Penning His Way to Success- Nikhil Ranjan
In the second of our series on Young Indian Success Stories, meet Nihkil Ranjan, entrepreneur par excellence. Owner of the William Penn chain of high end stationery stores, he is an inspiration to those aspiring to build their own businesses. An engineer by profession, he started the William Penn brand 16 years ago, which now has 30 stores across the country, with plans of going international. He recently acquired the popular British origin Lapis Bard, manufacturers of luxury accessories. A one man show, he writes his own success story. Penning a dream and watching it come to life is everyone’s ambition. Discover his journey as Nikhil Ranjan talks to EE’s Priyanka Sippy.
Q1. From engineering to luxury stationery – what triggered the change?
The change has been gradual. After my engineering degree, I worked at IBM for a few years in the engineering department. While working here, I realized I wanted to be an entrepreneur. My family’s business has been in the manufacturing stationery amongst which I spent my childhood; it was natural for me to start my business on similar lines. I wanted to do something allied and not continue the family business, so William Penn happened.
When William Penn began its journey, it was a multi brand stationery store. Over a period of time, we found that premium products were not available in India. There was a requirement of good quality pens and stationery which were available in other parts of the world. Moreover, there was a demand for products to be priced in the same price bracket as available internationally. As a result, the selection and offering of writing instruments at William Penn has been in response to the customers’ needs and gradually we were able to specialize in this category of writing instruments and premium stationery and more recently men’s accessories.
Q2. Why did you choose the name William Penn for your brand?
Initially, we brainstormed and researched various names around the world. Sir William Penn is the founder of the state of Pennsylvania, USA in the 18th century. Drawing inspiration from his work, we decided to name our company after the good work. Much later when we started specializing in writing instruments, it was wrongly misconstrued that William Penn was the inventor of the Fountain pen. In fact, he is a historical personality- the founder of the state of Pennsylvania.
Q3. What are the challenges you faced along the way?
Being an entrepreneur and its various aspects comes with its set of challenges. At different stages, one faces different challenges.
When I first started off, doubts were manifested regarding the existence of a concept of offering premium stationery and writing instruments in a multi brand store format which allowed the customer to touch and feel the products. The vendors were not very forthcoming to offer their products and their brands to us so that was a challenge, until we were able to prove that customers were certainly appreciative of the concept leading to healthy sales.
Another challenge was the high import duties. When we started in 2002-03, the import duties on luxury writing instruments was as high as 60%. While India had high import duties, consumers wanted the products to be priced reasonably- same as it was priced overseas, making it difficult to price the products in the affordable category for consumers.
The next challenge was managing stores in distributed locations. When we expanded from Bangalore to Mumbai in 2005 and New Delhi in 2006, we were faced with the challenges of managing our store in different cities as well as ensuring that our customer service would meet the same standards as in Bangalore.
More recently, our challenge has been how do we respond to our customers who are buying online? How do we respond to brands getting discounted online and how do we make sure that we as the retail store continue to stay relevant?
Q4. How many stores do you have across the country?
Across India, we have 30 stores owned by us and 20 other shop-in-shops mostly with Shopper’s Stop managed by William Penn. In totality, Under William Penn we have 50 points of sale. Apart from our physical stores, we have another important store- www.williampenn.net to maintain our online presence.
Q5. Are you planning to take the brand global?
Yes certainly, the very fact that we have an online presence allows us to cater to an international audience although the percentage of people transacting overseas is small. We are open to going international- our first foray is going to be Sri Lanka probably in 2019 and if that is successful then we go beyond.
Q6. Which brands does WPPL distribute currently in India?
We have been the distributor for Sheaffer Pens for last 14 years in India, and a host of other brands such as Hugo Boss, Fisher Pens, Moleskine, Sailor and Caran d’Ache.
Q7. What are the various product lines you have right now?
Historically speaking, we have focused on fine writing instruments. Over the past couple of years, we have been actively looking at accessories beyond writing instruments which includes – accessories for men – business bags, wallets, cufflinks, pocket squares, ties and premium stationery such as notebooks, desktop products, and paper based stationery, Moleskine is a fine example in the latter category.
