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Gill builds retail empires

Gill with (above) daughter Sunaina, son Sanveer and wife Sajni at the opening of H&M in Bangkok this year. - (PHOTO: COURTESY OF JS GILL)

Publication Date : 15-10-2012


September 29, Saturday, 9:55 am. Bangkok's Siam Paragon mall, normally the hushed and scented home to brands such as Burberry, Bulgari, Chanel and Porsche, has turned into a scene from a Justin Bieber concert movie.

Since 5am, several hundred fans, mostly teens and 20somethings, had camped along its marble corridors. For months, along highways and in mass transit stations, signs had told them Swedish fast fashion brand H&M, the world's second largest clothing retailer behind Zara, was to open its first store in the Thai capital.

Just inside the main entrance, JS Gill and his wife Sajni give each other a celebratory hug. He is thrilled but also worried.

In five minutes, he will open what will be the single biggest project of his life to date: a 36,000 sq ft fashion outlet, covering two floors in the city's swankiest shopping complex.

One more H&M will follow in two weeks in another Bangkok mall. Then two more in Indonesia next year. The Jakarta flagship store will be larger than the one in Bangkok.

Gill, 60, who went from one Royal Sporting House shop in Lucky Plaza to become the largest sporting goods retail chain in the region, belongs to an elite club.

Only twice before has the Stockholm- based company awarded franchise rights. The firm prefers to own and run its over 2,600 global stores directly, including the one in Singapore.

The Gill family, staff and VIP guests do a countdown. At 10 am, the velvet ropes part. Customers stream in.

As hundreds more flood into the mall, crowd control needs to be enforced. Shoppers are allowed into the store in batches.

Gill should be sitting back and basking in the glow but he is not popping the champagne yet. Besides making sure that operations here run smoothly, his mind will now turn to the opening of other stores. "Three five seven six," he says.

Jagdev Singh Gill, known to friends and partners as JS, enjoys numbers. As a boy, he once thought he might become an engineer.

We are having lunch in a cafe in the Siam Paragon the day before the hysteria of the store opening. During the two- hour chat, he cites significant dates and measurements from memory.

"S$3,576. There are certain things you don't forget in life," says the man, dressed in a simple short-sleeved shirt and trousers. That is the amount the first Royal Sporting House had in its cash register at the close of business on its first day. It is a number that told him that his gamble - his bid to transform sporting goods retailing in Singapore, as he calls it - would pay off.

The size of that Lucky Plaza shop was 350 sq ft or 100 times smaller than the H&M store in Siam Paragon.

Over his vegetarian curry, he rattles off other bits of data: The date that first shop opened (Nov 23, 1979), the number of years key members of his staff have stuck with him (between 15 and 27 years) and how large the RSH (as it was then known) group had grown by the time a Dubai-India consortium acquired the listed company in 2007 (1,100 shops, 12 countries, 60 brands).

The consortium paid S$370 million for the share takeover, for a business that included retail operations of Zara, bebe, Mango, Massimo Dutti and Ted Baker in the region.

Gill and his wife sold their combined stake of 42.5 per cent. "I sold because I had a good offer. It was a good price," is how he puts it today.

Under the terms of the sale, he had to stay out of the fashion business for three years. Operating under the banner of Gill Capital, he and his wife, their daughter Sunaina, now 31, and son Sanveer, now 28, got into the food business.

They opened Indian fine dining outlet Yantra, Italian cafe Brunetti Cafe, Garrett's Popcorn, Hershey's Chocolate World and sweets specialist Candylicious, among other ventures.

The family firm also opened houseware fashion chain iwannagohome!. Most of these stores and brands are regional.

He was doing less than before, "a sort of retirement". But if something big came along, he would pounce, he told himself.

That something big turned out to be H&M.

After having owned rights to brands that were No. 1 or 2 in their niches, such as adidas, Reebok and Zara, his experience would not be put to use working with anything less than top tier. "I told myself when I made a pitch for H&M that only if I got the rights for it would I do fashion. Otherwise I was not going to waste my time doing smaller brands."

He began pitching for the rights five years ago but some big players around the region were also in the race.

H&M's country manager for franchises, Par Darj, 58, says it hands out licences only in exceptional cases.

He speaks to Life! on the sidelines of a dinner party at a restaurant near the Siam Paragon to mark the launch of the Bangkok store. "We offer franchises only when we can't do it ourselves," he says.

Markets where deep knowledge of local legal issues or where people prefer to work with trusted friends are examples where the Stockholm-based firm would work with a middleman. There are only two other franchisees, one in Israel and another in the Middle East.

Darj adds: "Besides retail knowledge, we were looking for someone with a personality and a culture that is right for us. We wanted to work with someone we can trust."

The Swedes visited eight bidders in the region. "JS Gill was two divisions above all others in retail knowledge, in thinking, in personality," he says.

Gill sent books lavishly-illustrated with artists' renderings of proposed stores in prime mall spaces. His direct style when giving presentations and his speed and lack of evasiveness in answering questions made the Swedes feel so at home that it was "as if he were already a part of our company," say Darj.

On the night of the store launch party, Gill's wife and children surprised guests by announcing that it was his 60th birthday. A slideshow of family pictures followed. He made a speech, one that caused more than a few in the audience to dab their eyes.

