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The number one focus is on our people: Aroon Hirdaramani

Hirdaramani Group has a long and proud history in apparel, though it emerged from humble beginnings. In 1900, 16-year-old Parmanand Hirdaramani opened a retail store in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, providing same-day tailoring to cruise ship passengers on a stopover. Forty-six years later, the Hirdaramani Group was born, opening stores in other cities across Sri Lanka and beginning industrial-scale apparel manufacturing shortly thereafter.

Today, Parmanand’s legacy carries on, with many of the Hirdaramani family still overseeing the company for which he laid the groundwork. Aroon Hirdaramani, great-grandson of Parmanand, and Director of the Hirdaramani Group, recognises the importance of that tradition to this day.

Aroon Hirdaramani, Director of Hirdaramani Group Apparel
Aroon Hirdaramani, Director of Hirdaramani Group Apparel

Business pioneers in the apparel industry

“We’ve been a pioneer in the apparel industry since the company was started by my great-grandfather,” he says. “But I think what’s most important to us, our employees and customers, is that we are a well-run company that values integrity.”

That pioneering spirit has seen the Group attain a global presence, far beyond the little store in Colombo. Hirdaramani’s interests extend across the Indian sub-continent and South-East Asia, and as far afield as China, Ethiopia and the US. Nor has the company let itself be confined to apparel, though that is indisputably its primary focus; Hirdaramani has invested in numerous hotel chains, renewable energy sources, retail and IT/financial services.

Aroon joined the family business in 2003, after a brief career as an investment banking analyst at Credit Suisse. That experience helped him to acclimatise quickly to a company that was beginning to rapidly grow its international presence. “Credit Suisse is a multinational company,” says Aroon. “So I had a lot of exposure to US and European investors, and companies we were analysing and making contact with at that time. I think that’s helped me to integrate with our customers well, as a lot of our main customers are in the US, Europe and Japan.

“We have been a global company for over 30 years. We’ve had alliances and joint ventures with companies in the US, and supply chain alliances in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong as well as in India. So even though we’re based in Sri Lanka, we have always had a very open mindset in terms of making sure our talent, our supply chain and our people are all global.”

“Even though we’re based in Sri Lanka we have always had a very open mindset in terms of making sure our talent, our supply chain and our people are all global.”

Hirdaramani Group’s international expansion began in the 1980s with Bangladesh and Vietnam being some of the first target markets. The construction of a factory in Hawassa, Ethiopia, in 2015, shows the Group’s plans for growth haven’t slowed down. As the company expands, however, it has been careful to make sure its factories adhere to a strict standard of eco-friendly sustainability.

“We acknowledge the clothing industry has to do its part,” says Aroon. “We are the largest employers in many of the countries we operate in, so we have to make sure that whatever we do is sustainable for the community and the country. All our manufacturing facilities incorporate that philosophy, so we have many green-certified factories. Any new factory we build is environmentally friendly and we have converted many of our older, larger factories to green.

“I would say we’re among the leaders in the environmental side of this business. We are continuing that and are implementing a lot of new technology in terms of recycling and energy efficiency in our buildings, which is another measure of success for us. We have to make sure that whatever we do will have a net positive impact on our environment.”

An excellent example of the Group’s green initiatives is its Mihila factory in the Sri Lankan town of Agalawatta. Constructed in 2008, it’s the first carbon-neutral apparel factory in Asia, a testament to the Group’s commitment to sustainability. Now, of course, the Mihila site is just one of the many green factories run by the company. The Group is continuously pursuing its goals of a smaller carbon footprint, reduction of waste and energy/water consumption, protecting biodiversity and ensuring its manufacturing process is sustainable. Given the apparel industry is Sri Lanka’s largest (half of all exports and employs 15% of the workforce), and is significant across Asia, Hirdaramani’s drive to revolutionise the industry is vital.

This careful consideration of environmental issues also influenced the company’s expansion into Ethiopia. “We looked at the long-term potential of the country, which has a large, young population, and worked out what kind of infrastructure needs to be put in place,” Aroon says. “We have moved into an export zone in which a lot of other large manufacturers are based. We worked with local authorities to ensure it was a green site from the beginning, and that the construction and energy usage are sustainable. There’s going to be fewer chemicals used and much less energy waste. Anything we do in terms of expansion has to use energy-saving methods and more productive methods.”

