Family Matters In The Sea Street Gold Trade

Some Sea Street gold jewelers are fading because their children don’t want to join the business. Ravi Jewellers is an exception

Rabinath Ramajayam better known as Ravi is quietly asserting himself after joining the family business, Ravi Jewellers, located at Sri Lanka’s gold hub at Colombo’s Sea Street .The current generation of jewelers at Sea Street are young and educated and seek to blend traditional techniques used in producing heritage pieces with modern jewellery-making knowledge, showing that antiquity and modernity can go hand-in-hand. Ravi is now a third generation jeweler lucky to be part of a reputed jewellery house established by his grandfather five decades ago.

As a young boy of 11, Rabinath Ramajayam recollects how he used to spend school vacations when he used to come home from boarding school in India. Bored of staying home and watching movies, he used to walk down to his grandfather N Rangarajan’s Jewellery Store Ravi Jewellers on Sea Street to observe business. The grandfather not knowing what to do with him asked that he stand in front of the store and request passersby to drop in. He did it by shouting “come in, come in” in Sinhala at the top of his voice, following the age-old way of attracting customers into a jewellery store. Amused customers not wanting to disappoint the little boy would step in to browse or buy and that was how Ravi, as he is more popularly known, got his first direct marketing lesson at the family business.

The 35 year old scion of Ravi Jewelers, which is among Colombo’s leading jewellery stores, was born with a golden spoon in his mouth. The store he points out was named Ravi jewelers long before he was born and means the Sun in Sanskrit. Sent to a prestigious boarding school located in the cool climes of a mountain range in South India at the age of two and a half, due to the troubled conditions prevailing in the country at that time, Ravi and his sister spent their entire childhood there until they finished their secondary education.After undergraduate studies in Australia he found himself at a crossroad. “I always wanted to be a professional on one hand and on the other hand wanted to do business.” Although his mother was not keen that he join business, the love for home won him over “deep down in my heart I was always nostalgic for Sri Lanka. It could be because I left at such a young age. For me there was no place like Sri Lanka.”

He came back and joined the family business starting at the floor level. Helping his grandfather and uncle to expand the business has been his goal from the time he came back to join the family business. “It took me seven years to convince my parents that this was what I wished to do,” he confides.

He points out that it is very easy for people to say that a family business provides a cushion. But expectations are high and when you are already on top of the ladder you have to keep climbing and not fall.

Ravi’s grandfather N Rangarajan, who left a partnership with his brother from another extremely successful store a few blocks away to venture out on his own, started Ravi Jewellers. Ravi Jewelers is one of the success stories of Sea Street with a following of loyal customers looking for unique pieces of traditional and modern jewellery.

At any given time of the day, Ravi Jewellers store is buzzing with customers even when there is a lag in the commercial activity at other Sea Street business houses.

The 8000 square foot building where the jewellery is placed on display in the ground floor has a varied customer profile; from mature customers who have traditionally viewed gold jewellery as a safe store of wealth, to younger people who view jewellery as a fashion statement. The frenzied selecting and buying give the sales staff barely any time to look up as they cater to customers demanding their attention. The almost manic interactions between customers and sales staff bear testimony to the gold craze.

In a store with millions in daily revenue, a customer wishing to spend a few thousand rupees is given the same treatment as someone wanting to spend a few hundred thousand

Taking stock of the day’s business and overseeing the continuous flow of customers’ requirements is the very visible presence of the company’s young stakeholder. At any given time of the day unless he is traveling, Ravi is seen mingling with his staff, working harder than most, making sure that all customers leave satisfied.

Gold jewellery retail is a business requiring extremely personalized service. Customers expect this because they like to have a shared bond with their Jewellers for generations. Traditional jewellery manufacturers are linked to the culture and history of their communities and Ravi is no exception. The countless small homogeneous jewellery making workshops are run mostly by families using time-honoured methods. Most of the manufacturing happens alongside Sea Street by craftsmen working at the back of the stores. At Ravi’s there’s no jeweler at a bench with a blowtorch in a hot room. Instead, a modern manufacturing unit on the top of the four storey building has replaced the traditional ways of making gold jewellery. The Company employs 150 people.

Even in the Jewellery business it is possible to introduce elements of a corporate culture and hone a good team that works with you, says Ravi. The touch of the third generation influence is becoming more and more evident. The changes are evident in the professionalism of the staff and their interaction with the customers. Attentive even to the smallest inquiries they give a patient hearing to customers who spend a great deal of time selecting jewellery. Sometimes there is no standing space.

