When I had a chat with Anirudh Kankatala, I already knew that it would be an in-depth discussion on
Kankatala Sarees. This brand is an over seventy-year-old legacy business, which is now taking giant strides under the leadership of its third generation.
Anirudh shares with us, “This brand is now three generations old. My grandfather laid the foundation of Kankatala Sarees with the very first store in 1943, and now the third generation is contributing to the business.”
My core intention was not to get into a hardcore business discussion, in fact I was far more eager to know the brand’s history. Anirudh says that his grandfather was a visionary, and it all began in the 1930s.
The 1930s, what a time it was! The latter part of which witnessed the beginning of World War II. The British were ruling India. This was the time when Kankatala Appalaraju, Anirudh’s grandfather started his entrepreneurial journey. After working for a cloth store, he began his own venture as a street seller in Vizag. “He started from scratch and started selling clothes to the British on the platforms of Vizag railway station. He was also selling sarees door-to-door. With plenty of money saved up, he bought a bicycle and started selling in and around the places near the city. It took him two to three years to earn enough money to become static,” Anirudh tells us.
Also Read: Indian family-owned businesses: Protecting the legacy on the back of succession plans, family offices and M&As
Kankatala Appalaraju started his entrepreneurship as a street seller From a 5X10 ft store to a multi-chain brand
In a 5 by 10 ft space, Kankatala Sarees first started as a local saree shop in the old town of Vizag in 1943. Anirudh informs us that it was the first store that his grandfather managed.
From then to today, the brand has established itself pan India across all the major cities. “We are the oldest and among one of the few businesses that started so long ago and still continue to survive and flourish,” Anirudh comments.
Anirudh recalls how he has always heard stories about how the brand began from his family members. He also reminisces about the time when his family expanded the business to a fourth location. “This was the store where our family used to live behind the building, and now we have expanded to different cities,” he tells us.
The brand has over 13 stores spread across Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, and New Delhi. On the lines of boutique style stores, they have incepted stores in the metro cities of Hyderabad, Bangalore and New Delhi too. These are called the Queen of Sarees Stores. And the interesting thing is that most of their collections are handpicked by the owners themselves.
Kankatala Sarees launched Ist retail outlet in Delhi and its 13th in the country in 2021
“Each Kankatala saree is unique. You can get authentic handloom bridal sarees in the Kanchipuram, Banarasi, Paithani and Patola fabrics and in many other variety weaves as well, like–Ikat, Kota, Uppada, Khadi, Jamdani, Organza, Kalamkari, Gadwal, Tussar, etc,” he says.
Besides that, the brand has its own D2C online identity via which they cater to the Indian diaspora worldwide.
“We work together very closely with the people that we deal with, be it the weavers, the master weavers or the other stakeholders. I mean, these are the people that we have been working with for generations. My grandfather, then my father and now me. And we work with more than 40 to 60 weaving clusters. For this, we have to travel extensively across the length and breadth of India, from Kanchipuram in the south to Varanasi in the north to Yawla in the West in Gujarat,” he further tells us.
The brand has changed with the people
“My grandfather started with just one store, but there were others who helped him to multiply and grow the business further,” Anirudh avers. According to him, every family member had a role in making this brand a success. His father- Mallikharjuna Rao Kankatala, and uncles- Prabhakar Kankatala and Subbarao Kankatala helped in the business as well.
A photo from 1972. Founder Kankatala Appalaraju, his wife Sita Ratnam and their eldest son Kankatala Prabhakar in front of Kankatala Appalaraju & Co showroom
Talking about his father, Anirudh tells us, “My father was the youngest, and he joined the business when we only had one store. He was keen on expanding our footprint. He believed in a quality customer experience. This was one of the main strategies that he brought in; our air-conditioned showrooms are an example of that.”
He credits his father for opening their first air-conditioned showrooms in Vishakhapatnam. Besides that, in 2007, he started the first silk store in Vizag in a massive 330,000 sq. ft premises. According to Anirudh, it was one of the major milestones in Kankatala’s journey.
Also Read: ReshaMandi: A tech-enabled silk route for the stakeholders of the Indian silk industry
“But you know people laughed at him for doing this. They would say, it’s a waste of money. Usually, businessmen at that time liked to open stores in the same city. But he didn’t pay heed to them, and he was particular to expand to different regions. So, we expanded to Rajnagri and Vijaywada, etc.,” he says.
Currently four of his family members are active in the business. We ask,
“What changes did your generation bring in?” “Me and my cousins made the brand digital,” Anirudh answers.
He says that some of the most significant changes that they made in their business was going digital, developing a strong social media brand presence, and launching their e-commerce site.
“We now ship sarees to over 20 different countries. People all over the world are familiar with our brand. This has also facilitated our expansion into other major cities such as Bengaluru, Delhi, and Hyderabad. And this is how the three generations have contributed to this business,” he adds.
A family that stays together…
When business meets family, interesting equations always emerge. Running a family business means that everyone must be in sync with each other. And for the Kankatala family, it’s a piece of cake.
“We work very much hand in hand daily. All the decisions are made by the third-generation directors—me and my two cousins. While my father spearheads the business in a more strategic role as its chairman and managing director. Whatever choices and decisions we make, they go to him for a final approval. 99.9 per cent of the time, our decisions align.
