This is the updated version of a story originally written in 2010.
In the age of retail chains – including in the outdoor gear business – AVI Industries engages for being the exact opposite.
The business is run by 73 year-old Ravi Kamath and his son, Avinash. The small shop in the Mumbai suburb of Matunga is older than the father. Despite the enterprise being well known in the Indian outdoor industry network AVI Industries operates no other shop. It is a distributor of carefully chosen products with a characteristic outdoors-aversion for the glitz of retail. The locality, near the Matunga railway station, is crowded and congested. The shop is housed in an old building close to the busy road. The old building is the sort of place where stories lurk and Ravi Kamath’s at AVI Industries, is an interesting one.
Kamath grew up in Udupi. His best memory of childhood is a sand pit with parallel bars and Roman rings, where every evening a volunteer-instructor trained children. Looking back, he felt that may have contributed to his emergence as a climber when the opportunity first came his way in January 1968. He had by then moved to Mumbai where his father lived. Kamath enrolled for a training camp announced by Climbers’ Club. The teachers at the camp were all Sherpa instructors from the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI) Darjeeling. Kamath who was assisting his uncle in a dyes business became a frequent rock climber at the city’s old crags – Wagle Estate in Thane, Kalwa, Mumbra and Borivali – some of which have since faded. “ The general public was quite disinterested in us,’’ he said of Mumbai’s early crop of rock climbers.
In November-December 1968, he and two other climbers from Mumbai attended HMI’s 35 day-Basic Mountaineering Course. In 1972, he went on his first Himalayan trek, to Muktinath in Nepal. In 1976, he did his Advanced Mountaineering Course from the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (NIM), Uttarkashi. There he met climbers from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), something that opened up possibilities for meaningful collaborations on climbs. One of the immediate outcomes of this was the first ascent of a rock pinnacle in Mumbra, among early climbs of this sort in Maharashtra, where the ascent of pinnacles has remained a traditional favourite. Pinnacle-climbing bloomed after expansion bolts were introduced. Expansion bolts work as permanent anchors; they reached the Western Ghats of Maharashtra in the 1980s reportedly first on a pinnacle called Hadbi-chi-Shendi near Manmad. In the days preceding expansion bolts when the early pinnacle-climbs happened, removable pitons were used for protection. Although HMI instructors gifted them some foreign pitons, pitons in general were too expensive for Mumbai’s pioneers and the stuff made in Delhi was unreliable. This issue of cost was real for although Kamath now ran a business selling liquid soap, he was married. Lifestyle was frugal.
With IIT trained-Mukund Bhagwat, who had been part of the Mumbra pinnacle-ascent team, Kamath addressed the piton problem. The climbers first opted for rigid retrievable pitons over the malleable variety that can’t be removed from rock once hit in. Then they realized that spring steel was the best material for such a piton and started making pitons from the leaf springs of cars. Kamath’s business, as said, was making liquid soap. The success with pitons started leading him elsewhere. Encouraged by the locally made pitons, he soon began manufacturing `figure of 8’ descenders and choke-nuts, part of the hardware used in climbing. He also reverse engineered the classic Don Whillans climbing harness. Because climbers trust their life to it, climbing gear must be tested. Testing labs and certification agencies existed overseas. In India, they were either absent or where present, were very expensive. So the climbers, who were making the gear, tested it themselves.
What genuinely changed Kamath’s destiny were rucksacks. Initially cloned from an American design and subsequently improved for local use, the sacks made at home by his wife and sister soon became the reason for outdoor enthusiasts dropping by at the Matunga shop. None of it radically altered his financial struggle though. He was busy reconciling the seemingly irreconcilable – business, family and climbing. It pushed self and family into tough times.
Meanwhile climbing continued.
In 1977, Kamath was part of a team that attempted Makar-bey in Himachal Pradesh. It was the next climb in 1978 that cemented his reputation in Mumbai’s mountaineering circles. He led a successful expedition to Ali Ratan Tibba, a rocky peak in Himachal Pradesh, an objective much sought after by discerning climbers. Even today it is not always successfully ascended. Kamath’s expedition was the first successful Indian ascent of Ali Ratan Tibba. Much preparation had gone into this expedition; the team climbed with loaded packs in Mumbai, they also practised climbing at night. The next memorable trip was to Peak 20,101 in Himachal Pradesh where the summit team had to retreat following a slip in an ice gully, successfully arrested by a homemade-choke nut. “ That nut must still be there,’’ Kamath had said laughing when this article was first written in 2010.
Back in Mumbai, the liquid soap business suffered when he was away in the mountains and atop that, he had to pay for a business assistant. Still there was no surrendering his passion for climbing. By now disillusioned with club culture and large expeditions, Kamath began favouring small teams. After 1981, there was a successful attempt on Koteshwar, a failed attempt on Jogin-II and a successful climb of Lion Peak. In 1990, there was an attempt on Brahma in the Kishtwar Himalaya with a group from Bengaluru. He also did the Roopkund trek, crossing over to the Shila Samudra Glacier on the other side. Since the early 1990s, every other year he has been climbing rock with friends in Pachmarhi, Mt Abu and Pawagad.
Kamath narrates his experiences with no show biz traits. No social media, Instagram or Facebook influence on this man. He has a dispassionate approach to climbing; he talks with deep respect for method and precision, something you see when he sells a product too. Discussing the story of an ill prepared big wall expedition from Mumbai and the story of others who didn’t succeed on Ali Ratan Tibba, Kamath said, “ we took the easiest route we could find to the summit. That’s what we always did in those days when we had to find our own route. We climbed within our limitations. Plus, we used to do a lot of homework before heading out.’’ The route of the 1978 Ali Ratan Tibba expedition for instance, was based on a route originally indicated by British mountaineer, Bob Pettigrew. The photo he took of the relevant face of the mountain was available in the Himalayan Club journal. Of course by 1978, things had changed on the ground; mountain terrain is dynamic. But studying what Pettigrew recommended was helpful homework for the actual route-finding that followed. Surprisingly, despite much advancement in climbing, the clarity of the obvious and the easiest often eludes present day climbers. Route-finding has become an art lost in the haze of greater availability of resources and success advertised.