In a store with millions in daily revenue a customer wishing to spend a few thousand rupees is given the same treatment as someone wanting to spend a few hundred thousand. Tea and coffee is offered and it is not unusual to see young women from all ethnic backgrounds settled in comfortably making their purchases. The purchase of gold jewellery used to be a family affair when young women were chaperoned, but now young women walk in alone to purchase jewellery.

Sea Street has transformed from a fragmentary cottage jewellery industry run by traditional goldsmiths into the enormous business it is today. Ravi says the street was at first a trading place for wholesale textile shops in the 50s and 60s before goldsmiths slowly took over. Today Sea Street has a thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem churning out millions in daily transactions.

Ravi talks of how he and some of the other leading Jewellers got the UDA to repave the pedestrian walkways which had been neglected for years. “They gave us the labour and we got together and put in the money when they refused to spend their own money.”

Besides retailing, the more lucrative business is the supply of wholesale jewellery to other jewellers in the island. Ravi Jewelers is also the Sri Lankan agent for Italian alloys and has ventured into selling gold bullion purchased in Dubai and are also agents for Swarovski synthetic cubic zirconia crystals.

A floor above the showroom, the firm’s octogenarian founder N Rangarajan sits at his table and participates in the business by meeting and talking to customers at his desk, advising and waiting patiently for a customer to make a choice. A young assistant hovers near him explaining the customer’s needs. “Other than Sundays, I have come to the store every single day of my life”, he says. “I cannot stay idle at home.” Having initially got into the Jewellery business with his brother, he explains how the store has been his life from its inception after he branched out on his own to start Ravi Jewellers. “Today my grandson makes most of the important decisions and runs and manages the place. Now the only thing I do is sit here while they do everything else,” he says with a laugh.

A stream of visitors flow in to meet him. From politicians to trendy young couples He looks at his grandson who keeps a protective eye on him when a customer, after spending a long time going through various designs poses a problematic question regarding the purchase. Quickly Ravi steps in to take charge and gives them a solution. The rapport between the two is magnetic and the similarities are apparent. Both are charming, friendly, easily approachable and extremely courteous. Most of Rangarajan’s traits seem to have been passed onto Ravi.

As an extended family living near to each other and working together Ravi explains how he spent most of his childhood basking in the glow of the love and care of his Grandparents. “They meant everything to me. My grandmother took care of the whole family’s needs well into her 70s until she passed away. From my grandfather I learnt the business.”

A currency exchange venture was started by Ravi in 2000 to cater to the growing tourists venturing to explore the historical part of the city. It was a clever business idea that also draws them into the store.

Ravi is among a few of third generation members who have opted to return to the family gold business. He recalls a turning point after a motorbike accident soon after leaving school when he was confined to bed or a chair for eight months. “Mobility was zero so I sat in the office watching how business was conducted, how much effort has gone into capturing market share.” That, he says, is what helped him to focus. Most of the industry’s successful business families have sent their children abroad for higher studies thereby creating a vacuum in succession when they fail to join the family business. It can be a catch 22 situation and the only solution within the traditional family structure is to appoint members of the extended family to manage the business. Rarely are professional managers brought in to run a traditional gold jewellery store. Ravi explains how some of the oldest family businesses on the street are fading because of the third generation’s lack of interest. The fourth generation in Ravi’s family is barely a month old. The new father of Aryan who spends sleepless nights helping out with his newborn son says that you should not look at the future and make plans for your business.

His philanthropic spirit has got him involved in social programs that has the whole Pettah business community contributing towards projects such as supporting schools with equipment.

A self-confessed foodie with a penchant for continental food, Ravi has grown up with the wanderer’s lust for travel. “I have covered Asia, South-East Asia, China and Australia. Travel opens your mind. I go off the beaten track and am exploring the world, region by region”. His travels have got him on to an unusual hobby of collecting statues of the Hindu god Ganesh. His collection of Ganesh statues stands at 450 pieces from all parts of the world. The amazing collection has the god of wisdom in all different forms and poses. “There is Ganesh wearing a top hat, playing different instruments, a Chinese Ganesh. The creativity of the creative mind is astonishing in the projections of the person crafting their version of Ganesh. I am collecting them all.” Soft, and easy going, Ravi’s words of wisdom are striking. “I don’t like enemies” he says matter of factly “I like friends.”

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