CEO of Al-Ikhsan Sports Vach Pillutla shares business lessons he learnt during Covid-19

How the company quickly pivoted its focus from pure offline retail to e-commerce.

Vach Pillutla took over the business in January 2017 (Photo: Kenny Yap/The Edge)

Options: It has been more than three years since you assumed the CEO’s position. Tell us a little about the early days of taking charge and some of the key things you have implemented.
Vach Pillutla:
When I took over the business in January 2017, Al-Ikhsan Sports was already a household name in Malaysia. However, we were facing quite a few headwinds as a business. A large number of competitors crowding a relatively small market meant that the business was quite volatile. This had a big impact on our gross margin and, as a consequence, our overall profitability.

The first thing for me to do was create a clear positioning strategy and put in place a clear commitment and purpose statement for the company. I am a strong believer in identifying and then communicating the “why” of any organisation; like why should the consumer choose us over someone else? Every company’s success critically depends on this one aspect. This is where we clearly convey Al-Ikhsan’s commitment and purpose and which appears as a tagline in all our communication: “Keeping Malaysia fit and active by making sports affordable for all.”

I am glad Malaysians have not only embraced this but also become strong loyalists and supporters. The next thing was to put together a three-year business plan and strategy with a vision to move Al-Ikhsan Sports from a single concept to multiple scalable ones. I am very glad we are now truly established as the No 1 multi-brand, multi-concept omnichannel sports retailer, with Al-Ikhsan catering to entry and mid-level sports lovers. Football Republic focuses on delivering a strong football experience to fans and players alike; Sports Warehouse allows us to address even the smallest towns across Malaysia. We have also built a strategy and plan for our own private label, AL Sport, which has grown exponentially.


The company secured the exclusive retail partnership and licence of Liverpool Football Club (LFC) for Malaysia last year (Photo: Al-Ikhsan Sports)

Sounds like an amazing run.
We also relaunched and built the e-commerce business, in conjunction with Momentum Commerce, to increase the number of daily transactions by nine times in the past three months. We have already become a multi-brand sports retailer in Malaysia, so our goal with the e-commerce platform is to become the No 1 sports marketplace in the country. And our most memorable moment recently was securing the exclusive retail partnership and licence of Liverpool Football Club (LFC) for Malaysia in April 2019. With this, we moved LFC distribution from a single store to over 50 stores nationwide in the span of one year. It has been a satisfying journey so far.

Are you a fan of the club, then?
Huge! Especially now. I have a lot of respect for Jürgen Klopp and the team he has built. Having been a part of Adidas in the early 2000s, football was part of the organisation’s fabric, so to speak.

How has the pandemic affected business?
Like all retailers globally, we were affected quite a lot. But we used the [Movement Control Order] period to build a three-scenario plan with a zero-based budgeting approach to create a strong cushion for us to survive the pandemic’s impact. We worked very closely with suppliers, brands and landlords to try and achieve a win-win partnership and proposition. You need to protect your overall eco-system. I always believe no matter what the weather, you can take off as long as you have a clear runway.

Working in sports, what have been some of the more momentous sporting events you have attended?
I’ve been to the 2008 Beijing Olympics and spent a week there. Of course, the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, where I watched three matches, and the trip to Anfield, home of pool, where I watched Liverpool play Manchester City on Nov 9, 2019.


Al-Ikhsan is the exclusive retail partner for Liverpool Football Club in Malaysia

Where is home for you?
I am South Indian and was born in a small city called Guntur, where my parents are from. But I spent the first two decades of my life in Delhi, where I did my schooling as well as graduated in economics, followed by my master’s in marketing management.

What are your thoughts on life in Malaysia?
I love that it’s very safe and a country that embraces expatriates, especially Indians. For an emerging economy, it has a very strong infrastructure. There’s also so much natural beauty to explore. You can be on the beach or in the hills in less than an hour from where I live. I always tell my friends that, in terms of Cost versus Quality of Life index, Malaysia would be in the top three to five countries globally.

Where would you like to go most once the borders reopen?
I’ll only start travelling internationally once there is a cure or vaccine in place, I think. Until then, I will use technology to stay connected. At some point, global travel needs to restart, but I expect a lot of SOPs and hygiene requirements to be in place. I just want to ensure everyone remains safe, sound and healthy.

How has the pandemic changed your perspective on work as well as life?
It has taught me to stay grounded and treasure time spent with family and loved ones and also to make the best of the present moment. Often, when you work towards the future, you lose sight of the present. And what was once so easy, like going out to eat or the movies, has since become a major expedition or project. I guess we need to understand and treasure what we have and not forget to enjoy the journey en route to the destination.

What have been the major business lessons Covid-19 has taught you?
That life happens when you are busy planning for it. Business is ever-changing, ever-evolving; always focus on cash flow and solvency. Never underestimate the importance of data and analysis. Learn to adapt quickly. We were among the first few companies to practically pivot from a pure offline retailer that did a bit of online sales to a total e-commerce company. All our social media posts focused on driving customers to our e-commerce website. I think most leaders are learning how to better manage and prosper a company under highly uncertain and volatile situations and there’s no better teacher than Covid-19 right now.


This article first appeared on Sept 7, 2020 in The Edge Malaysia.


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