Post 1980s, the business in homemade rucksacks and outdoor gear, gathered momentum. Lacking money, Kamath trained tailors for the task and outsourced manufacturing. Around 1997, when I first visited AVI Industries, it was among Mumbai’s best known shops to pick up rucksacks, sleeping bags and other items required for the outdoors. In 1998, Kamath’s son Avinash joined the business (Kamath has three sons. Besides Avinash, the others are Ashwin who is in the US and Aanand who is in Bahrain. All three have sat at the shop at some time or the other). A commerce graduate, Avinash started taking a slightly different view of the business. He convinced his father that the soap business – which had been the family’s bread and butter at one point in time – was best shut down. Chemicals in the neighbourhood were not good for outdoor gear (particularly fabric), payment was rarely prompt for liquid soap sold and there seemed to be a future in the outdoor gear line. Within the outdoor gear segment, the duo continued making products like rucksacks, sleeping bags and the occasional piece of winter clothing. Locally made climbing hardware, harnesses – they were all stopped. Avinash (aka Avi) worked the Internet and soon enough, secured the first external brands to be distributed by AVI Industries – Faders and Lucky, both making climbing hardware. Next they briefly sold Singing Rock climbing harnesses before settling down to sustained business with Rock Empire. Imported hardware and harnesses made sense because they came tested and certified. Today the brands distributed by AVI Industries include Rock Empire, Evolv, Boll, Trimm, HEAD, Mund, Wind Extreme, Vertical, Tendon and Makak. If you thought the father-son duo made a splash with this array of brands and products, you got it wrong. AVI Industries continues to avoid making a splash.
Avinash and his brothers have been out many times with their father on hikes and climbs. In 2002, Avinash did his Basic Mountaineering Course from the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering. As he got into the family business, he also made sure that he attended the national climbing competition as a spectator. “ I went for every edition of that competition from 2003 to 2012,’’ he said. Avinash used the opportunity to talk to climbers, get acquainted with their perspective. The homework didn’t end there. His choice of brands to distribute, were all mid-level brands, not the big ones. Their products enjoyed the same certification as the big brands except the brand profile was modest. The choice was deliberate. He was seeking companies he could grow with. One great story in this regard would be Evolv. When AVI Industries became distributor for their rock climbing shoes in India, Evolv – co-founded by a designer who once worked for Five Ten – was new overseas. But their shoes were good and with well known climber Chris Sharma participating in the design process the brand rose to being among the top ones.
Other details interest. Two geographies that have periodically dominated as import source for AVI Industries are East Europe (particularly Czech Republic) and Spain. East Europe has produced some great climbers; they make reliable products at prices that are cheaper than elsewhere in the western world. This aside, the fact that AVI Industries has a bunch of East European brands they distribute, provides scope to save on shipment cost. If planned and co-ordinated well, everybody’s products can be shipped in one go to India. While most of the above brands were accessed by Internet and distribution commenced with all paper work done from Mumbai, some years ago Avinash started becoming a regular at outdoor industry fairs in Europe. That has been valuable experience – exporter and importer got to meet, put a face to everyone’s names. But it is Avinash’s reading of the domestic market that truly engages.
According to him, the Indian market for outdoor gear may have grown but it is not at all an easy one to be in. Import duties and tax rates are high. Almost half the selling cost of an imported product is taken up by duties and taxes. Avinash says he is not big on supplies to the defence forces, which has traditionally formed a major part of business for Indian suppliers of outdoor gear. He focuses more on the industry segment, where there are several instances requiring the use of ropes and equipment designed for vertical terrain. On this bedrock, runs the smaller retail business servicing climbers, hikers and such.
However, the low level of awareness in the market is a problem. “ Meeting an aware customer is like coming across a needle in a haystack,’’ Avinash said. Consequently, it is hard to impress upon people what is quality or why it counts. This matters in the Indian outdoor gear market, where all players are not equally big. Some very big players with deep pockets tend to discount mesmerizing retail customers. “ The issue is not discount per se. We all know there can be seasonal discounts and discount to clear stocks. But year round-discounts finish off other players. Further, to show a discount, a seller displays two prices – the original price and the discounted price. It may seem value for money but it also spreads the message that quality and low price go hand in hand. In such a market, where people think they can always get the best for less, it becomes progressively difficult to create a case for good quality gear,’’ he said. Consequently, as he feels stalked by the discounting deep pocket-types, Avinash has chosen to operate nimbly, constantly churning his product portfolio weeding out what may not sell and retaining what will. He keeps an eye on what products are getting discounted by the deep pocket-types. Planning is short to medium term. “ You cannot be emotional in this business,’’ Avinash, 42, said.
He has also consciously adopted another business practice – he prefers to sell products that are more towards the climbing end of the market; essentially gear that is application-specific and used in technical situations. The reason is simple. All the obfuscation of quality is happening in the low risk trekking / hiking portion of the market where details on quality don’t matter that much. Climbers and those engaged in similar high risk activity on the other hand, don’t compromise for they know they are playing with their lives. You can’t fool them.
It had been a long chat in a room in the old building in Matunga.
Below, the small shop was receiving a fresh coat of paint.
“ And it will be just this shop for retail presence?’’ I asked.
“ Just this one for now,’’ he said.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This story was originally written and published in The Hindu Business Line newspaper in 2010. It has been updated to include developments till mid-February 2015.)