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He’s been a serial entrepreneur and the founder of the company which was established 19 years ago back in 1999 – has successfully managed to grow the company’s revenue from 1.2 Cr to over 80 Cr as of FY 16. The company was initially set up as a Home Entertainment line, Excel Productions Audio Visuals Pvt. Ltd. (aka THE EXCEL GROUP) but has since ventured into many product verticals in the licensing and consumer products space such as Excel Home Videos, Excel Interactive, Movies & More, My Baby Excels, StarWalk, Excel Innovators and Nitroid. My guest today is Muslim Kapasi – CEO of the Excel Group. Hi Muslim, thanks for your time.
Muslim (MK): Thanks very much for the kind introduction. I’m very happy to be speaking with IndiaLicensingPost. You know how it is with social media these days. Always saying a lot more about you.
ILP: You’re a fairly media shy guy. We couldn’t find too many interviews of you, which is why we are so grateful you allowed us to speak with you.
Today Excel is one of the largest licensees in India, please take us through your journey. What were some of the pivotal moments?
MK: We started as a manufacturing set-up. I don’t think many people know how we actually started with our home video business first, and what led us into licensing. That’s where the whole seed was placed. We had a whole manufacturing unit. We were the sole manufacturers for 20th Century Fox and CIC which was a JV between Universal and Paramount pictures who use to manufacture their own videos in India, they had their own offices in India (this is somewhere in the mid-90’s), and we had done an OEM deal with these manufacturing companies. While we went about building a state of the art manufacturing plant which would meet with Hollywood standards, we hoped Bollywood would follow as well, but that didn’t happen. So we had a manufacturing set up but we were struggling with very low capacity, and this went on till 1997 till Cable and Satellite television took off and more and more consumers were exposed to LIVE news etc prior to which we only had the standard Doordarshan fare or you would have to rent a VHS and watch it at home on your video cassette player. So that’s where we were at that time. Piracy was booming. Very little manufacturing being done at our factory, we had debts and we had no customers. Fox was struggling at that time, CIC had shut down, they decided that India was a lost cause. That’s when we realized, we could pitch for licensing the products of the brands we were working with and build a business out of that. In hindsight I think it was a great decision, but if it were today, I would tell anybody NOT to do it. Having said that we signed up the Fox license to run the factory. Coincidentally, 6-8 months later we realized, that we were much better as distributors than manufacturers and a year and a half later we shut down the manufacturing completely and we started outsourcing manufacturing as we didn’t have the bandwidth, we didn’t have the time and we needed more folks in the marketplace at the front end rather than the backend. That’s how we got into the licensing business. That was a foot in the door. Factory ko chalana hai, factories bandh ho rahi hai. Fox was shutting down and we had set up the manufacturing unit especially for them. It was very empathetic of them to give us a license at not very difficult terms at all. They must have realized that they owed it to us. In fact one of the Fox officials whom I will not name said “You will burn out in a year or year and a half”, but that was not to be. Soon Disney came our way and then Paramount. Then we realized, we should diversify and the closest thing we understood was gaming, because gaming was still very much a physical product, so we signed on Electronic Arts (EA games) for PC games. The pivotal moment is that we diversified in the right product at the right time. As you realize with technology businesses, change is inevitable and what was peaking now was about to sharply decline and we could sustain as we had moved on and we had something else supporting us in that fray.
ILP: Your company has exclusive licenses of various global brands like Twentieth Century Fox, Disney, Marvel, Mattel, DreamWorks Animation, Warner Bros., Viacom, Turner, etc. for various product categories for the territory of India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka – what made you opt to license 3rd party brands?
MK: where are the 3rd party brands? I see all frontline brands. And a brand is a brand, isn’t it? In many ways, we went to some brands, some brands came to us. That’s how it evolved. To quote someone it was “path-breaking” It was like a friend from the industry who was a licensor at one of the licensing conferences said to me, “we had 9 companies pitching to us for the business, but we went with the 10th company who was not pitching to us”. I think the passion also shows, isn’t it? When you’re out in the market and putting a product on the shelves and how your placing the product in the stores, and then that itself becomes the center of gravity and attracts the right partners, the right brands etc.
ILP: According to the LIMA Global Study 2017 report, Entertainment/Character licensing accounts for 45% of the $262 billion sales at retail. How big do you reckon the market is in India?
