How a footwear company emerged as a Rs 1,250Cr brand ‘Woodland’ in India after the dissolution of USSR
This might come as a bit of a surprise but Woodland, a highly sought-after brand for a lot of millennials, actually has Indian roots.
Aero Group, the parent company of Woodland, was founded by Avatar Singh in Quebec, Canada, in the 1980s. At the time, Aero Group manufactured winter boots for Canada and Russia.
In an interaction with SMBStory, Avatar’s son Harkirat Singh, who is now the Managing Director of Woodland, says,
“My father was already into the shoe business since the 1970s. We had tanneries and factories where we used to make shoes to cater to the USSR market but at that time we didn’t have a brand. And it was in the 1980s when we launched the company and entered the market in a flourished way.”
On a shoestring to India
Aero Group’s business was at its peak until the 1990s when the Russian market went down with the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
“It was a tough phase for us as our major market share was in Russia but its condition was deteriorating. Though we were present in Europe and Canada, we needed to hunt for another growing market,” Harkirat recalls.
In 1992, Avatar and Harkirat decided to enter India after seeing the developing market condition and the opening up of exclusive retails outlets and mall culture. Under Aero Group, the duo then launched the brand Woodland by introducing one of the first hand-stitched leather shoes in the Indian market, which became widely popular in the country.
The company launched its first two Exclusive Brand Outlets (EBOs) in Delhi’s Connaught Place and South Extension. Today, Woodland has over 600 EBOs across the country along with shelf space in 5,500 Multi-Brand Outlets (MBOs). According to Harkirat, it has a turnover of Rs 1,250 crore.
Soon, Avatar and Harkirat realised that only dealing in shoes won’t help them cater to India’s mass audience as people prefer shopping for everything under one roof. Thus, Woodland introduced apparel and accessories in their stores.
“Our product line changes with every border. In the North, we have a separate collection for summers and winters. In the South, we have 80 percent summer collection throughout. The SKUs and foot sizes also vary according to the seasons and regions.”
When Woodland first started, it targeted only metro cities. At present, it is spread even in the Tier III cities. Harkirat says, in India, the northern region has a wider market for Woodland, whereas in the Eastern region, the market was lagging but is growing now.
Focus on quality and selling a lifestyle
In the next few years, Woodland expanded to Hong Kong, the Middle East, Dubai, and South Africa. However, Harkirat claims that India still contribute 75 percent to its turnover.
Woodland’s products are manufactured and assembled across countries for easy exports. However, major manufacturing is done in India in Noida. The leather is sourced from tanneries in Jalandhar, Punjab. The company also has collaborations with vendors in Bangladesh, Taiwan, China, and more for the outsourcing of a few SKUs.
The raw materials used for shoes, including soles, are manufactured in-house. Italian machinery is used for tanning and finishing the hand-picked Italian hides. German technology is used to manufacture tough rubber soles.
Direct Injection Process (DIP) is used for PU/TPU soles, produced by Germany giant Desma’s advanced machines and robots. This perfect synergy of design, material, and construction is what Woodland strives for in every product.
For apparels, synthetic fabrics are sourced from Korea and Japan. The company sources cotton fabric from South India.
Talking about entering the US and the UK market, Harkirat says the company is doing great keeping a focus in India and will expand only after a rigorous R&D.
“Even India is a big market and entering the US and the UK with just a picture of it being a huge market won’t lead us anywhere. We match the preferences of our customers, and we will step into these markets but only once the time is right,” he says.
At present, Woodland has a small presence in the UK but is on a lookout for a better partner.
Harkirat explains, “We do not sell a product; we sell a lifestyle. Woodland does not work in a franchise model as it takes a lot of commitment and trust to run the company maintaining its legacy. We had a bad experience in China tying up with a big company but, as it is said – we learn from our own mistakes. We are in talks with companies to expand in the unexplored markets.”
Challenges and competition
“India was a closed country, but now it has enormously opened up and every brand wants to enter this country as it is rapidly growing. Indian youths are fashion contributors and most of them are not loyal to a specific brand, which allows competitive brands to step in and for Woodland, competition is always welcome,” Harkirat says.
Footwear market is one of the largest and continuously growing sector globally and is estimated to be around Rs 75,000 crore as per the last industry estimates.
He says the driving forces for the rapid expansion of the market are the customers’ demand for new designs in every few months, technology and innovation to manage the global supply-chain that needs to be accomplished in less than three months to deliver products in the market, and withdrawing unsold products from the market.
According to Harkirat, India is the second-largest global footwear supplier after China representing 9.57 percent of global footwear manufacturing and he believes that healthy competition is necessary to keep alive to challenges.
Over shoes, over boots
Over the years, Woodland has been consistent in steadily expanding its footprint in the domestic as well as international markets. Harkirat says that in the future too, the brand will continue to strive to increase the annual growth rate and provide quality merchandise.
Woodland also aims to become a 100 percent eco-friendly brand, taking care of nature and people, which is supported by its sustainability initiative ProPlanet.
Under this initiative, the brand has been taking all necessary steps to use eco-friendly raw materials and processes for almost every area of the business – production, retail or product.
The brand has a few specialised categories like biodegradable shoes (with natural raw materials), apparel collection (PureGreen) made from recycled pet bottles, and many similar concepts are in the development stages, says Harkirat.
“We also plan to expand the retail footprint of our sub (lifestyle-fashion) brand WOODS a lot this year onwards,” he adds.
(Edited by Saheli Sen Gupta)