In the passing away of ‘umbrella-man’ TV Scaria (82) Kerala has lost a top-notch entrepreneur and visionary businessman. For a state not known for its entrepreneurs or for being particularly entrepreneur-friendly, the third-generation family-owned umbrella business is a unique success story.
Scaria chaired and presided over many committees and institutions pertaining to the umbrella business in India. He was chairman of CPDC-7, the Quality Control Committee of ISI, president of All Kerala Umbrella Manufacturer’s Association and also president of All India Umbrella Federation.
Popy and John’s
The story begins in Aleppey (Allapuzha) of the 1940s, then part of the State of Travancore, where Thayyil Abraham Varghese (known as ‘kuda’ Vavachan) was an employee of the Kumaraswamy Reddiyar-owned Radhakrishna Umbrella Mart. Later, Vavachan went on to become a working partner of the firm, before starting his own umbrella-manufacturing unit named St George Umbrella Mart in 1954 with his younger son TV Scaria. Scaria joined the family business after failing in his matriculation exam.
When Vavachan passed away in 1968, the St George brand had become a household name in Kerala with a monopoly in the umbrella manufacturing business. Vavachan’s elder son Abraham Thayyil went on to qualify as a medical practitioner and Scaria carried forward the St George legacy to scale greater heights.
It was in the mid-1990s, when Thayyil retired from the Alappuzha Medical College and the next generation entered business that the family enterprise split up. Scaria went on to establish the Popy brand in 1995, and Thayyil and sons branched out on their own with the John’s brand. Popy is named after Scaria’s younger son Dennis who has Down syndrome, and John’s is named after Thayyil’s youngest son.
Both Popy and John’s have a turnover of more than Rs 100 crore and have a collective market cap of 65 percent of the Indian market.
The bifurcation of the family business spawned a period of internecine rivalry and one-upmanship as both Popy and John’s tried to outwit each other with fierce advertisement campaigns and jingles that captured the imagination of the market. So much so, that every television advertisement campaign and product launched by one brand was countered by the other through commercials and products rivalling it.
While Popy has always had a slight edge over John’s, the two families have now reconciled as they focus on innovation and research and development. Joseph Thayyil, the son of Abraham Thayyil, who runs John’s umbrellas today recollects the days when they were playing catch-up to Popy. “Because of the bitter parting of ways in 1995, I had to drop out of college and was thrust into the business at a very young age to help out my elder brother George. Babychan uncle (TV Scaria) was such a clever businessman and we had to compete with him for space and this fierce rivalry actually inspired us to excel. If John’s is where it is today, it is thanks to our uncle for pushing us to match his acumen”. Scaria’s battle with oral cancer a decade ago and a period of relapse led to the thawing of relations and now the families are at peace.
With COVID-19 stretching business prospects and staring at a domestic market that is close to saturation point, these brands are now pinning their hopes on the international market. COVID-19 has had an impact on both companies as their peak season — May and June — coincided with a spike in cases in 2020. The ways things are moving, sales this year too will be impacted.
However, large stocks and unsold inventory because of the poor off take last season is not keeping them awake at night. “The quality of our products is such that it won’t make a difference if we have to stock it for a couple of years. In fact, we don’t sell umbrellas below a certain threshold as we don’t want to compromise on quality”, said George Thayyil.
Kerala’s unseasonal rains, which is spread across the year, make an umbrella an accessory one carries almost always. This is another factor which gives the Thayyils confidence.
Both Popy and John’s are also in the process of coming up with more innovative features to their umbrellas to catch the fancy of school kids as they have done for the past two-and-half decades. “The trouble is that we have to price an umbrella within the bracket of Rs 500 for school children. The costlier products have a very niche market,” said Joseph Thayyil.
Davis Thayyil, the elder son of Scaria, is set to carry forward his father’s legacy even as the fourth generation is entering the business.