Atul Chand: The quarter-century man


Atul Chand: The quarter-century man

Atul Chand’s smile doesn’t waver. It poses a problem if you are trying to read his mind. As an interviewer, one must track other mannerisms to figure out what’s going on.

Chand is equally unvarying on the phone and over email. When I first call him, it is about a critique of ITC’s Wills Lifestyle stores, the brand he has been heading as CEO since 2008. The stores appear inconsistent in visual merchandising, many customers complain they seldom find good fits, especially in womenswear, and most importantly, for a label that was the official title sponsor of India’s biggest bi-annual fashion event—the Wills Lifestyle India Fashion Week organized by the Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI)—the merchandise doesn’t really scream “fashion”. So where does it stand in the fierce competition among high-street and premium labels?

Chand suggests we chat over coffee but I ask instead to meet him at the Wills Lifestyle flagship store that was launched in 2000 in Delhi’s South Extension market. He agrees instantly and greets me with the friendly, well-tailored smile that never slips. Without getting overly defensive about the brand, yet visibly cautious, he speaks in the measured tones of a veteran surgeon.

Chand covers it all, from the surge of interest in womenswear, which is now growing more than menswear (the former stronghold of the brand), to why the company is aiming at a broad-based brand with multiple offerings so that the consumer doesn’t have to go to different stores to shop for different occasions. He walks around the store carefully pulling out key pieces to support his commentary.

He makes a good case. Persuasive enough to make it imperative for me to visit more Wills Lifestyle stores in the National Capital Region (NCR) and in other cities to further explore whether the brand really matters in the retail scene.

While the variety and visual merchandising at Wills Lifestyle stores in different markets is indeed inconsistent, and their fashion lines need considerable design monitoring, there is no disputing the fact that they have a sturdy presence everywhere. Currently, there are 94 stores in 40 markets, with 50 added in the last three years. The label is also available at more than 500 multi-brand outlets countrywide. It has five boutique stores in select ITC hotels, the most recent having opened last year at the ITC Chola in Chennai.

In 2006, the stores got one million visitors. In 2012, that number crossed the three-million mark. Sales turnover in 2012-13 has doubled from 2009-10, though ITC is reluctant to disclose the exact figures.

If you look carefully at the merchandise in Wills Lifestyle stores—especially in the menswear section which stocks ranges from Classic to Clublife and Eco Style—you can see what Chand means about mirroring the multiple wardrobe needs of the consumer.

His own wardrobe is more conservative. When we do meet for coffee at Delhi’s ITC Maurya, he is clad in a classic blue shirt worn with black trousers, black polished shoes, and rimless spectacles. A Montblanc pen peeks out from his shirt pocket. Minus that unwavering smile, 48-year-old Chand would look avuncular. Does his Tag Heuer watch have different time zones, I ask, and he says he isn’t the kind who chases time, only tries to make the most of it. His spectacles turn out to be Tag Heuer too. Everything else that he wears to work (or play), even his jeans and white shirts, is Wills Lifestyle.

Strictly. Fondly.

Chand, who did his schooling from St Columba’s in Delhi and MBA from the Institute of Management Technology, Ghaziabad, joined ITC in 1988. This is his 25th year with the company and mention of it lights up his face. “I joined as a management trainee and was posted everywhere. I lived in small and big cities, from Nagpur to Ahmedabad, and have a pan-Indian perspective,” he says. Asked if he is staid or funny, pragmatic or a control freak as a person and a boss, he laughs heartily, setting his surgeon-like restraint aside momentarily. The gold chain he’s wearing shows when he guffaws.

“IN PARENTHESIS: Atul Chand loves adventure sports like trekking or rafting while on vacation. Recently, while the rest of the group he travelled with to Mashobra hills in Himachal Pradesh visited spas, he went mountain biking with some youngsters. “Uphill was tough, of course, but downhill was tougher at my age as cycle brakes can only support you so much,” he says, confessing that he was exhausted but exhilarated. “It’s always a challenge, never relaxation for me, holiday or not,” he says. The next challenge: sky diving.”

“I am a private person, a family man and usually fun-loving,” he says, adding that he is crazy about adventure sports and often goes mountain biking or rafting when on vacation with his wife and two sons. I try to imagine him in big glares, T-shirts, printed shorts and sporty sandals. He says that’s exactly what he would wear on vacation. At work, the man rolls up his shirt sleeves and keeps the door to his office always open. “It symbolizes a hands-on, open-door policy. As a boss I reach out to people and act as a sounding board, never taking recourse to pleasing them by fibbing,” he says.

In 2006, when Chand was still the head of marketing at Wills Lifestyle, the company signed what is described as one of the most strategic business contracts in Indian fashion and retail, with the FDCI. Much of the credit is given to Chand, who now heads a team of 600 people. By becoming the title sponsor of the FDCI-organized fashion week, Wills Lifestyle notched up big brownie points for its brand recall.

It was a smart collaboration—a ready-to-wear premium brand investing in a fashion event raised the bar for the brand while making the “fashion week” and its participating designers seem accessible. “Tying up with the FDCI’s fashion property was about brand synergy and the retail experience gained through ITC hotels all over India helped the company diversify into boutique and specialized stores as well as the Signature line, making designer wear actually accessible,” he explains.

For the Wills Signature line, the brand partners with designers like Rohit GandhiRahul KhannaJ.J. ValayaRajesh Pratap SinghRohit BalRanna GillRitu KumarSatya Paul and Wendell Rodricks. Told that these may be their weakest collections, requiring a lot more design investment and thought, Chand agrees that all the collectors may not be equally strong. Smile firmly in place, he goes on to say that it has grown 15% this year over and above the rest of womenswear.

“‘As a boss, I reach out to people and act as a sounding board, never taking recourse to pleasing them by fibbing.’”

To the big question about where Wills Lifestyle stands in comparison to fast-fashion brand Zara, which recorded 56% growth in annual sales turnover in the last financial year, and a premium brand like Benetton, which declared India to be its largest market outside Europe this year, Chand responds by saying that it is about making the brand “sharp”.

“We are trying to differentiate sharply between the sub brands, reducing the overlaps and looking at multiple vectors of growth. We surely need a sharper design philosophy through strategic direction,” he says, adding that he is interested in pulling in newer customers with more fashionably elegant collections, rather than “faster, wear and throw pieces”, and work hard to retain the existing customers.

Will he be able do it, you wonder. Chand looks on with determination, his smile turning momentarily thoughtful.