“We work with local authorities to ensure it’s a green site from the beginning and that the construction and energy usage are sustainable.”

Hirdaramani Group Apparel

Setting an example

The Group’s strategies for sustainability are based on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, a list of 17 goals to improve quality of life across a broad spectrum of issues. These are aimed at growing companies (such as Hirdaramani) that need to carefully regulate that growth. Therefore, as well as ensuring new and existing facilities are eco-friendly, the Group has also instituted many social, cultural and economic initiatives to help not only its workers, but also the world around them.

The Mihila factory is another good example of Hirdaramani’s ambitions. The factory has implemented what it calls the Ran Aswanu program, an initiative focused on empowering local farmers by providing them with seeds, organic fertilisers and farming equipment. Beyond this, the program includes workshops on organic farming and a free informational booklet on the topic. Thus far, the program has brought in 24 local farms. It’s accompanied by a guarantee that the factory will buy back produce at market rates, ensuring that the company treats its suppliers fairly.

“We want to positively impact our communities,” says Aroon. “We’ve been doing this for some time, especially by providing education in communities where our factories are based and maintaining the wellbeing of our workers through programs. The number one focus is on our people.”

The Group maintains a strict adherence to Fair Trade compliance as well. Five of its facilities are certified Fair Trade, and several employee support initiatives keep Hirdaramani’s workers happy and healthy (some of these include a nursery/day care centre for employees’ children, dry rations for workers, and family support). Indeed, improving the lives of its employees remains a priority.

One main area of employee support is the Wonders of Wellbeing scheme, which aims to reinforce not just physical health, but economic, psychological and social health as well. It also encourages employee loyalty, productivity and eco-friendliness. An example includes a recent employee art competition, designed to identify those who could contribute to the wellness program through their artistic skills. Another testament to the scheme’s success is that the company’s canteens provide healthy menus for its workers throughout its factories in Sri Lanka.

More than this, the company wants to encourage its employees to work in an open culture, to bring creativity and innovation to Hirdaramani’s products. “We want to give employees the opportunity to experiment and try out new things – to have that space to innovate,” says Aroon. “The biggest priority is just ensuring we have sufficient training and exposure to execute all these new strategies.”

“We want to give employees the opportunity to experiment and try out new things – to have that space to innovate.”

Hirdaramani Group also runs a number of leadership training programs, providing career advancement and development to staff leaders. “We urge all management to ensure that whatever part of the factory they’re running, they’re running it lean,” Aroon says. “We also encourage them to maintain a sustainable model, and take care of the employees and community around them. This has let us scale and be an employer of choice wherever we operate.”

Outside its employees and supply chain, Hirdaramani Group gets involved with the wider community in a big way. The devastating 2004 tsunami resulted in unparalleled damage throughout South-East Asia and, in 2011, flood waters swept northern and eastern Sri Lanka. In the wake of both crises, Hirdaramani Group pitched in to reconstruct houses for tsunami victims, and to provide food, clothes and baby care products after the floods.

On top of this, Hirdaramani Group provides for disadvantaged people with charitable initiatives, like UK supermarket chain Tesco’s ‘Buy One, Give One’ scheme, where every branded uniform bought in the UK meant one uniform for a child in a less privileged country. The Group also provides financial support for hospitals in Sri Lanka, including the Maharagama National Cancer Hospital and Lady Ridgeway Hospital’s paediatric wards, as well as for Surasa, a home for 45 girls, which is managed by the National Council for child and youth welfare.

Hirdaramani Group Apparel

Revolutionising the industry

There’s a good reason that Hirdaramani Group is pursuing such a transformation. Though one might not think technological change is affecting the way clothing is manufactured, the Group is doing everything it can to keep up with the evolution of the industry. In fact, Hirdaramani is even trying to precipitate the industry’s transformation, with its emphasis on sustainability and efficiency.

“We must revolutionise this industry,” Aroon says, “and acknowledge how important it is, as one of the largest industries in the world. Especially for developing countries, we must continue to be a large and significant part of the GDPs of the countries we operate in. So, we have to embrace technology and ensure this industry remains competitive.”

