Blazing a trail in uncharted territory: meet Lisa Srao who is rewriting the rules of the liquor businessTanvi Dubey
“You women entrepreneurs out there, blaze new paths and don’t allow yourself to be restricted by outdated traditions,” says Lisa Srao.
Meet Lisa, the woman who refused to be restricted by outdated notions like ‘the alcohol industry is not a place for women’, and remained unfazed by the lack of welcome she found from the Indian alcohol industry.
Today she rewrites the rules of the liquor business as the Chairman and Managing Director of I Brands Beverages Ltd, a firm that she founded and started operating in August 2010. Her aim was to make products of international standard quality in terms of blend, design, look and feel, and make it affordable to her consumers. “It is what sets us apart,” she says.
When it all began there were a few who actually gave them a chance at survival in a space notorious for laying waste to new entrants.
“We on the contrary have seen a sharp growth curve in this industry where noobs are known for shutting shop within six months!”
When Lisa first moved to India, she realized the discrepancy in the quality and pricing of liquor. She saw that the premium liquor segment in India’s mass market was completely under-utilized. This is when she envisioned building a liquor business in this country that provided the market with value for money products.
Daughter of Punjabi parents, Lisa was born and raised in UK and lived in London. She used to regularly travel to India and that has helped her stay connected with India.
She met her husband and moved to India following her marriage in 2003. She took some time off to be a mother to Isabella and Marcus. It was when she could find some free time away from them that she decided to set up a business of her own.
“As a kid I wanted to become a marine biologist, and was obsessed with sharks. But since I wasn’t inclined towards Biology as a subject, I chose a different path and moved into the media industry, working with the top media companies in the UK, including Viacom, Vivendi Universal, and News Corporation etc.,” she shares. Lisa has a B.Sc. (Hons.) degree in Managerial & Administrative Studies from Aston University in Birmingham with specialization in International Marketing and Consumer Behaviour.
Lisa has had a long association with and exposure to beverage manufacturing. She has been inspired by this industry due to her exposure to Double Dutch, a beer brand that her father launched in the UK 15 years ago. She shares, “When I moved to India, I felt there was a distinct lack of international quality products both in terms of accessibility and variety. During this time, I also noticed the scope in India’s billion dollar liquor industry and the under-utilized mass market premium segment. With the thought of bridging this gap with international quality products catering to the value segment, I launched I Brands Beverages.
After an extensive R & D for over two years, we commenced India operations in August 2010 with the launch of Granton Whisky, our flagship product. Today, I Brands Beverages is an award winning company and one of the fastest growing liquor startup companies in India. We have four fantastic products in our portfolio — a premium whisky brand — Three Royals, a deluxe whisky brand, Granton, which has recently been awarded for its packaging at the INDSpirit 2014 Awards, Jamaican flavored dark rum, Rum 99, and a rare French brandy, Granton XO Brandy.
“I believe I was born to be in this business. I love the challenge of being the only woman having created a spirits business from scratch in a very male dominated, monopolistic and cut-throat industry. Even though this industry was something that I had not always intended to get into, it is something I feel I thrive in today.”
Lisa is fully involved in all stages of I Brands Beverages! Be it strategizing and development of all business functions, be it manufacturing, sales, branding, marketing, product design or packaging, Lisa is totally hands-on. So much so that she personally hand sketched the initial product designs during the introductory phases.
She has a board of national and international advisors who help the company make the finest products of international standard quality. “Our USP is our product. We give a fantastic experience to the end consumer from the blend to the award winning packaging,” she says proudly.
Lisa adds, “We are still an infant company, but we are growing rapidly.” In their fourth year of operation, I Brands is present in Punjab, Haryana, Chandigarh, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand in the North, and Goa and Pondicherry in South India and across 5000 point of sales. She reveals, “We have just received our first paramilitary orders as well.”
Lisa’s future plans sound very promising. She says, “Our products have been gaining noticeable market acceptance, and Granton Whisky, our flagship product, has been flying off the shelves. Plans are afoot to launch in Delhi, Rajasthan, Tripura and Meghalaya to organically grow across Northern India. We are also looking at launching in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, West Bengal and Andaman & Nicobar Islands in the next couple of years. In the next three years, we plan to surpass the 100 crore mark and in the near foreseeable future, we plan to be one of the top 5 liquor companies in the country.
