The big break. The seize-the-moment opportunity. It doesn’t come to every business. But when it does, how many see the opportunity and go on to make the most of it? Supreme Creations is one such company.
The decision taken in 2005 by the major supermarket chains to switch from single-use plastic carrier bags was the big break for Sri Ram.
At the time, his business supplied raw materials such as jute to the packaging and printing industries.
And then came the call from Tesco. As a result of the so-called Courtauld Agreement, the supermarket chain needed to find a supplier of jute bags. They came to Ram.
“They wanted to know whether we could manufacture them. Being stupidly entrepreneurial, I said yes.”
The only trouble was capacity. The manufacture of a printed jute bag isn’t a straightforward process – each one requires several separate processes, many of which are by hand. “There’s a great deal of human effort as well as the need for advanced machines,” explains Ram.
Build it, and they will come
It was a huge opportunity. The demand was there, and it wasn’t just Tesco. Everybody wanted to replace plastic bags. The Co-op Group, with its strong belief in fair trade, was keen to launch the world’s first fair trade cotton bag. Others, such as Asda and Marks & Spencer, were lining up behind for Ram’s services.
So he built a huge factory, to the highest specifications, in Pondicherry in southern India. It soon became one of the biggest factories of its kind in Asia.
Almost overnight, Ram’s business had gone from a small UK-based business to a sizeable UK-India venture. “It was like riding a tiger,” Ram recalls.
But he had seized the opportunity. However, sustainable success was not going to come from one huge, one-off wave of demand. Supreme Creations had to be more than a one-bag story.
The father-daughter enterprise
And it was at this point that his daughter entered the Supreme story. It wasn’t her original intention to join the family business; her summer jobs had included stints at PwC and Goldman Sachs, and she had toyed with the idea of being an economics journalist.
“I didn’t think that I would be in this business for more than a few months,” she says. That was more than six years ago.
The father and daughter team recognised that growth had to come from new markets.
A billboard, not just a bag
And their answer was to promote the recyclable bag as a classic marketing tool. “A bag is a long-lasting, walking billboard,” says Smruti. As an advertising vehicle for a brand, it’s up there with the t-shirt – and more functional.
From 2009, they set about working with designers, high street brands and marketing agencies. Instead of producing large quantities of bags to a single design, they had to produce shorter runs, taking up to 50 different orders daily, and be constantly creative.
Today, its customers include Nike and Top Shop, Yves St Laurent and Anya Hindmarch. The design consultations take place in London, where Supreme’s 25-strong team works with the brand owners to develop and agree the concept, which is then created and executed in India.
An international outlook
It’s a company that epitomises international business. “Maybe our immigrant status means that we are not scared of different terrains,” observes Smruti.
“Most of the brands that we work with are multinational. We simply have to be international in everything that we do.”
Yet being British matters. “The design resources in this country are brilliant and can’t be replicated,” says Smruti. “Across Europe, companies are using amazing British designers. We can’t be thankful enough for the quality of British design and the creative edge that it gives us.
“There are plenty of companies around the world who will compete with us on price. Being based in London makes us a trusted partner – that’s a huge asset.
“Our unique selling point is our ability to understand the brand – as opposed to just being able to produce a bag. We are turning the humble bag into a work of art.”
A powerful ally
As a UK-India business, Supreme Creations has received valuable support in both countries. Back in 2008, the then British High Commissioner in India, Sir Richard Stagg, responded to a request to formally open an extension of its factory. “When I asked him, I didn’t expect him to say yes,” recalls Sri Ram. “It’s 2,500 km from Delhi to Pondicherry!”
Since when, he says, the British High Commission has been a powerful friend and ally. “We are very grateful for the connections that they have made for us, and for the support of UKTI.”
Recently, Supreme Creations has taken these discussions forward and is discussing options for its export expansion with a UKTI international trade adviser.
The factory, which employs up to 700 people, has received much recognition – including from HRH The Prince of Wales – for its high ethical and environmental standards. Delegations of MPs have visited the site.
“We are committed to female employment and empowerment,” says Smruti. “Nine out of ten of our employees are women, many of whom come from an under-privileged family background.
“We wanted to make sure that the huge demand for reusable bags improved the working lives of the men and women who cut, print, stitch, pack and despatch them.”
There’s a wealth of information and advice to help your business start and grow its exports. There’s a list of links and more information for first-time exporters here. Read our From Local to Global guide for first-time exporters. Find export opportunities, events and practical guidance on the Exporting is GREAT site.