Say ‘Landmark’ and it rings a bell in your head. The store, in many ways, revolutionised the book industry. Meet Hemu Ramaiah, the Founder of Landmark Bookstore, who built her business on the foundations of faith and intuition, feel and care, integrity and values.
Building the landmark; the feminine touch: faith, intuition and care; about the book industry; the message to young professionals.
Building the Landmark
Reading is a great habit. This is something every parent would encourage his child to do. Whether it is reading the Amar Chitra Katha, The Archies, Asterix and Tin Tin comics or later Enid Blyton, P G Woodhouse, Sidney Sheldon, Jeffery Archer, Irving Wallace or as you grow up to read the Ayn Rand, Tony Robbins, Wayne Dyer or even the scriptures, this place has it all. It caters to one and all. From a bookstore, it went on to become a multi-product store with something to offer to everyone who walked in. It’s certainly one of the biggest brands. Say ‘Landmark’ and it rings a bell in your head. It was the first retail store to get ISO 9002 certification. The store, in many ways, revolutionised the book industry and it actually brought the right books to the end user. She is the mastermind behind it. She had put in all the efforts to make it a success, a brand to reckon with and eventually she sold it to the Tatas. Today she runs a consultancy firm, helping people set up and grow their business. Meet Hemu Ramaiah, Managing Director of Shop4Solutions, and the Founder and ex-CEO of Landmark Bookstore.
She was in the front end of it all, right from setting up the Landmark to developing it. Now, Hemu takes the backstage in the role of a consultant. Explaining the difference she said, “It was nice to be in the thick of action. The greatest satisfaction was to convert one who was not a reader into a reader. I was involved in every aspect of the store and there was never a day when I would have felt completely satisfied, for at the end of the day you always want things to be better. Today it is nice to help people to set up shops. There is a lot that we learnt from our experience and now we use those experiences to educate others and help them in those aspects. There are so many people who get the macro things right, but leave out on the small things and that makes all the difference. Today I feel I can contribute and make a difference for many who do not know how to get off the treadmill. We are also advisers to the TVS Capital Fund. We go through the business plan, analyse the viability of the proposal and suggest the changes.”
I couldn’t resist but ask, “So, what have you gained and lost by giving away Landmark?” Hemu said, “I miss the interaction which I used to have with the readers. I miss the experience of being on the shop floor and meet people of so many kinds. Of all the gains, what I value the most is that my time is now in my control and I lead a more balanced life. I am able to give more of myself to my daughter, who is of utmost importance to me.”
Building a start-up into a brand and selling it, how tough was it? Hemu explained, “Our country is full of sentiments and I was no exception. Even today, when I walk into the store and find if something is wrong, it hurts me. I had built a huge brand which had three large stores with over 1000 people working, and I had a commitment to all these. What would happen if I drop dead tomorrow? The company would collapse. There was no great hierarchy to ensure continuity. You cannot leave the company and people in the lurch. No job should be left unfinished. From the employees’ and brand’s perspective it was the right thing to do. The selling process was strategised. It was done over a period of four years so that the transition would be smooth. I was there one morning and wasn’t there the next morning. Business went on, there could be some dilution of values, but everything evens out on the long run. Overall it was a good decision and I came to understand that nothing means anything.”
The Feminine Touch: Faith, Intuition and Care
The quality of people to run a book and a music store is very different from any other retail store. Explaining as to what she would look into people during recruitment she said, “I didn’t care about education. It was irrelevant to me. The store was more like a family. It was more like home for the boys. How happy a person feels within determines how enthusiastically he can serve. Most of my boys were wonderful and they worked little for money. I knew them personally and took care of them.”
Landmark had shown progress year after year and when asked whether her style of management was with facts and figures or one of intuition and faith, she said, “To me it was intuition and faith. It was a feel. Even without looking into the sales figures I was able to say what was wrong in the store. But, corporate India completely depends on reports. They don’t go to the soul of the business. Business is not about statistics, but it is about a larger vision and the soul with which you work towards that.”
