Warrior has changed the way India looks at safety shoes

On the occasion of the Warrior brand completing two decades in the Indian market, Adesh Kumar Gupta, CEO, Liberty Group is very upbeat about the growth potential of the safety shoe segment.
Warrior has changed the way India looks at safety shoes
On the occasion of the Warrior brand completing two decades in the Indian market, Adesh Kumar Gupta, CEO, Liberty Group is very upbeat about the growth potential of the safety shoe segment. In this exclusive interaction with Manish Pant, he emphasises that the central government will need to work proactively if it truly wishes to see India become the footwear hub of the world.
 
How large is the market for safety shoes in India?
 
It’s very difficult to define the market size in India because we have a largely unorganised sector. But we can always make some guesstimates on a population base of 1.3 billion. The safety footwear market includes B2B, which includes businesses. These can again be divided into, one, the manufacturing sector and, two, the services sector that uses them as dress shoes as is the case in the airline industry. When it comes to B2G or business to government, you have the armed forces, personnel of the paramilitary and police forces, and railway staff. Then you have what is called the tenders sector. Therefore, the market for safety or, I would say more specifically say work shoes, is humongous.
 
In the two decades, the brand Warrior has been around, what has made it synonymous with safety?
 
The brand was founded on the best principles of innovation. Till its introduction, the safety footwear being sold in the Indian market was of archaic standards that were established way back in the 1930s! We, therefore, challenged ourselves to introduce a product that adhered to stringent European norms in the Indian market. This not only brought about a complete change in standards but was also instrumental in making the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) norms to conform to IS-15298.
 
You take immense pride in the fact that innovation is central to Liberty’s DNA and is credited with introducing polyurethane (PU) in footwear manufacturing in the country in the early 1980s. So, was the market ready when you decided to launch Warrior?
 
Naturally, while introducing innovation you cannot look at the mass market. When mobile phones were introduced here, only a certain class of consumers was buying them. But over the years they have trickled down to a large base. Similarly, Warrior has trickled down from a niche segment to different classes of customers. That means people employed with foreign and Indian multinationals and companies keen to encourage innovation among their workforce by provisioning for best industry practices. 
 
The challenge was how to take our product to the consumers. We, therefore, did roadshows across the country to meet the leading distributors of footwear. It wasn’t easy but I was eventually able to prevail upon them to also sell our footwear. 
 
Today, besides the government, we are serving about 2,500 businesses. We are the first company that the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has placed an order for half a million pairs of shoes worth Rs 1 billion. That speaks a lot about the brand. We forced businesses to look at buying quality safety shoes locally. For instance, when construction of Delhi Metro started, workers including its managing director, E Sreedharan were using our shoes that would have otherwise been imported. Today leading companies like Maruti Suzuki, TVS, Toyota, Mercedes Benz, ONGC, Oil India Ltd, Hero Motors, etc, all buy Warrior.
 
How easy was it to convince the big boys of Indian manufacturing to buy your product?
 
When you are offering a product of international standards why would anyone doubt you? The legacy of faith that the Liberty brand had enjoyed since 1983 was used to introduce Warrior to consumers. A lot of companies also tested our product where we delivered more than what we had promised. That resulted in consistent growth in sales year-on-year. The other factor was cost as imported shoes were expensive on account of import duties.
 
What are some of the main innovations in technology and design that you have introduced in the segment?
 
As I pointed out earlier, we have a strong foundation in innovation. Since the introduction in 1999, Warrior has continued to be a bestseller. Remember that safety footwear is not a fad. It satisfies the safety requirements of the worker and their workplace. Having said that, we have continued to invest in innovation by adding new product lines like the thermoplastic polyurethane technology. The injection moulding prevents the shoe from coming apart. 
 
Besides, as the steel toe and steel plate (which are the foundation of a safety shoe) were not available locally, manufacturers were using moulded iron! So, we started their import from France. After three years of hard research, we are shortly going to unveil popcorn technology. Shoes made using this technology have three soles and will be introduced in Warrior’s 20th anniversary year at the beginning of 2020 under the Warrior Envy brand. The product has a new logo. We have already shared our brochure with 500 businesses. As part of our 360-degree marketing initiative, we will be sharing a video specially produced for all important social media channels.
 
Also, has the current economic slowdown impacted the demand for safety shoes?
 
We have four verticals with the first being the domestic market which is B2C or fashion. The second vertical is B2B, which includes institutional and industrial clients. The third is the export market. The fourth, and which is very important, is B2G as the government is the biggest buyer all across the globe. The MoD order will help double our production. So, we can’t say the consumption has reduced as our order book is almost full. Our capacity is sold out for the next year and we may have to bring in additional capacity as we are likely to see 100 per cent expansion in B2B and B2G segments. Unlike steel or cement industries, the footwear industry works on the principle of incremental growth.
 
Have the new disruptions in technology had an impact on your business?
 
Although there is much talk about Industry 4.0, the footwear industry will largely remain labour intensive. Wherever we had to take advantage of technology such as on the injection moulding side, those changes have already been incorporated. But when comes to manufacturing uppers, which comprises 80 per cent of the employment in the shoe industry, that continues to be done by hand. There are technologies like laser cutting available but their costs are exorbitant. That is why all our manufacturing facilities are called Humantech Centres as they optimise the potential of manpower and technology. Sectors like footwear, sanitaryware and apparel will always be large employers of semi-skilled labour. Even in China, these sectors that provide the bulk of employment.
 
How has the Indian footwear industry fared vis-à-vis China?
 
It’s very unfortunate that though we launched the excellent Make in India concept six years ago, we have failed to see it reach fruition. The government’s intent is very good but the execution is poor! I have been nominated as the chairman of the entire domestic leather manufacturing industry under the Ministry of Commerce but despite that, there has not been much movement though footwear was among the top 20 sectors that were chosen for the programme. 
 
China’s share of the industry is 60 per cent while ours is a measly 2 per cent. At the same time, despite a 1.3 billion population, the average consumption of shoes is only one pair. Now imagine if we have to produce billions of pairs over the next five years, where will the capacity come from? So, though individually we might be doing well, we will fail as an industry to meet the challenge that will be coming our way in the next few years when India would have leapfrogged to become an important hub for domestic as well as international manufacturing. 
 
The Index of Industrial Production (IIP) numbers for the footwear industry are in the negative, imports continue despite duties being introduced in the last few budgets at our insistence and substantial tax evasion still takes place due to the existence of the two slabs of 5 and 18 per cent. But the government has so far been immune to changing its archaic thought process.
 
Any message to the industry as Warrior completes 20 years...
 
Warrior is not merely a brand of the Liberty Group; it belongs to the whole nation. Be it about guarding the country’s borders or working in the manufacturing or construction sectors, we are all warriors in our own right in our fight against the local environment. So, the safety aspect is inherently built into the brand name!
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