Bold & Brave, Sheela Means Business

Kochi: She remains one of the most familiar faces among the top-rung women entrepreneurs of Kerala. As someone who has redefined fashion and comfort especially in the women’s inner wear segment, she has literally made her way into households all over the State through her brand, V-Star.

As someone who dared to experiment with women’s conventional inner wear patterns, she has proved how offbeat and bold she could get as an entrepreneur. It is this unconventional business sense coupled with futuristic ideas that position Sheela Kochouseph as an inspiring and imitable business icon of Kerala. Destination Kerala presents the scintillating success story of Sheela, who basks in the glory of the recently-won WBS 2018 Entrepreneur of the Year Award

Today, after more than two decades of her entrepreneurial journey, as Sheela Kochouseph, MD, V-Star Creations, presides over a Rs. 100-crore business empire employing about 225 people directly and over 1000 indirectly. She has widened her product basket, catering to segments like gents and kids also.

Her organic growth in the garment segment witnessed experiments and improvisations as she tried to reshape the preferences and tastes of women for better, of course, by putting premium on comfort and style. But to be an influencing presence in the women’s garment segment required more than business acumen.

Tracing that transformation Sheela helped bring about through these two decades, one could see that for years, the average Keralite woman’s idea of an inner wear was stuck somewhere between the ‘rowka’ and the round stitches, and anything other than that was considered blasphemous in every sense. While women had only very limited shades like black, white or cream when it came to choosing their undergarments, Sheela thought it would be ideal to experiment and offer them more options. Thus began the transformation which today has become a celebration of sorts. And, for the women folk, this was more than just an ‘undergarment revolution’; it was the rise of a ‘lady boss’ to look up to for generations to come.

One can only sit in awe when Sheela narrates her story. It is easy to look at how her business has flourished over the years from the outside and pass a comment that credits only her businessman husband Kochouseph Chittilappilly, Founder and Chairman of V-Guard Industries Limited, for it. But for Sheela, the journey has been one of struggles. From the confines of a traditional family to marrying Kochouseph, who at the time had just begun his business six months before, Sheela has a long and inspiring tale to share.

EARLY LIFE

“I was raised in a very traditional family, patriarchal in nature where women were always considered second-class citizens. I lost my father when I was 15. My mother was still there and we had a jewellery outlet and a textile shop, three cars…we were rich in that sense,” she remembers.

However, something was amiss. “I felt that the women in the family, including my mother, did not have access to money or a say in making financial decisions. I was a big support to my mother. Though she was very weak, she managed the house. I was the eleventh child and she was old by the time I grew up. And, I was married to a businessman who had started his business only six months before,” she says.

For her, life after marriage was happy. “Our family life had humble beginnings. We had a scooter and managed to set up a house in Kochi. Soon, I gave birth to two boys,” Sheela recalls those days.

“In the first few years, I was busy with the boys and Kochouseph remained engrossed in business. Over the years, while he managed to build a formidable business empire, I remained at home looking after domestic affairs,” she adds.

INTO THE BUSINESS DOMAIN

Sheela started off her business with salwar kameez which had around 500 dealers. “What happened was that they did not like what we made. It was quite difficult to produce it in bulk because fashion preferences vary from person to person. This led to dead stock. Over time, it affected profits, which steadily went down. Around this time, I noticed that there was a shortage for inner wear in the market and decided to give it a shot,” she explains.

Not the type to blindly make decisions, Sheela did extensive research on undergarments for a year before actually executing her plans. Speaking more about what she found during her research she says, “Even though Indian women have different body measurements, there is no specific ‘Indian measurement’ for the brassiere. The sizing for the inner wear is still based on international measurements and guidelines.”

V-STAR’S EVOLUTION

V-Star was founded in 1995 and seven years later it launched inner wear products for women under the brand Vanessa. In 2004, V-Star began a line of men’s inner wear under the brand name Valero, and Little Vanessa and Little Valero for kids were launched in 2012. Now all products are marketed under the single brand name V-Star.
Sheela’s brand ‘V-Star’ currently has a very different image from what it used to be 15 years ago. A fast-rising star in the world of fashion, V-Star began its ambitious journey by opening its first Exclusive Brand Outlet (EBO) in Kochi in 2014.

While many of her well-wishers and colleagues were sceptical about opening an undergarment store after a series of failures, Sheela was pretty confident that it would succeed. “My managers were all scared of a failure. I had to face a lot of discouragement. Had I listened to all of them and not started this venture four years ago, V-Star would not have grown so much. It was a turning point in my life,” says Sheela.

V-Star currently has 14 EBOs across Kerala. V-Star’s EBOs have presence in Ernakulam, Thrissur, Thodupuzha, Kollam, Kottayam, Malappuram, Kannur, Kozhikode and Palakkad. The fourteenth EBO was launched recently at Angamaly and three more will be opened soon. Apart from these EBOs, there are five concept stores as well. “Except two, all the others are run by franchisees,” she points out. “We are yet to open EBOs outside Kerala. There is a plan to open one in Bengaluru and another in Chennai this year. We have an encouraging market in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka,” Sheela says.

Kerala is V-Star’s biggest market as of now, followed by Middle East. Good movement of products is there in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh as well.

