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When Rahul Gautam, an engineering graduate, committed to his family’s fledgling business Sheela Foam as a Promoter Director, the year was 1971. Indian cricket legend Sunil Gavaskar was making his Test debut. Sachin Tendulkar hadn’t even been born.
With grit and unwavering belief, Rahul’s late mother Sheela, the founding Chair turned influential politician, created the bones for a prosperous enterprise, and 50 years on, the succeeding Chair and Managing Director reflects on how far they’ve come, and smiles.
As he quietly celebrates Sheela Foam’s half-century milestone – as Gavaskar and Tendulkar did too many times to count – he recalls those early days when they’d send out one truck of foam a week from their modest base.
Today, the company dispatches 500 trucks a day and has 11 locations across India, five in Australia, and one each in New Zealand and Spain. Its rise from startup to world-leading mattress manufacturer, through flagship sleep solution brand Sleepwell, can be largely attributed to the core values it was built on.
“I would say, right from our inception our value system has been very strong,” Rahul says. “It doesn’t matter if somebody started a business 50 years back, or is just starting a business now, the importance of having strong values and sticking to them cannot be overstated. Integrity is one of those values we hold dear. To us, integrity means doing anything and everything with the right intention.
“Being humble is critically important too. Our people are well educated but they should always strive to learn more, and this can only happen if they stay humble. To remain open to learning all the time is absolutely paramount to any kind of improvement, innovation and progress.”
“It doesn’t matter if somebody started a business 50 years back, or is just starting a business now, the importance of having strong values and sticking to them cannot be overstated.”
Rahul, who is also Chair of Joyce Foam and on the board of Polyflex Marketing, points to ongoing investment in the most cutting-edge technology across all aspects of their operations as another key competitive advantage.
Toss in an insistence on cultivating lasting, and even exclusive partnerships with suppliers and distributors and you can see why Sheela Foam continues to benefit from Rahul’s position at the helm. And never has his leadership been more critical than during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rahul is proud to say Sheela Foam is “on its way back to pre-COVID levels”, but he also stresses it won’t be business as usual afterwards. The board held a mirror up to itself and generally the executives were elated with what they saw in the reflection – a trusted and multinational brand; a network of manufacturing facilities across the country; and a robust and exclusive distribution system.
One notable omission though, Rahul admits, was speed. “When organisations grow beyond a certain level, a lot of bureaucracy can set in, and people can become complacent,” he explains. “The coronavirus has made this more obvious than ever. Everything is moving faster and quicker, and the biggest challenge for me and the team is now to speed things up. We cannot afford to continue at the same pace, we need to be five times quicker!
“So, over the coming months, we need to work out what is slowing us down. Whether it’s a question of simplifying procedures, or a question of increasing or improving competencies and so on, that is now a major focus.”
COVID-19 has also forced a rethink of management strategy. Two years ago, Rahul would’ve had a meticulously laid-out five-year-plan, but that’s no longer feasible. “The way people work has completely changed; what your products need to offer has completely changed. Above all, I would say planning needs to be looked at in far shorter terms. We need to be far more flexible and far more agile, the world is changing too quickly,” he says. “So, if you ask me for a five-year plan, I may not be able to give you that. But if you ask me for next year’s plan, I will give you that.
“In India, 60–70 per cent of the population still sleeps on some kind of cotton mattress. They don’t have access to affordable, good modern mattresses.”
What he can tell us is that Sheela Foam has set itself an unprecedented challenge. It wants to lead the charge in ensuring every Indian citizen has access to a quality mattress. “We have a large project coming up in a place called Jabalpur in the middle of India,” he reveals to The CEO Magazine. “There we intend to manufacture mattresses and pillows for the lower segments of the society, or those not so financially well off. I’m talking about the tier-three, tier-four, and maybe right up to the village levels.
“In India, 60–70 per cent of the population still sleeps on some kind of cotton mattress. They don’t have access to affordable, good modern mattresses.” The philosophy behind this project is really to provide a mattress for every Indian, to reach out to all the people who have not seen such a product and to make them accessible. “I would say this is a game-changer. Firstly, because of the market that it’s catering to, and secondly, because the technology has never been used in India before. It is completely proprietary and unique and will enable affordability and availability,” Rahul says.
“Affordability means that you can make these products at a much lower cost, and availability in that the mattresses can be compressed, packed and transported across the big distances that we have in India.”
We asked Rahul how the success of such a project would impact on his competitors. “There are no competitors and the moment you start competing the game suddenly changes,” he replied earnestly. “We have always considered them to be co-manufacturers or co-suppliers to the market. We would rather work in cooperation, and we’ve even been responsible for floating associations where others can participate and learn from each other.”
Considering Sheela Foam’s prominent standing among its peers, this inclusive attitude is not at all surprising. Moreover, it should be celebrated, as a strengthened Indian market is exciting for everyone.