So, what sort of technological advances can the Group and the industry make? Many aspects of manufacturing, like washing, embroidery, bonding and printing, are all benefiting from the changing times. As well as this, the company is focusing on innovations like improved speed and customisation of activewear and underwear, and new denim wash techniques to reduce chemical and water use.

“We have to continue to make our operations much more efficient and look at different technology,” says Aroon. “One of our partners is a large player in the denim business, and there’s a lot of new technology in that field; for example, in lasers, which we have been adopting for some time. It’s going to totally change the process of how we manufacture.”

One of Hirdaramani Group’s suppliers in this field is Jeanologia, a large Spanish supplier of lasers and washing equipment. In March of this year, Jeanologia’s revolutionary equipment saved 800,000 cubic metres of water, thanks to the company’s involvement in 35 per cent of jeans manufactured. In fact, Jeanologia’s CEO recently said 2025 could see jeans manufacturing technology reduce water use to zero, while eliminating chemical use and waste production. With such potential offered by the company, it’s no wonder the Group has worked with Jeanologia for 10 years now in a strategic, collaborative partnership.

This gives a hint as to the Group’s strategy when it comes to technological innovation. Aroon believes that the potential for change and the ability to keep up with change starts with the supplier. Before Hirdaramani Group can ensure its processes are sustainable, efficient and profitable, however, it must ensure its suppliers can facilitate these changes. After all, the production process starts with the supplier.

“We have to be working on the actual technology and investment side, ensuring we use the right technology and are aligning with the right suppliers, so we can make necessary improvements,” Aroon says.

“Innovation also starts on the supplier side, so we want to get even more strategic with our suppliers. We’re looking at co-investing in certain technologies, and we are also integrated with them in terms of the design and the development. We feel through improvement, we can make our processes more digitally integrated and a lot more seamless.”

“Innovation starts on the supplier side, so we want to get even more strategic with our suppliers.”

Hirdaramani Group Apparel

Future plans and futher expansion

Hirdaramani has already demonstrated its willingness to improve the backend of the supply chain. This is evidenced by the Mihila factory’s Ran Aswanu program supporting and developing local farmers, and its collaborative relationship with suppliers like Jeanologia. Additionally, the Group has established a number of mills in Sri Lanka and Vietnam with its suppliers to work literally alongside them. In fact, the core idea behind many of the company’s business relationships is mutual benefit.

“There has to be continual product innovation and technical innovation in the products we manufacture,” says Aroon. “With our suppliers, we’re able to co-create and give different solutions to our customers. We are giving new products to our customers on a regular basis, and that can only happen through innovation by our suppliers.”

As well as the potential for mutual benefit, exclusivity and selectivity dictate Hirdaramani’s partnerships. “We try to work with fewer suppliers, and make sure we know the ownership of the suppliers,” Aroon says. “Part of the success story has been where there is a lot of attention to detail and long-term thinking. So we like to work with suppliers who have that same mindset as us, who are not just trying to make money for a particular season, but are in for the long haul. There has to be that kind of investment for long-term relationships.”

Hirdaramani Group’s emphasis on evolution and change is timely; challenges beset the retail industry. “There is a lot of competition for consumers,” says Aroon. “You can see trends in the retail market, in terms of both the apparel market and online retail, where the global retail industry is challenged because people are shopping differently. We need to collaborate more closely with our customers to increase consumer engagement with our industry.”

But Hirdaramani Group is adjusting to the changing environment. Along with the technological innovations, the Group is focused on providing its products quickly and efficiently, but without compromising quality.

The company is also expanding into other under-penetrated regions within Sri Lanka. “There is tremendous potential for the apparel industry to increase its manufacturing capacity in the North and East of the country and these regions will play an important role in the growth of our business. We began our work in war-torn regions – Vavuniya and Mullaitivu in 2011 as pioneers to impact communities devastated by war,” says Aroon. “When we went to the North we weren’t sure what to expect. Due to lack of opportunity, much of the population had little work experience; infrastructure and services were virtually non-existent, so we were in effect starting at the beginning. The results so far have been very encouraging and we are committed to growing our footprint in these regions in the near future.”

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