Fabindia: Weaving Business with Good
Updated: Jul 21
John Bissell from Hartford, Connecticut, grew up hearing stories about India from his father, who was based in the country during World War II. So it's no surprise that on his visit to India on a 2-year grant, he decided to set up Fabindia with the aim of exporting Indian home furnishings to the Western market. In 1960, Bissell started out as a one-person home-based business in an apartment in New Delhi, marking the start of the history of Fabindia. But a state of emergency rule in 1975-76, prohibiting businesses from operating out of homes, forced him to relocate to a retail location.
Fabindia started its first retail outlet in the urban upmarket area of Greater Kailash in New Delhi, hence opening up the Indian retail sector to the business. After the passing of John Bissell in 1998, the company was run by his son William Bissell, who is currently the Chairman, and whose leadership significantly contributes to the success story of Fabindia.
Fabindia continues to be a celebration of all things Indian, expanding from home furnishing to clothing and non-textile items like organic food, artisan handcrafted jewelry, and natural personal care products. This expansion is a notable part of Fabindia's growth story.
Sixty years ago, post-independence India did not offer many avenues for village artists to market their products or their talents. The initial approach by John Bissell shows that every entrepreneurial venture starts with personal gumption and lots of footwork, which in this case meant that Bissell went to individual villages looking for the right kind of craftspeople to produce goods for Fabindia.
Today, we see the same kind of focus on doing good for their talent community. The concept of 'Inclusive Capitalism' adopted by Fabindia allows their rural workers to buy a portion of the company for a small price and share in its profits. This part of the history of Fabindia exemplifies the brand's commitment to its artisans.
While the idea for Fabindia came from John Bissell's love for India and its resource-rich textile industry, the exponential growth and current trajectory of the company were spearheaded by William Bissell, who saw the untapped potential for Fabindia in the Indian retail market. His tenure marked a significant phase in the success story of Fabindia.
Over the years, younger and more vibrant lines of products like FabNU featuring sustainable western wear have been introduced by Fabindia. Currently, the company has 327 stores in 118 cities in India and 14 international store locations. This expansion is a notable part of Fabindia's growth story. There are plans afoot in 2021 to raise $1 bn from a proposed Initial Public Offering (IPO), in addition to a focus on more store expansions.
Fabindia was an idea that was close to John Bissell's heart, and he was passionate about bringing the vast rural talent of India to an international audience. But as we saw in the story of Wipro, family businesses grow most naturally when there is a good succession plan, which brings in fresh thinking from the new generation. And in the case of Fabindia too, the pioneering vision of John Bissell was further augmented by the success created by William Bissell's expansion in the local Indian retail market.
This company once again proves the value of doing good for their community and creating a win-win for all by offering village artisans the opportunity to carve their own success while they serve the needs of Fabindia.