"I'm blessed to have a beautiful family. I'm blessed that my mother is looking from heaven and guiding me... I am successful because of her blessing. I am successful because of my family and I think I have a wife who supports me like crazy.

"I wish I will have her for 100 years and whenever I die and if I live again, I will always want her as my wife."

His wife, 53, tells Life! later that it is rare for him to talk about his feelings so openly. "That was very special," she says of his speech.

In their 34-year-marriage, they have always been close, a bond deepened by shared struggle during the early years of the business.

Husband and wife ran the first store in Lucky Plaza. Excluding periods spent caring for their young children or taking further university studies, she has always held a post in the business. In the RSH days, she was chief executive for Singapore operations. Today, she is the chief operating officer and manages the six iwannagohome! stores in Singapore and Malaysia, and the recently-acquired List clothing brand from Italy.

Theirs was an arranged marriage. Sajni's family lived in Mumbai. One of Gill's sisters knew her mother and made the introductions. He travelled to the city and as he says today, when he laid eyes on her, he knew she was the one. After a courtship of a few months, they married.

She was 19. He was six years older but because he had held a job since he was 16, knew little about the pop culture of films and discos that she was used to. She found him "very different, very direct".

"I was cradle-snatched," she says, laughing.

Alongside her, the other person that Gill considers most important in his life is his mother, Gulab, who died in 2007. He offers prayers for her every morning and feels her constant presence bestowing blessings on the family, his wife says.

Gill is the youngest of six children - three boys and three girls. His grandfather had left the Punjab in 1921 to work as a bank watchman in Jakarta. His son, MS Gill, Gill's father, opened a sporting goods store in the Indonesian capital.

"That is where I learnt the trade. I was warehouse boy, delivery boy, salesman, cashier. You name it, I did it," he says. His father expanded the business, opening two more stores, one in Jakarta and another in Surabaya, so that his sons could each have a slice.

From 1962 to 1970, the younger Mr Gill was sent to Yadavindra Public School in Patiala, Punjab, India, a place where many upper-class families placed their sons. His father felt the private boarding school would give his son a well-rounded English-based education. The boy rose to be house captain and school vice-captain and represented the school in hockey, football and basketball.

He was "so-so" in studies, he says, though he had a head for numbers, a skill that stands him in good stead today. At meetings, while others are still punching numbers into calculators, he usually has the results worked out in his head.

As was expected, he was inducted into the family business after he left school. "The best seven years of my life. I learnt the business," he says.

In 1978, he settled in Singapore to help his father run the buying operations, as the regional distributors were based here. He had a small office in High Street Centre but he was restless.

"I wanted to do my own business. When you are young, you think you can take on the world," he says, laughing.

Back then, Bras Basah Road was synonymous with sports gear. The shops were typical of the times: Dark, packed to the rafters with boxes, organised for the convenience of the shopkeeper, not the shopper.

The young man had travelled to Europe and West Germany to visit the family behind the adidas brand and seen how sports retail was done there. He felt Singapore was ready for the same customer-friendly concept.

That meant he had to be based in the prime shopping belt and in the newest shopping centre. In 1979, Lucky Plaza, built the year before, fit the bill.

He had no money in the bank but he needed goods. Because wholesalers knew his father, he was allowed some slack. He could pay with cheques with a 30-day post-date, instead of cash upfront. He took S$100,000 in stock and hoped he would have enough revenue to cover the cheques at the end of the 30 days.

He did - customers liked the clearly displayed goods and price-tags. He opened three more shops in the same year. It was not long before everyone in sports retail had to adopt clean, bright, attractive displays, with polite sales service, or fade away.

K.H. Wong, 58, who now runs his own retail consultancy, was chief executive of the Singapore arm of Royal Sporting House in the 1990s. In 1997, the Asian financial crisis was crushing many companies.

Hong Kong was hit hard, with businesses dying and owners disappearing, leaving creditors in the lurch, he says. Creditors were calling in debts just to be safe.

"He could have just walked away, like a lot of others," says Wong.

Gill scaled down the Hong Kong business but refused to pull out completely. With Wong, who spoke Cantonese, he flew there constantly to reassure landlords and creditors that he was a man of his word and if given a chance, he would honour all debts.

As his son Sanveer says: "His level of persistence is something I have never seen in anybody else."

That period was hugely trying and as Wong admits, there were times when both of them could not hold back the tears.

Gill is not particularly emotional, says Wong. He just thinks people he works closely with deserve to know the truth of his feelings. That transparency is one reason why key members of staff are so loyal, Wong says.

There are three phases to JS Gill's business life: The stage in which he built the RSH empire, the quieter period after he got out of the company and now, at 60, he has entered a frenetically busy stage with the launch of H&M stores in two countries and possibly more to come.

He says he wants to slow down eventually and pass the reins to his children, who are already directly involved in other operations under Gill Capital.

There is no time yet to enjoy life in the family bungalow in the south of Singapore nor his other pastimes - watch TV and reading. He is deep into operations in Bangkok and soon, his attention will switch to Jakarta.

The stakes are high, he says.

How high? He thinks for a moment. His answer is characteristically frank and specific.

"What took me 35 years to build in my previous businesses, if I am lucky this time, I should build up to something as sizeable, within five years."


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