V-Star manufactures more than 15 lakh inner wear and outer wear pieces every month for women, men and children. The brand has 50 distributors and 4500 dealers in South India alone. In the last fiscal the company churned out a turnover of Rs. 101 crore.

It has been awarded RVA-accredited ISO 9001: 2015 certification, thus becoming the first brand in Kerala’s inner garment industry to win this coveted recognition.

Kerala has seen a slew of international brands coming into the undergarments market. When asked how this has affected V-Star, Sheela refers to her high-end label ‘Precious Purple’.

“This one is on par with international brands. These products are priced at Rs. 500 and above. It is an exclusive ladies premium collection for those who prefer high-end undergarments.”

ON NEW IDEAS

Someone who never lets her innovative spirit die down, Sheela reveals the story behind a new product she proudly introduced, a readymade blouse. A practical easy-to-use clothing that became popular rather quickly. Speaking about how she stumbled on the idea, Sheela says: “I was on the look out for a blouse option which gives you ultimate comfort and style. My persistent innovative bug finally was able to come out with our comfy blouses which are a blessing to all saree wearing women, young and old alike. The product has become an instant hit in the market,” she says.

The blouse innovation is her most recent success story and it has become very popular among office-goers in Kerala and NRI women as well.

Like every other business person in the fashion industry, Sheela, too, is constantly on the lookout for ‘what next?’ “To come out with something no one else has attempted before is what I strive to attain every day. We should have the confidence that we can do something different,” she explains.

“Apart from the readymade blouse, I have also come out with what I call the ‘Lounge Pants’. This one, too, is a phenomenal hit. It is pant that can be worn anywhere for any activity and can be paired with any top. And people keep coming back for it.”

KERALITES’ PREFERENCES

Sheela also speaks about the inner wear preferences she has noticed among Keralite women over the years and how much she was able to influence them. “The very primitive round stitches are still preferred here. When I started making brassieres, I thought I will never make these. But, unfortunately, I soon realised that there was a huge demand only for these round stitches. Sadly, women here have become used to wearing uncomfortable undergarments.” However, on the bright side, Sheela says that youngsters have better preferences.

ABOUT HERSELF

“Thinking about what more can be done and how I can introduce something new is what keeps me going. Being an entrepreneur, I cannot do without it. And not surprisingly, we do not discuss business on our dinner table,” Sheela says.

Another aspect which makes her different from other successful entrepreneurs is the candidness with which she speaks about her failures. She believes that while everyone talks about success stories, it is really the failures that teach a person a thing or two.

She describes herself as a calm and composed leader. “I never get angry and I am very positive. I do not believe in admonishing someone to get things done. I always see to it that I highlight the good things my juniors do,” the resolute entrepreneur adds.

Speaking about her future plans, she hints about her intent to enter full-fledged garment designing. “My passion has always been designing,” she says.

Sheela who was recently awarded Destination Kerala’s Entrepreneur of the Year award, wants to come out with a high-end party wear brand and a designer jewellery line in future. “Our dream is to develop this company as one of the leading pan India lifestyle brands with unquestionable quality,” says the visionary businesswoman. V-Star Creations, under her guidance, has plans to go for public listing, but only after touching the Rs. 250 crore turnover mark.

Meanwhile, Sheela feels that she has much more to do as an entrepreneur. When asked about her succession plans, she says, “I entered the garment industry in my late forties and it’s too early for a succession plan. My son and his wife are already on the board of V-Star.” But she added that business would be taken forward with professionals and a competent board. “Over the last decade we have developed a well-qualified, career conscious and well-trained team and the attrition rates have been one of the lowest in the industry,” she points out.

‘KERALA NEEDS A ROBUST BUSINESS ECOSYSTEM’

Sheela does admit that there are perceivable changes happening in the business and entrepreneurial scene of the State. Nevertheless, she feels, there is much more to be done with regard to the scaling up of the ecosystem. “Lot of positive changes are happening in Kerala encouraging the entrepreneurs in the recent past. But much more has to be done by the government and local bodies and society in general to encourage entrepreneurship in Kerala.

Even today rank of our State in the ‘Ease of Doing Business’ index is one of the lowest, in spite of high literacy rate. Still, majority of the educated youth prefer white-collar jobs close to their homes rather than starting own business. But there are also a few success stories of startups in the State,” she observes.

Furthermore, she believes that youngsters have a crucial role to play in fostering the business ecosystem in Kerala. “Young entrepreneurs have lot of enthusiasm, competence in technology and comparatively better exposure than previous generations. But they should be ready to face the challenges and failures with courage and perseverance.”

She signs off by saying that youngsters should be trained to have good value orientation for doing business with transparency and fairness.

SHEELA KOCHOUSEPH
Age: 64
Born at: Thrissur
Based in: Ernakulam
Family: Kochouseph Chittilappilly (Spouse), Arun Chittilappilly and Mithun Chittilappilly (Sons), Priya and Joshna (Daughters-in-law)
Loves to do (when not working): Painting is her passion and she has conducted various exhibitions. Also loves gardening
Drives: Honda Jazz. With the driver, she Ioves to travel in her Merc
Favourite Holiday Destination: Maldives
Favourite Cuisine: Continental
Music: A trained classical singer, she loves music. Popular melody ‘Mazhakondu Mathram…’ is her favourite
A leader you admire: Kochouseph Chittilappilly