“Design for the customer if you want long-term success…”

Get out there and listen to what people want, says Samsonite’s CEO, who does just that

Despite being told, when he joined Samsonite in 1995, that luggage was a ‘low engagement’ category, Ramesh Tainwala finds he’s inundated with opinions from those he meets about suitcases. It’s no surprise that a major part of the 55-year-old CEO’s business plan is about listening. In fact, that’s where many new ideas come from. His first rule? Get out from behind your desk…

Listen to your customers “I travel up to 25 days a month. I want to be in our stores and in our competitors’ stores, finding out what people are talking about. Many times, you can find out what’s going through your customers’ minds just by listening to them – or watching them. This is a crucial point: you don’t have to speak the same language to know how your customer feels.”

Marketing matters “In 1995, when I joined the company in India, we were making slow progress. We weren’t even making enough to pay our salaries and had to ask our HQ in Belgium to send money so we could get paid. My friends couldn’t believe that a well-known company that ‘made washing machines and electrical goods’ wasn’t profitable. They were, of course, talking about Samsung. It made me realise we needed to raise our profile.”

Try new things “One of my friends asked where he could buy Samsonite. We’d been selling in department stores in other countries, but they didn’t exist in India then, so we were selling through small retailers. It diminished our visibility. I decided we needed to open our own stores.”

Use momentum “When we began opening the stores, it was a stressful, hectic time. We embarked on a plan that would see 100 openings in 15 months. With every store that opened, the brand got stronger. The sales started coming in, our figures were getting better and that compelled us to keep going. It was very motivating for the team to see this snowball effect.”

Be true to the consumers “One of the early lessons I learned was to design products for the consumer and for the consumer alone. There is a temptation to produce something that will appeal to the buyer in the department store, say, or to make something that will persuade your other ‘channel partners’ to stock it, but if you design for your customers, the sales will persuade your channel partners to deal with you.”

I don’t know everything “There are skills I have yet to perfect. Occasionally, for example, I can get myself into a situation where someone is doing an exemplary job. I promote them – because I feel they deserve an opportunity – but then they flounder in the new position. Obviously, I support them all I can, but I feel almost guilty. I’ve been in business for 30 years and I still find this challenging.”

Don’t chase your losses “There is no rocket science to launching a product: all you need to do is keep a close eye on sales. If you bring 10 products to market, six will probably work, while four probably won’t. You’ll probably know which ones will work after two weeks, so don’t get into the expensive situation of persuading people to buy, repositioning or re-purposing. Move on.”

Love what you do “Work doesn’t feel like work to me, because I enjoy it and I’m lucky to work with people who feel the same way. Just this morning, I had a visit from the previous CEO, who retired 15 years ago. He said he’d finally worked out why a set of luggage that we’d dropped long ago had failed and we spent the morning designing new products together. How’s that for dedication?”

Don’t let work consume you “I’m very happy with what I do for a living and, while I spend a lot of time travelling, I make sure that when I’m home, I’m focused 100% on my family. I’ll quickly go through my emails in the morning, but other than that, my phone is off.”

This interview was carried out by SIM7’s Simeon de la Torre and first appeared in easyJet Traveller magazine. To read the latest issue (and the entire back catalogue of magazines), visit: http://www.ink-live.com/emagazines/easyjet-inflight