Right At Home

Why this Kiwi accountant was fated to become the head of an expanding houseware distributor in Hong Kong

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The six degrees of separation theory contends that anyone on the planet can be linked to any other person with just six introductions. It’s a simpler cobweb to trace how two strangers, Suresh Kanji and Ravi Gidumal, were connected to each other.

Kanji was an accountant from New Zealand before he met Gidumal, a Hong Kong-born Indian businessman operating Town House, a houseware and giftware distributor founded by his mother Mohini Gidumal in 1962.

The two had never had any business dealings with each other. Kanji, a Wellington native, didn’t even know Gidumal existed before they met. Interestingly, they shared two mutual connections – which turned out to be two important women in Gidumal’s life.

The first was Gidumal’s sister Anita. Kanji met her during a 10-week business trip to Hong Kong in 1994. They both used to work at the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers. Four years later, Kanji met the second connection through work again.

“I moved to Hong Kong in March 1998. At that time, the company would send a staff member out to the airport to welcome you and show you around,” he recalled. “That was Shalini Mahtani.” Mahtani, whose grandfather is George Harilela, is Gidumal’s better half.

Despite that, Kanji and Gidumal met by chance – during a Christmas party.

“Anita invited me to her parent’s house for my first Christmas in Hong Kong. Ravi just happened to turn up on Christmas Day,” recalled Kanji. “Ravi and Shalini did not have any romantic relationship yet at the time. I wasn’t their matchmaker.”

The two later became good friends and discovered common interests: squash and wine tasting. Still in New Zealand, Kanji would often travel to his favorite vineyard Villa Maria in Marlborough and Mission Estate in Hawke’s Bay. He even went on a wine tour in Bordeaux for his honeymoon.

In 1999, Gidumal invited Kanji to a tasting event. He had started distributing Riedel’s stemware in Hong Kong and wanted his friend’s opinions on the varietal-specific wine glasses.

“I have never ever heard of such a thing as glass tasting. A glass is a glass,” recalled Kanji. “We sat down and we did the first wine, an ordinary sauvignon blanc. We tried it in a Riedel glass and non-Riedel glass.”

“When I first tasted it from a Riedel glass, I thought it was quite a nice wine. The flavors and the acidity were balanced with sweetness. But when we tried it in a non-Riedel glass, the wine was really average. It was bitter, overly acidic.”

“I was amazed. And then we moved onto chardonnay, pinot noir, cabernet. I turned from being skeptical to ‘Wow! That is the most incredible thing I’ve ever been to.'”

Gidumal converted Kanji into a Riedel believer. In 2012, he invited Kanji to help him expand the business. Kanji is now the general manager of Town House.

Town House is now also engaged in the wholesale business, selling to hotels and restaurants. Its wholesale operations are actually bigger now than its retail business.

In its retail operations, Town House opened a second stand-alone store at K11 shopping mall in Tsim Sha Tsui in November. It has also expanded, since June, retail premises that it is operating in department stores. In Sogo in Causeway Bay, Town House has expanded almost fivefold the size of its retail shop. In Wing On department store in Sheung Wan, Town House also expanded its one-pillar shop to a proper shop-in-shop.

“Our performance in department stores has been solid. We are not as adversely affected as other retail companies by the slowdown in the local retail industry,” said Kanji. “It is very hard to get into department stores and space is at a premium. The fact that we’ve been able to expand is a testament to our product mix being right,” he said.

Last month, Town House signed with Alessi an agreement for the retailer to distribute the latter’s products in Hong Kong. The deal added to its portfolio of high-profile brands, which include Riedel, Maxwell & Williams, Nachtmann, Carrs Silverware and Britto.

“The design and range of Alessi products is vast. But it fits into our home and gift category quite well,” said Kanji. “One of the things that Ravi has always insisted on is a wide product range. Town House is a destination for buying gifts, for buying something for yourself, and which is not necessarily expensive.”

The article first appeared in the Standard on August 12, 2016.

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