Q8. Tell us about Lapis Bard? What made you decide to buy the company?
Our business model allows us to tie up with brands from around the world and represent them. One such brand was Lapis Bard with whom we tied up in 2013. Since we had good relations with the owners, we had an opportunity to partner with them and found that Lapis Bard had the capability of expanding beyond just writing instruments. We as a company had the capability to design and develop men’s accessories and add to the existing portfolio of writing instruments, so we decided to make an offer. Lapis Bard accepted it and thus the acquisition happened. We acquired Lapis Bard with the view to:
a) Add to our writing instruments portfolio
b) We could have a brand that we could take to any part of the world which was in line with our global aspirations.
Today Lapis Bard is growing well at 30+% across all our channels. It gives us the confidence and motivation that we are on the right track and it is not far away from the day when Lapis Bard goes far beyond India.
Q9. What did you like about the brand?
Firstly, the brand was established with a purpose of creating of original designs with a strong focus on craftsmanship and quality, which was present in the initial range of pens they introduced. Secondly, it was a new brand without a known legacy of writing instruments. Thirdly, it was positioned as a ‘premium’ or ‘bridge to luxury’ brand. These are some of the things that appealed to us and fit into our plans of building an accessories portfolio in this positioning and using writing instruments and accessories to go beyond India.
Q10. Any more brands that you plan to own in the near future?
Today, William Penn owns Pennline, an in-house brand. Yes, we plan to acquire more brands in the future. For now, we are busy with Pennline and Lapis Bard
Q11. Tell us about some of the milestones in the William Penn journey.
For an entrepreneur, a milestone is when his first venture succeeds. So for me, the opening of our first store in Koramangala, Bangalore which opened to encouraging and positive reviews was the first milestone. Secondly, the opening of our second store was the milestone in 2004. Another milestone was the recognition we received from our partner brands. Sheaffer recognized William Penn as its number one distributor in the world in terms of the volume of writing instruments bought and sold in India in 2012-2013. Another milestone is our presence at the airports- in 2008, the first presence at Hyderabad airport followed by the presence at the Delhi airport gave us countrywide recognition.
More recently, the acquisition of Lapis Bard is another milestone. And we look at the future, for there are many more milestones to be achieved.
Q12. Which other men’s accessory brands do you admire?
There are various men’s accessory brands that are doing well. I admire Hugo Boss for their apparel and accessories. Some of the other notable brands include TUMI for their bags, Rimova for their iconic suitcases, Moleskine for their notebooks and other small accessories and finally Montblanc for their timeless design.
Q13. What advice would you impart to the current generation?
I think today there are so many opportunities as compared to when we started, simply because information is available. Technology has fundamentally changed everything we do along with the resources available at our disposal. I think someone who has the passion, who makes use of the available resources and the fact that information is freely available to create something unique whether it is a business or a product or a service that caters to the entire world. Therefore, I would certainly advise- do very well in your chosen field and see how you can excel. If you are good at your craft, the world is available.
Q14. What is so special about the written word?
I am a great believer of pen and paper and writing simply allows me to think better. I jot down my ideas, thoughts, and minutes at meetings. To substantiate, there is any amount a research that proves that writing a handwritten note or letter is far more effective in communicating than a text message or instant message. I think the written word is here to say although the amount of writing has reduced over the years. However, I believe people will get back to writing and this trend has already begun.
Q15. What are the future plans for William Penn Private Limited?
We as William Penn, have a wonderful opportunity to build our presence online in India today and leverage the strong brand credibility we have built at our offline stores. In a nutshell, our future plans include improving our presence offline, increasing our presence online, building the brands that we own and expanding to international markets.
Q16. Share your favourite motto
My Favourite Motto is “Whatever you are thinking, think bigger”. There is a great opportunity and I say this from the Indian context today. With the recent reforms implemented- demonetization and GST, the climate for business has become more favourable than what it was many years ago. With the technology and resources available, a lot can be achieved in India. It boasts of a growing market with a young population, all working in its favour. We realize we are in a lucky place. With that, we hope to do something good in the future.