MK: Market size is something I haven’t been able to nail down and everybody has their own take on it and the methodology of coming to that number is very different and very unique, but there is very little connecting those numbers either. When we talk to retailers, they have a different number compared to the wholesalers who have a different math, for the various categories and there is a lack of transparency, there are unaccounted ways of conducting businesses and all those numbers are superficially extrapolated by a particular study or entity. Very rarely have I seen these numbers become meaningful when you get onto the ground and start working. The $262 billion number does seem heartening, but in India, the 45% figure for character licensing does seem inflated. I wouldn’t put it at more than 15-20% of the overall business. Much of this has to do with how we manage characters and also we have a different consumer. Our consumer is price loyal and not brand loyal. Very often he’s happy to settle for a counterfeit which is at half or 20% cheaper than a branded product, so the quality, the utility and the price is met. That probably keeps us restricted in that space.
ILP: What are the key tick marks you must have in place before investing in a licensing programme?
MK: I wouldn’t want to put it down to any specific tick marks as we are largely driven by instincts or guts.
ILP: At the CBME 2018 panel discussion on the future of licensing, you mentioned that the growth of the licensing business would depend on the coming together of many different parts to make the overall business stronger and hit a 1-3% of retail. What are the impediments the industry currently face which need to be overcome?
MK: Yes, I think there are many impediments we need to overcome. Largely I think is the cultural impediment. We are not in a very conducive ecosystem. We have become very short-sighted “Whats on the table kind of approach” instead of thinking long term. Everything is so dynamic as well. You don’t know which retailer or brand is going to get purchased. When youre working with a licensor – 10-year relationship and you’ve nurtured a brand or character like your own, and you’ve made products standout and then suddenly…. Very often its easier to SELL than become SOLD. There are also other issues like infrastructure etc which we’ve known for years which haven’t rapidly changed either.
ILP: You are one of the largest licensees in the country, what are your expectations from a licensor?
MK: Loyalty. Its one of the most important ingredients. Loyalty and Trust. Very often a licensee goes to a licensor for a new product or category and takes It up, nurtures it over 3-4 years and builds it into something that everyone notices and suddenly everyone wants to pitch for that product category and you don’t want to be put in a place against those pitches.Its very disheartening and disorienting. If this continues, I feel the whole licensee, licensor relationship is going to stay very fractured. This change needs to come from the larger brands, the market leaders. When a small brand comes and offers you a license, you know that licensee is also going to squeeze that small company and he is going to tie in that company for 10 years or 15 years or even for perpetuity. When that becomes big the licensor has very little left to exit.
ILP: Do you have aspirations to have your own home-grown brand?
MK: Not really. We have a lot of aspirations, but we don’t have space and the time, being such a force in the licensing space. Our DNA is a licensee. Whenever there is a new character we are always trying to figure which are the categories or IPs that are best suited to take that particular character to market? We are very licensing driven, but ever so often the thought does cross our minds since we work with so many brands. But I don’t think we’ve done enough in the licensing space yet. There’s still a lot to do and a lot of growth to be achieved.
ILP: How do you gauge customer appetite for a particular brand, since you need to be ahead of the curve?
MK: The simple answer is to BE the CONSUMER and satisfy those needs. And of course, while we are handling so many brands and categories, we do have customer insights coming through our feedback channels.
ILP: Which category of your range has proved best suited for licensing? Any key learnings you would like to share?
MK: I think I’ve already answered this. All have equal potential. There’s a lot yet to be done. If there’s a less important category I would say soft toys because that is so well covered. But there is so many new IPs being launched every day. SO many new movies coming out every week.
ILP: So you feel that’s a problem now? Too many new IPs launching?
MK: I think that’s the order of the 21st century. The problem of plenty. To digress we have more people suffering from obesity issue than the starvation issue. Likewise, we have a lot of content coming in with a lot of aspirational value but not enough takers. Or the consumer seems to be overloaded with choice – too many characters and within characters too many colors, shapes, sizes, concepts and that is going to remain for a while.
ILP: You seem to have a great desire to help upcoming entrepreneurs nurture their dreams and bring their vision to fruition. How does a budding entrepreneur build a license-ready brand?
MK: I think to follow your heart. Many times we got into categories when people told us not to get into them, and we realized the more somebody was telling us NO, the more we wanted to go ahead. That’s the advice I would give. Don’t let fear or somebody else deter you from your dreams. And many times that’s where the big pot of gold is sitting and nobody is uncovering it.