Dovetail Furniture is a ‘joint’ journey

Meet Mr. John Mathew and Mr. S. Sundar (see cover), partners in the Bengaluru-based furniture design and manufacturing business that has strived for more than three decades, thrived in its chosen niche, and is now raring to expand. Dhananjay Sardeshpande spoke with Sundar, the Managing Director of Dovetail Furniture, to find out what makes them tick.

A strategic partnership is based on a shared set of values. Nothing exemplifies this as well as the joint venture that John and Sundar have been running for 30-odd years now, and earning quite a good business reputation in the industry.

The value system they share seems to stems from their common background: the Ahmedabad-based National Institute of Design (NID), where John finished his course in furniture design (1982) and where Sundar completed industrial design (1984) before teaming up in Bengaluru to set up a furniture manufacturing venture.

It was with a “princely sum” of Rs. 1 lakh in in the form of a loan from the Karnataka State Financial Corporation that John and Sundar bought their first woodworking machines – a bench saw, a thicknesser planer and some hand tools – to operate out of a 2,500-square-foot shed in Koramangala village.

They hired five unskilled men to help them build some furniture samples. “Initially, curious villagers would amble into the shed for a look; but over time they became our skilled carpenters, fitters and machine operators,” Sundar recalls. The year was 1985 and the manufacturing unit was named Studioline Interior Solutions.

‘Exciting times’

Pay-day came soon enough. A “chance encounter” with the owner of the newly-launched Weekender brand of apparel resulted in their first project: the interiors and fitment for a retail

store. Their successful execution led them into doing 50 more stores for the brand across India. That project was also their first taste of shopfit/ retail furniture!

Also in 1986 Sundar, along with a couple of other NID graduates, started a consultancy firm called Tessaract Design. “It was the most exciting time of our lives!” recalls Sundar. “We were doing what we trained for: designing in various materials, for various clients and for a wide range of applications.”

From mini-computers for Wipro to washing machines for TVS, nothing was untouchable. Sundar recollects building India’s first wet grinder for Elgi, a product still the rage in the market for kitchens.

In 1988 came an opportunity for the complete design and construction of furniture and interiors for the Karnataka State Institute for Rural Development in Mysuru. That project established both designers and their company, Studioline, as serious industry players.

School furniture

It was followed (1992) by a contract for AditiMallya School – the complete design, manufacture and installation of furniture for class rooms, staff rooms and laboratories. It was the precursor to many more school contracts, and the establishment of Studioline’s expertise in the school and institutional furniture segment.

The feather in their cap came in 1997, when they won the contract for the entire furniture and interiors of the prestigious National Centre for Biological Sciences, on the Gandhi KrishiVigyan Kendra campus of the University of Agricultural Sciences in Bengaluru.

This was Studioline’s first multi-crore-rupee project, involving metal-wood furniture for all of the institute’s lecture halls, laboratories, resource centre, library, and housing for faculty and students.

The school and institutional furniture segment is now standardised, with a catalogue to cater to various needs: from kinder-garten to high school and college, from class room and laboratory furniture to library setup and hostel accommodation.

So far as design and utility go, school furniture needs to be ergonomically categorised (for different age groups), has to be sturdy and safe for its users.

Retail furniture

By 1994 Studioline had crept out of its Koramangala cradle and was running on its legs as Dovetail Furniture when the international apparel brand, Levis, came to India. Tessaract won the contract for store designs of its Asia-Pacific concept of retail stores across India, and Dovetail was well prepared to execute the orders for shopfit.

Around 1998 Tessaract and Dovetail became a part of the core group of companies working for the launch and expansion of Mr. Kishore Biyani’s Future Group.

Together they opened hundreds of small stores and malls across India, which included Pantaloons and Big Bazaar. It was also a relationship that lasted a decade, bringing with it business growth, design learning and overcoming manufacturing challenges.

What’s so special about retail furniture? It is an exacting task, Sundar says. The key points are the brand image (colour schemes, logos), nature of merchandise (clothes, wines, vehicles, tools), identity (classy, sporty or serious), product cost (affordable or luxury) and the target client (elite or mass consumption).

Until the year 2004, Sundar had one foot in Tessaract, one foot in production in the Dovetail factory. It was time to take stock and reflect on the nature of the company John and Sundar had nurtured thus far. It was also the year that Sunder introduced a management information system (MIS) to help him understand where they stood.

Taking stock

“In those days we didn’t have spread-sheets; as designers we didn’t have a head for numbers – but we were sure we wanted to continue to manufacture furniture,” Sundar said.

From the initial five employees, Dovetail had grown to 200-plus, had moved to a 2-acre company-owned piece of land in the industrial area, and had 45,000 square feet of factory space. It was also doing business across India and even abroad, notably markets in South-East Asia.

This business growth made it imperative for Dovetail to adopt professional business practices and protocols: direction, strategy, planning, management, role descriptions and corporate structure were sorted with assistance from data captured in the MIS, and professionals were brought in to take on various roles.

“Good professionals work only in a good professional setup,” Sundar notes, adding that John and he also had to address brand building and making the growth in business sustainable.

Growth plan

It is clear that Dovetail is a project-oriented company with B2B in its DNA. Dovetail is supporting its retail, school and home furniture segments with its facilities to process solid wood and panels, metal and glass in various finishes.

Its promoters love the project-based approach: developing concepts for the client, adding value through engineering and design, prototyping products, manufacturing and installation – in India and abroad. The company’s annual Rs. 25-crore turnover is largely on account of the retail and school furniture segments.

But Sundar is trying to find a connect with the end consumer in the home and lifestyle segment, the largest segment in an exponentially growing domestic market. According to him this B2C space is being muddled by cut-throat pricing on account of cheap imports, mainly from China and Malaysia.

“The online furniture retailing industry also does not have great margins owing to stiff competition among companies and the huge discounts they offer to customers,” Sundar notes.

But that is where a designer and manufacturer can put his/her creative potential to optimum use to personalise furniture! And that is where Sundar wants to steer his ship. Dovetail Furniture is now open to strategic investments for its growth. “I need investors – Indian or foreign – with a firm plan,” Sundar says. Someone that fits in perfectly, just like a dovetail joint!

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