MSME SuperPower:

Bold decisions shaped my 25-year business journey

Surender Sharma

Founder, ABBS International Inc., Panipat, Haryana

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In 1997, I set up a small manufacturing unit in my hometown, Panipat. As I hail from the “city of weavers”, you won’t be surprised that my company, ABBS International Inc., specialises in home textiles.

That initial investment quickly paid off. As business picked up, I was able to purchase a larger factory as a going concern just a year later. Then, in 1999, I got my first real taste of expansion when a huge export order came through from the United Kingdom.

This was a key moment for the business. To meet the order, I had to grow. This meant making a substantial investment and adding 100 machines to the factory. Growth continued on an upward trajectory. Sales were so good that we were honoured on the national stage with a Gold Award from the Ministry of Textiles’ Handloom Export Promotion Council for growth in 2011-12.

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Building and rebuilding

But if one thing is certain in business, it is that you cannot stand still. In 2018, after two decades as a trusted supplier to overseas retailers, I registered my own brand, Fifth Element. In 2019, I made what turned out to be a very strategic bet when I brought Fifth Element online and started selling on Flipkart. This let us continue as an export leader while diversifying into domestic eCommerce.

More importantly, it stood us in good stead when the pandemic hit one year later. Like so many other businesses, our orders dried up, and we were hit by labour shortages and cash flow challenges during the COVID-19 outbreak.

But with our new brand already online, we could rapidly pivot to a leaner and more resilient digital strategy. We were able to generate strong sales, even during worldwide lockdowns and with a fraction of our pre-pandemic marketing budget. For me, this was confirmation of the power of the online marketplace.

Exploring and expanding

Having weathered the pandemic, I’m now rebuilding my business. Since we have a lot of long-term customers, offline orders are again picking up. But we want to grow even stronger, with digitalisation as a key strategy.

This year, we’re installing more than 40 new knitting machines, which will help us expand into new markets and mitigate labour shortages. Our plan is to diversify into high-quality scarves and cushion covers, as well as sports shoes. The team, which now includes 200 direct and indirect employees, is particularly excited about the pivot into the sports shoe segment.

To help me bring this complex expansion strategy to life, I signed up for the Walmart Vriddhi program. I have strengthened my skills in key areas like marketing, finance, and supply chain management. I also learnt a lot from my fellow participants, which helped me deepen my understanding of various new business strategies.

With the help of my mentor, I was also able to improve my business infrastructure. We’ve set up our factory as per the Walmart guidelines and met all the compliance requirements, opening up new possibilities for the future.

We’re also now working to become the first in India to produce a new type of specialty yarn, and I’m exploring options to set up a joint venture with partners in Japan.

As we plan to venture further into the online business, I’m looking to hire a designer to take care of the design and packaging for our Fifth Element brand. The immense scale, reach and resilience that going online has brought to my business makes me very confident in the future.

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