I am a born entrepreneur and I love what I do.
The fact that all I Brands products are well accepted in the market, and that there are repeat purchases, keeps me going. The challenging and cut-throat nature of this business and the potential of the products backed by a young and innovative team keep me motivated.
I am really inspired by Steve Jobs. “The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.” This has been my mantra driving me to take I Brands where it has reached today.
“I can recall when I was growing up my family always treated me as the son of the family as we were only two daughters. I would be given responsibility for getting things done; be it household errands or important documentation. It shaped the way I am,” she shares. My father was my source of strength.
Her husband too has been a source of strength for always standing beside her when the world thought otherwise about Lisa’s vision. “When I first started I Brands, he accompanied me to many meetings to ensure my safety, and despite facing huge hurdles while setting up the company, he encouraged me throughout,” she says.
Being a woman in the liquor industry was a big challenge
“The initial stages of building I Brands Beverages was a big challenge,” shares Lisa. She was advised against taking up this herculean task by many. From getting investors on board to convincing distributors to stock up our products, it has been a rough path. “But with a lot of determination, I decided to go ahead and start the company with my own limited investment, an amount far less than the massive amounts that the rest of the trade was playing with.”
Over the years, she has slowly built herself to penetrate the industry that very few women in the country have managed to do.
Lisa’s hard work has paid off. She shares, “There has been a phenomenal response to I Brands’ products across the country, and it is the popularity and quality of the products that have allowed the company to not only sustain itself in this incredibly tough and complex industry, up against some massive players, but also reach a double turnover in just three years, surpassing the million dollar mark!”
She further adds, “In our fourth year of operation we have received four awards – the Best Startup Company at the prestigious liquor award ceremony, Spiritz 2014 Awards, the IndSpirit 2014 Excellence in Packaging Award, and recently the Innovative Startup of the Year in the 4th Entrepreneur Awards by Franchise India 2014. This is a testimony to the hard work and dedication that my team and I have put in to take the company where it is today.”
I Brands has opened up retail presence in over 5000 outlets across eight states in the country and won its first paramilitary awards, which is an achievement as well.
“The awards and the retail and trade acceptance convey the brand’s penchant for product innovation and consumerism. And now we have distributors knocking on our doors.”
Being a woman in a male dominated industry like India’s liquor industry, Lisa faced many hurdles. “When I approached the trade they laughed at me, and told me I wouldn’t be able survive here. Nobody took me seriously. During meetings with distributors, they would address my manager and talk only to him because he was a guy. That’s changing now. The industry is getting more organized and in a few years, it will shift to being FMCG and retail driven, which is a tremendous thing.”
Ask her if life is harder or easier as a woman, and she says, “I have never looked at it this way. As a 21st century woman my choices are limitless in how I can make a difference to myself and the world around me. It is easy to have nannies and raise children in India compared to the West, but for me it is about maintaining a work-life balance. Working during the day and putting in the extra hours early in the morning gives me some quality time with my family in the evenings. The key is to organize and prioritize tasks.”
Her message to women entrepreneurs is: “Do not be restricted by outdated traditions or stereotypes. Pay attention to details in your business and know your strengths. I take on challenges and look to learn from them constantly. I have great motivational spirit and drive. Live your life with passion. Be bold; do not take up a job just for the sake of it. Simple things like setting clear vision and goals, and believing in oneself will help any woman achieve what she wants. Dream big, always!”
“I once read an Albert Einstein quote, ‘The woman who follows the crowd will usually go no further than the crowd. The woman who walks alone is likely to find herself in places no one has been before,’ and through the years, I feel that this has been etched in me and I follow this to move ahead in life.”
Lisa is passionate about her family and children. “I Brands is like my baby, an extension of me. I am also driven to encourage women to be independent and strong. I believe that through education of young girls society is bound to thrive.”
“I always had a knack for creating new things and so I grew into a fantasy artist. I love to develop things, and painting to me is always a form of meditation. I am a fantasy artist and am inspired by the works of Boris Vallejo and Julie Bell. I am also an explorer and love travelling. I love experimenting with my food as well.”