COMPANIES TO WATCH
|Sara-Trans’ Lali Sohal and CEO Jasbeer Siingh show their growing bag and case selection at the NAMM show.
Growing demand drives bag and case operation, while retail and distribution divisions expand across Indian market.
A MANUFACTURING HUB, a premier distribution business, and a nationwide retail chain would have made an attractive business plan if anyone could’ve seen that far into the future. Back in 1989, however, India’s Sara-Trans Group was just trying to break into the bags and cases market. Established by longtime CEO Jasbeer Siingh, Sara-Trans arose from the Siingh family’s industrial conglomerate, making its name in bags and cases for the music industry as well as sporting goods, travel, and more. Thirty years later, it’s manufacturing at a higher level than ever, expanding its line with a variety of custom products and eco-friendly natural-fiber bags, among other new introductions. A state-of-the-art new factory is planned outside Mumbai. In the meantime, though, Sara-Trans now stands for much more than manufacturing in the Indian marketplace. Its Reemal distribution branch, launched in 1991, introduced the Indian market to brands including Fender, Charvel, Gator, Vic Firth, Gretsch, and Line 6. Its Onstage retail chain, in operation since 1996, has brought modern, well-stocked music stores to every major Indian city and many smaller ones. With a presence up and down the length of the country, Sara-Trans now uses its influence to bring arts programs, outreach, and influential artists to points throughout India.
Located just east of New Delhi, Sara-Trans’ home base falls within the special “Noida” district—short for New Ohkla Industrial Development Authority. Set up as a hub for technology and higher education, the district made an ideal setting for Sara-Trans’ manufacturing operation and set the stage for nearly continuous growth over the next three decades. At one point, the company earned seven straight annual awards from the Indian Ministry of Commerce for highest product turns. Growing demand spurred investments in tooling and infrastructure, which today have yielded a crop of bag and case options including new “Hard Soft” bags with their durable hard fiber exteriors and plushly cushioned interiors. Other new collections are known for their fashionable designs and colors and specially fitted, strategically located protective padding for guitars and other instruments. Between advancing machinery and customer interaction through web and social media platforms, Sara-Trans has also found the tools and inspiration for a wide range of customizable products. “We’ve brought together fresh concepts from young enthusiasts,” says Siingh. “It’s highly motivating to work on new designs and be challenged to innovate and take ownership of our work while making our customers happy.”
On the retail side, The Onstage chain has extended a broadening network of stores across India through a series of mergers, acquisitions, and partnerships. In the less developed southern part of the country, alliances with small regional businesses, familiar with the culture and commerce of the area, have expanded its footprint while reaching previously untapped markets. “We’ve worked hard to successfully introduce a variety of products at the grass-roots level,” Siingh says. “Our goals focus on bringing music into some of the more out-of-the-way places in India. We’re aggressively looking into more mergers and acquisitions that would help us recognize underserved pockets. We’re keen to bridge that gap.”
After three decades in business, however, the Sara-Trans team is as familiar as anyone with the challenges of the Indian market: poverty, high import duties, complex laws, and the extreme diversity of its population. “Language, religion, culture, and living standards change every few kilometers,” says Siingh. “There is no single strategy that can be applied throughout India.” Today, Indian newspaper headlines paint a complex picture of the national economy as troubling trends converge: ongoing strife over monetary policy, a recent contraction in the manufacturing sector, and a dropoff in consumer goods purchasing, among other issues. The World Bank recently downgraded the nation’s growth forecast to 6% from an original estimate of 7.5%. For Sara-Trans, the turmoil has probably been felt most deeply at the distribution level, where overall uncertainty is affecting demand for the Reemal network’s portfolio of gear.
For Siingh and his team, though, conditions haven’t changed the longstanding objectives at Sara-Trans, especially in its role as an ambassador for music. As past-president and now vice chairman of the Indian Music Merchants Association and an influential figure in the Bollywood music scene, Siingh has spearheaded multiple efforts to supply musicians with the tools to make music—as well as the inspiration to play. Through its Onstage Music Foundation, Sara-Trans has established opportunities for young musicians to connect with celebrated artists. A series of “roadshows” sponsored by Onstage have provided a forum for young talent to perform for an audience. The company also supports an initiative to set up music schools in major Indian cities. “Onstage has become a link between musicians and the tools of the trade,” says Siingh.
On an organizational level, the company remains on an expansion track that’s both physical and digital. Continued growth on the manufacturing side has driven plans for new and expanded production sites as well ever more advanced machinery. As part of what Siingh refers to as an “omni-channel approach,” however, it’s been building out its presence on the web as well. Expanding on its OnStage Online e-commerce platform, it’s partnered with a handful of online sales startups to push its product offering into several new sales portals. It’s also invested in social media marketing, a growing force in India, interacting with customers through Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and others. These outlets have also helped pave the way for Sara-Trans’ new emphasis on customized product, opening new channels for customers to place orders or express their preferences.
“Our uncensored feedback from customers is a great way to learn and move forward,” says Siingh. “They not only give us ideas but a huge rush of inspiration.”