One of the essential skills for any entrepreneur is the capacity to adjust to change. For Sanjeev Mahtani, Chairman and owner of Must Garment Corporation, the apparel industry exists in a particularly volatile environment, and Asia-Pacific growth brings as much challenge as it does opportunity.
“There was one time when the port was closed for three or four weeks,” he recalls. “We couldn’t bring any goods in and we couldn’t send any goods out. You can imagine the kind of panic among the retailers: ‘Where are my goods? What’s going to happen?’ You fight a lot of battles like that. The most important thing I’ve learned is when you’re down, you have to get up and fight harder. Each time you encounter a problem, you overcome it, and you get a bit more confidence to get up and fight the next one.”
Even throughout day-to-day business, apparel is an industry that shifts rapidly. Sanjeev describes the sector as having a lot of “moving parts” – the rapidity of fashion evolution, the high standard of clothing and low tolerance for flaws.
For Sanjeev, a strong relationship with partners is essential for navigating these issues, so they can be dealt with quickly, honestly and responsibly. At the same time, the willingness to change is crucial. “The retail industry is changing and Lord knows what kind of shape it’s going to take,” he says.
“Every year, the customer’s demands are, ‘How can you do this faster, better, more efficiently? How can you bring more value to it?’ So, every day you have to challenge a system you put into place maybe a year ago and reinvent that system to see how you can do it better. If you’re not flexible, not able to continuously challenge yourself, look at things from a different point of view and take the necessary steps to change, then things become difficult, because other people will embrace change faster than you.”
Founded in Hong Kong in 1981, Sanjeev’s collection of apparel companies run operations in Hong Kong, the US, UK, China, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Egypt and Bahrain. The several different subsidiaries collectively export more than 65 million garments annually.
“I never thought I’d be able to look back over the past 38 years at all the success I’ve had.”
But if he hadn’t been visiting Hong Kong while on a break from college, Sanjeev never would’ve found himself heading up Must Garment. “I came here purely by chance, on a holiday,” Sanjeev recalls. “I’d always wanted to move out of India and find a job overseas, so I joined some relatives in the electronics industry. After some time, I got the opportunity to join some other people in the garment business in Hong Kong. Eventually, I started my own business.”
With sales and marketing experience under his belt, Sanjeev started out as a buying agent for wholesalers, but he quickly identified a niche in the industry. He set up as a manufacturer that sold directly to retailers, while still providing a wholesaler’s services. Sanjeev achieved this with limited overheads, and with rising demand for such a model, he saw a high adoption rate.
Decades later, it’s blossomed into a very successful business. “When I first came to Hong Kong, I never thought I’d be able to look back over all the success I’ve had in the past 38 years,” he says. “I never thought I’d learn to do so many new things. As the business goes on, you get thrown into so many different areas that you have to learn about.”
Besides familiarity with specialist equipment and machinery, factory safety has been an important area of learning for Sanjeev. He says the company “always wanted to be an employer of choice”, so Must Garment has engineered an efficient, hygienic environment.
The firm also provides meals for its thousands of employees, and is at the top of the industry for salaries. “Bangladesh has been known for underpaid wages, a low minimum wage and poor facilities,” Sanjeev says. “But when you’re able to provide something better, you create a happy workforce that in turn gives you good efficiency, production and quality.”
Sanjeev believes Must Garment’s ethical standards have had wider repercussions in the Bangladeshi apparel industry and that the company’s been a pioneer in evolving workplace conditions.
After the industry had embraced multistorey factory complexes, Sanjeev moved to single-storey factories. While competitors considered it to be an expensive waste of land, it also proved a lot safer – the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013 demonstrated the risk of densely packed industrial spaces.
In the wake of the disaster, the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety credited two of Must Garment’s subsidiaries (Kwun Tong Apparels and Lenny Apparels) with reforming conditions to an international standard.
Sanjeev estimates that 30–40% of factories are yet to fulfil these recommendations, but Must Garment’s subsidiaries were among the first to do so. “These requirements cost a lot of money and took a lot of effort, but we didn’t waste a single minute to take care of this,” Sanjeev says.
“We were one of the first to completely satisfy all the new parameters that came about. We felt that if we didn’t do this, then we would not have done justice to what was required.”
Waste has also become a key issue for Sanjeev, in an industry where producing one pair of jeans requires a month’s worth of drinking water (100 litres). The company has brought in ‘nanobubble’ washing technology from Spanish company Jeanologia, which has helped reduce water usage in jeans production by up to 95%.
“Our model is to be reliable; to provide value and quality.”
Reduction of fabric waste, which amounts to 15% of the fabric used for millions of garments a year, is another issue. In response, Sanjeev has begun an initiative to reuse this waste, while also using Repreve, a fibre repurposed from plastic bottles.
Meanwhile, Sanjeev communicates these sustainability efforts to customers, while indicating that the company can always make improvements if people desire. “Our model is to be reliable; to provide value and quality,” Sanjeev explains.
“With anybody we’re looking to work with, we’re looking for that reliability factor. We have an honest operation and don’t cut corners. Without partners who are also like that, we won’t be able to satisfy our customers in terms of reliability, efficiency and fulfilling all their needs.”
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