Explaining a few factors, which helped her in building Landmark as a brand, she said, “Integrity stands at the top of the list. I wanted to show that in India you could do business without compromising on values. There were so many opportunities where huge business could have been transacted with institutions, but they needed cuts. Why would I ever want to do something like that? How do you sleep at night with that turnover? There will be struggles, but people with integrity will make it at the end. I always carry a strong sense of right and wrong and this has to be passed on; else, the organisation would collapse. You simply have to offer the customer the best.”
Hemu further added, “Due to your commitment to your work, balancing professional life and personal life is difficult for a young entrepreneur. For me the initial two or three years were full of 18-hour days at work. But I enjoyed what I was doing. It was the joy of doing what you want. In my mind I had certain fixed deadlines about my life. I never wanted to compromise with mediocrity. There should be a fine – balance between contentment and dissatisfaction. I find value in both. Whatever I did, I strived to do it better. I always felt dissatisfied. In fact, my perpetual dissatisfaction helped me to succeed. Work was more important to me and hence I did not get married till 30. I was focused enough to say that I would continue to stay in Chennai, for it was my root and my business was here. It is a matter of concern that many girls start businesses and then get married and ultimately resign themselves to wash dishes.”
As a child Hemu was always with books. She would just read anything borrowed from libraries. In fact she bought her first book from her first salary. She asked, “How many of them are really doing what they wanted to do? I was clear about what I wanted. I worked in a bookshop in a five star hotel at Chennai for over eight years and was instrumental in expanding the store to many more hotels. When you can understand and recommend a book to someone according to his needs, there is satisfaction and great pleasure.”
About the Book Industry
It was here that she learnt the book industry, the system of distribution and also the limitations. She explains her understanding, “Most people who were in the book industry did not know anything about it and it was the biggest tragedy. Very limited importers and publishers were there and hence it was a seller’s market. This resulted in disconnect between the customer and the seller. I realised that there was a whole world out there not yet fulfilled. They were not even aware of what was available. I wanted to do one large store to build quantity and variety to create interest in people. Books used to be shop soiled and so I wanted an air-conditioned store. I wanted people to see the book, read it and made the racks for self-service. My frequent visits abroad helped in breaking the monopoly in importing books and today India is an open market. I realised that in our culture we shop as a family and not necessarily every family member is interested in reading a book and hence we made it a multi-product store. This helped in converting non-readers into readers.”
Hemu believes that the margins in the distribution business are thinning out. Hemu was instrumental in setting up Westland Books, a subsidiary of Landmark, which grew to be India’s second largest distribution company. Explaining the current situation she said, “All publishers are coming to India. It is only with competition the market grows, but the overheads are really climbing. Young people are getting paid large amount of money and that erodes my confidence, as they start with great overconfidence.”
Talking about the growth of the digital media and the future of print media she said, “Digital is growing massively and the current situation does not promise a great future for bookstores. In future I feel no one would want to print, warehouse, freight, and transport, for all these would be too costly. Most of the bookstores have turned into multi-product stores. Digital is the future and there is nothing that could stop it.”
For the success of a retail outlet its location is very important. Hemu’s views were, “Location is very important and so is what you offer. You may be in a fabulous location, but your product may not be needed. Size is important for the depth and the range of stocks, but it should balance with the economics,”
The Message to Young Professionals
When asked what message she would like to give to our readers from her professional life she said, “Always do what you are proud of. Do it your way whatever it may be, and your instincts would be right. Money is a commodity you don’t take with you. It is the strong desire to do the best, which should drive me. Everything is transient including success. There was always this confidence that I will make it. I believe one should make human relationships work. I feel we all have a strong sense of duty for our existence. It is important to be good and find nice things about people and relate to them.”
Today, Hemu, with all her rich experience, has already embarked on the journey of working with other organisations and helping them to set shops, create systems, mentor them and help them to grow and create many more landmarks in their journey.