bridge that connects a converted mansion of a bygone era with the ancient warehouses that belonged to another retailer, Cargill’s. The atrium bridges the old and superimposes the new physically. The spirit that blends it all belongs to the lady I plan to interview.
Tall and slender, she arrives in a woven, sleeveless, skin coloured top and dark trousers, very much the spirit of the place; bright, fair, light hearted and fashionable. We sit down in the patisserie which has but a few customers. The jaw of a pimply young man in the adjoining table drops significantly as we seat ourselves. “Odel!” His whisper to his friends is hardly a whisper.
This is nothing new to Otara Chandiram. She is used to being referred to by the brand name that she built. After all, it has it’s origins in her name – Otara Del. With a degree in biology from an American university and experience with part time modeling, Otara Chandiram has managed to become probably the most famous woman in Sri Lankan business, both locally and in the international scene.
Sri Lanka’s ‘biggest fashion retail success story’ as the eODEL website claims, began in 1988. Odel is an offshoot of the Sri Lankan garment industry which brings in close to quarter of the country’s export revenues. It is a story of our time; a story that runs a parallel course with the economics and fortunes of the country. It is a story about adapting to the changing needs of society.
It is however, not a typical story. But, then, nor is Otara who was adjudged the Sri Lankan Entrepreneur of the Year 2000 by the Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry of Sri Lanka. However prestigious it may be, an award is hardly the type of laurels that Otara would rest upon.
She describes herself as a “quiet and reserved” person and admits that popularity and public life does not come easy. “And hard working and determined” she adds. “I know what I want and try to make sure I achieve all my goals.”
What were your goals when you started? What are they now? “Didn’t have a set goal as such” she says and smiles at the look of disbelief on my face. “No big goals even now. We go along day by day. Our goals are very small even now.” She feels that Odel has “way surpassed” her expectations. An average day sees 1,500 to 2,000 people walking through the doors. “Some time back, they had to replace the cash registers” says a vendor “because the old ones could go only up to nine digits.” Obviously one does not do that on the chance of a rare occurrence.
Obviously one does not do that on the chance of a rare occurrence. Birth of Odel was a response to the opportunities opening up in the local market. The export oriented garment industry was piling up factory excesses and leftovers. These began hitting the local market. All of it was not above board since there were regulations on the percentage of products that could be sold locally. Some industrialists were allowed to sell up to 10% of manufactured products while others were not allowed any local sales. But, demand there was. The Sri Lankan consumers when they saw the factory excesses fell in love with them. They were export quality and reasonably priced. What you could buy in Sri Lanka for Rs. 300, you would have to buy in London for Pounds Sterling 30 or a lot more. The situation has gradually changed over the years. Now all factories can sell locally at a specified level of duty.
Otara, persuaded by friends, began buying factory excesses and selling wholesale. In a few months, she saw opportunity for a retail operation. Odel began in a little room on Fife Road, Colombo 5. By 1996, Odel had seven outlets including shops in Liberty Plaza and Majestic City as well as in Mount Lavinia and Transasia Hotels. The Dickman’s Road outlet which I recall full to the brim and flowing over with customers in the early nineties was replaced as the main outlet with Odel Unlimited, a refurbished warehouse attached to an old mansion in the Lipton Roundabout.
Otara describes Odel Unlimited as a mini-mall, an experience and a lifestyle store. “It is a place to unwind, relax and enjoy. It offers an international experience in your own background.” No one would disagree. Many foreign visitors fall in love with the unique way in which Odel combines the old world and the new. Carved wooden staircases and intricate arches share the limelight with the latest fashions and accessories. Odel provides a shopping experience equal to anywhere in the world and enhances it with its own small scale and quirky surprises.
How does she see Odel, the brand that she created? Otara sees Odel as standing for “stylish, trendy, classy, international and sophisticated.” Seen and perceived more as “high class” all these years, Odel now tries to reach out to the general public. One effort on this front is Otara taking part in a fashion tips show on local daytime television. She is surprised at the response shown by the public.
You have no prior business experience. How did you manage? How did you know what to do? “It was a learning process” says Otara. “I entered a new market and grew with the market. It was a young, untapped market.” According to Otara, the success was not so much luck as the ability to foresee an opportunity. “We took lots of risks. We experimented. We tested the market. We explored and learned to anticipate the market. There were some failures. A couple of things did not work out.
I also read books and studied about business on my own. I read about Jack Welch (former CEO of General Electric, named the Manager of the Century by the Fortune Magazine) and about business women like Anita Roddick who started Body Shop. She built a brand and made a change. I read mostly about famous people and learnt from everyone. Read a little bit of everything. I read business magazines and attended a couple of seminars. I did not have much time to devote to reading.” Is retail success a science or an art? “It is a bit of both. Success in retailing is a matter of being able to anticipate what customers will want and having it ready. It is about being able to target to the market. You have to grow along with the market. The tastes and needs of people change. Culture changes. The world is growing smaller. Consider the last ten years. Local consumers today learn about the international trends in fashion. They can think for themselves. It is critical to judge these trends, see the needs and develop products. Then only you can be ahead of the need. You have to know and understand. It is very important to keep in touch with international trends. There is so much more (to do), but market is not ready yet.”
How does she know what customers will need? “Putting your gut feelings to work and knowing about international trends are important. I travel a lot. I read a lot and watch media and previews of fashion worldwide. I keep up with designs and trends and fads. It is a constant challenge to keep the customers happy.”
Odel, with Otara’s guidance is always ready for the market demand. It takes over nine months to get ready for a season. And hard work pays off when even foreigners “go crazy over the goods.” “All that we have on our shelves are the latest fashions” Otara claims proudly. Giving new things and seeing how people react is part of the job that she enjoys. “I like to keep this as part of my job although I have a good team of merchandisers who take care of this side.”
Many people try to follow you. “Imitation is a form of flattery. The main thing is to go with what you feel. Imitation often does not work. You should have your own way of doing things. This should be distinct, always the same. Otherwise customers get confused.” The temptation to imitate Odel seems to reach beyond the shores of Sri Lanka. Recently Odel got an injunction in the Middle East against a company retailing goods under the Odel brand.
Otara is married to Raju Chandiram who is also in the business with her. They have two boys. Koran is eight and Rakhil, two and half years old. She feels thankful for the support of a close-knit extended family especially when she and Raju travel abroad. At other times they take turns at dropping kids to school and share the other duties.
Her work day starts at 9.30am and finishes around 6.30pm when she heads home to “spend time with the kids.” She likes to keep up with her exercise routine and spends “a minimum of one hour a day and try to do it almost every day.”
What are her other interests beside work? This was a second thought which did not occur to me at the first interview. And I asked it over the telephone, a bit past 10pm, after Otara had put the kids to sleep. “Fashion” comes the answer accompanied by laughter “and shopping. Unfortunately I don’t get to do much shopping and at Odel I see the stocks every single day. I like to pick up unusual things, especially when I travel.” She enjoys relaxing and likes to go to the movies. She loves travelling and seeing new places.
And with a degree in biology, what would she have done had she not gone into fashion? “Something to do with animals and the environment.” So, there is our explanation for Odel’s commitment to the environment.
What advice do you give to start ups and small businesses? “Know the business you are going into. Understand your market. And have a vision. Work hard to achieve your goals. It can be done with hard work. I have put in a lot of hard work.”