However, there are times when he suggests some things to us and shares his wisdom with us to help us to do better. Also, us three brothers are clear cut on which departments we have to take care of. We collaborate with each other and come up with roadmaps and strategies,” Anirudh explains.
However, discussions can sometimes turn into healthy debates; after all, it’s all about what’s best for the business. “It’s not like we have conflicts but it’s more about the decision-making process. For example, where our marketing strategy is concerned, we always have discussions about how much to allocate for the marketing budget. We talk about whether our marketing strategy should be traditional or digital or on social media, and so on. These are all healthy debates, thoughts and ideas that we discuss with each other to reach the best outcome,” Anirudh says.
Also Read: Khadi, handloom promoters want to defeat fast fashion with sound marketing Weaving, numbers and entrepreneurship
Anirudh Kankatala officially entered the business world in 2015. But his tryst with the family business dates to his childhood. “I practically grew up in the shop. We lived behind the store, with only one door separating us. When the staff used to be there the door would be shut. We used to go into the store and stay there. All of that is in my memory,” he reminisces.
Anirudh’s shares that his initial one year in the business went by in figuring out where he fit in and what he should do, as his father and two cousins were already handling everything well.
“In a family business, people are asked to join the work, whether there’s a new role in it for them or not. After a good deal of time, I realised that it was imperative for us to embark on our digital journey as that’s the one front on which we were lacking. So, in 2016, we started working on our online portfolio and on our social media presence,” he tells us.
However, it was the art of weaving and textiles that made him fall in love with his work, not the numbers. “I am a finance major, so numbers always interested me more, like how many stores should we have, what avenues should we explore further and so on. But then I started travelling along with my father to learn the nuances of the business. And it changed my heart. I fell in love with the weaving and textiles of India. Now I am more passionate about the uses, designs and intricacies of the sarees. And these are the fabrics measuring four to six yards that take a year or more to weave,” Anirudh enthuses.
Kankatala Sarees is actually not a manufacturing unit, rather it procures from weavers all over India, and they curate these collections. According to Anirudh this makes more sense, as it provides massive employment opportunities to the weaver community.
“We work with multiple weaver clusters. In fact, we impact over 50,000 weavers’ lives annually. And it is not just the weavers. There are also the people involved in the other processes of saree making, like the people involved in the dyeing process, those who set up the looms, the people who work on the designs and those involved in the yarn making process. The lives of all these people are greatly impacted as well. And we cannot forget the farmers either,” he points out.
Covid was a challenge
In all these years, for the Kankatala family, the pandemic years have been the toughest. During this time, their physical stores ran into losses. Anirudh tells us that it was a hard time for them financially. “The first year was the most difficult. Our stores were closed for two to three months, but even when they re-opened, there were fewer walk-ins. But we had to pay our weavers, our employees and the various other people who make up our supply chain. However, despite the difficulties, we didn’t fire anyone and continued to pay them regularly,” he says.
Meanwhile, the inception of their digital platforms has helped Kankatala to spring back into action. Their strategies such as the shared stock one, which is for both their online and physical stores, are proving to be quite successful. “If something gets sold in one place, we remove it from the other platform and we have deployed several processes for that,” he tells us. His organisation has also implemented new tech solutions to manage their different stores and their employees, and to enhance their customers’ experiences. “We have technology in place for our operations, to check what stock is available in all the stores and to show our customers the stock in our other stores if they are not happy with what they see in one store. And we can deliver it to them from the other store within the next 24 hours,” says Anirudh.
Sarees are timeless
Western fashion has already infiltrated our culture. At the beginning of his career as an entrepreneur, Anirudh was concerned about western clothing replacing traditional wear. “But you know, I have learnt that sarees are timeless. They’re not going anywhere,” he asserts.
Anirudh further says, “Over the years, we have created a niche for ourselves. Our brand is more occasion oriented and premium in category. Consumers come to us when they want to possess a unique handloom. Meanwhile, the trend that I have been observing is that many young women are showing interest in sarees and handlooms. So, I don’t think that sarees will go out of fashion anytime soon. Because as I already said earlier, nowadays there are a lot of young women who are showing a keen interest in our Indian heritage and are choosing to wear sarees.”
Currently, Kankatala Sarees has a slew of projects and collections in the pipeline. Anirudh tells us that his organisation is working on various things—the first and foremost of which are the classic heirlooms—which are never going out of vogue. They come is various textures and designs, like a contrast bordered Kanjiwaram, Banarsi, Changla or Shikargah saree. “Ours is a business based on classical designs and textiles. In those, we try to bring out new colours and motifs every season,” he says.
Besides that, the firm is also working on creating new collections and fusion styles in collaboration with various master weavers. For instance, Kalamkari on Kanjiwaram or Patola and Chikankari on Kanjiwaram. These combos have gained a lot of popularity in the recent years.
Also Read: Rising prices threaten Varanasi’s silk saree industry’s nascent recovery
“The roadmap is to curate new collections for our consumers by handpicking each saree. This is really interesting and exciting, and we are working on it wholeheartedly. Besides that, in the next five years, we have plans to open more stores. But I will not disclose the locations. Not yet! Alright just a hint…some of them will be in the tier 2 and tier 3 cities,” says Anirudh as he signs off.