Liza Mayan peppers the story of her business enterprises with a steady supply of anecdotes. It’s a story laced with chance encounters and other twists of fate but in essence, it’s a story of drive and no-frills pragmatism.
Liza runs the Kannur-based Windmach Sports Accessories and Classic Sports Goods – both businesses launched by the family she married into – that manufacture and market sport-based products with a focus on tennis balls. About 14 years after she took over as boss of her businesses in a largely male-centred domain, Liza doesn’t like to call herself a norm-bender. It’s hard, however, to miss a bit of trivia here; it’s a margin note that in many ways also defines the story: women constitute 85 per cent of her workforce.
Liza is married to Mayan Mohammed, son of late P K Mohammed, a sports enthusiast and former Managing Director of Western India Plywoods, who launched the Windmach brand in 1989. The company had started as manufacturers of tennis rackets before it diversified into carrom and chess boards and feather shuttlecocks. When Liza joined the family five years later, the company had already kicked off small-scale production of tennis balls and soft balls for cricket.
Karnataka used to be a prominent market for the business and dealers in the neighbouring state continue to be major clients for Windmach and Classic. It was the late 1980s; competition in the market was not intense and Windmach – the company used to have Prakash Padukone endorsing the brand – was a top-line player in the industry. In 2001, Liza started to take greater interest in the two units, with her husband focusing more on the plywood business.
“It was a casual conversation where he asked if I could go to the office and handle an issue. So it all started as an errand; later, women employed in the units asked me to formally take over management of the businesses,” says Liza, an engineering graduate. The two sport-based businesses always had a strong participation of women but it was under Liza that their skills, work hours and more critically, attitudes, were streamlined to greater effect.
Liza recalls how the woman employees were eager to teach her about the manufacturing process and convinced her that she could contribute to the business in a substantial way. At that point of time the units were struggling to meet the demand for tennis and soft cricket balls.
“The production at the units was taking a hit. After an initial analysis of the model of functioning, I could sense that some of the male workers did not have much to do after they finished their assigned tasks,” says Liza.
The company gradually shifted to an altered mode of operation with a new thrust on optimal utilisation of the workforce. The idea was also to inspire more women to look beyond what is traditionally perceived as their areas of strength. Incentives for over-time shifts and other perks followed, leading to what Liza calls an “expansion of efficiency”.
By 2003-04, production had increased substantially, from 3,500 to 6,000 balls a day. Liza’s units, at present, produce between 6,000 and 7,000 balls a day. Pacer, the soft cricket ball produced by Liza’s company, is also a popular brand.
The units ran over-time shifts for more than nine months in 2014. “The staff’s families have not complained because we try to offer good incentives. We have tried to keep things straight and transparent. Since the relation with workers is good, we haven’t had to deal with leaders of their unions,” says Liza.
The units employ about 60 workers; some of them have stayed on since Windmach’s launch in 1989. Youngsters who started out with the company now have grandchildren; Liza also has to handle requests from workers who want to take leave to take care of pregnant daughters. There’s also the standard “My children don’t want me to work at this age” line that older employees take when they want to quit.
Liza, however, says senior workers have been extremely dedicated and focused. “I’ve noticed that women who join when they are 23 to 27 years old stay longer with us. For the younger group, it’s perhaps a different model; they would leave a job that pays them Rs 310 per day for six days a week and take up something that pays them Rs 450 per day for two or three days a week,” she says. Liza, a mother of two – her son is doing his engineering course and daughter is in class 10 – says her husband and family have been immensely supportive of her work.
The highs and lows of business are also defined by external factors – the rise of a mobile gaming generation, the IPL, examinations, rains and more – and Liza, so far, has played it safe. “We’ve been focusing on select dealers in a few big cities; there are enquiries about exporting possibilities but we’ll take a call on them later,” she says.
Liza also runs an art-framing unit with object framing in focus; cars, old boats and traditional lamps have been custom-framed for clients. It’s quite a departure from tennis balls but it’s perhaps hard to take sport out of the picture. In 2012, Liza’s company was commissioned by a client to frame left-overs of a lobster dish served to iconic Argentine footballer Diego Maradona.