December , 2017
Univercell founder director, D. Sathish Babu games up for a new venture
13:25 pm

Nikhil Raghavan

Thirty years ago, when Sathish Babu started his corporate sales career as a trainee sales officer with Eureka Forbes, it was almost initiation by fire. Within a few weeks of on-the-job training, he was thrown into the deep end of the pool and given a dictum – sell or perish!

“It may have been the challenge, worry, determination or ego…but, on the very first day on my own, I not only sold my first vacuum cleaner but even collected cash payment in full, much to the wonderment of my boss. I haven’t looked back since. I have never allowed myself a ‘No, it cannot be done’ solution to a challenge,” recalls Sathish, who, ten years later, left on a whim to try and chart an independent course for himself.

Sathish was married by then and had a responsibility to shoulder. His father was sceptical when he brought up the idea of starting a business, and that too, in a field which had no precedent. “It was 1997, the mobile phone services were just launched, phones and services were exorbitantly priced, and the grey market was flourishing. But, I knew, it was a ‘now or never’ opportunity. To start with, I wanted a small place to operate from (my father offered his garage), a tiny sales force and more importantly, a name that would be easily to recall. Thus, Univercell was born,” reflects Sathish.

His firm conditions were – no discounts, no grey market products, and personalised service. This policy continues to hold good in the 200 showrooms he has spread across Tamil Nadu. “At one point, thanks to a venture funding from a like-minded investor who was gung-ho about the blossoming retail trade in India, I ventured into Mumbai. Doing business in Mumbai was poles apart from that of Chennai, in every sense of its word. It did backfire, but it was an experiment worth experiencing in our business,” says Sathish, who stuck to his known territory, Tamil Nadu.

The retail scene in India was transforming quickly. While online brands like Flipkart and Snapdeal were finding their feet in the challenging Indian market place, the big daddies from across the oceans, like Amazon, moved in. “These guys had deep pockets and their strategies were different. Grabbing
the retail market pie with drastic discounts, online payments, home deliveries were attracting the Indian consumer. There were instances, several of them in fact, where a consumer would walk in, check out a model of a phone and then go
back and order it online. It was hurting us, so it was time to change tracks a bit. We added on insurance coverage, value added services, etc. These online buyers would come back to us for these and many other services. But, then, the writing
was clearly on the wall. Retail business was turning on its head. The views were different from the ground up and it
was time to reinvent the wheel,” notes Sathish, who was not new to any challenges.

With his experience in the mobile retail business, Sathish had already established a division which took care of insurance for mobile phones. “Many a times, people tend to lose their phones either due to robbery or mishaps. Insurance covers take care of such losses, and when the premium is just a fraction of the cost of a high-end phone, customers do not mind that extra expense,” states Sathish.

When an offer came from a like-minded retail chain operator from north India, who was keen on expanding into the southern markets, to buy into his business, Sathish negotiated an outright sale of his brand, including the chain of stores. “While I have a non-compete clause, I may not venture into the same activity again. I find a great opportunity in the insurance cover business and I am earnestly pursuing that track,” concludes Sathish, who has an advantage of exploring the customer base of all mobile retailers to expand his new activity of business. Twenty years since he first got into the mobile phone retail business, Sathish has not lost any of the excitement of those initial days, as he, in his characteristic methodical way, plans his next move.

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