16 May 2018, Kolkata, India
China Bazaar: Imnoor and Company is one among scores of stores lining the bustling market for hardware tools near China Bazaar at the crossing of Netaji Subhas Road and Brabourne Road.
But owner Munira Lakdawala is not your everyday metal merchant. The 49-year-old mother of three has broken a glass ceiling by carving a niche in a market dominated by men.
Munira has been in charge of the store for almost two decades after taking over the family business when it was going through a lean patch. Her father-in-law hadn’t been keeping well and her husband even thought of getting a partner on board in the hope of a turnaround.
“But I thought why should we turn to an outsider and so I took the plunge into business,” Munira told Metro in between explaining to a customer why drilling machines of a particular brand are more expensive than that of the competition.
Munira has business running in her DNA, albeit something completely different from what she deals in now. She comes from a family of traditional cloth merchants with a more than 80-year-old store on Grant Street, near Lalbazar. Stitching is her passion and she used to make party frocks for girls after marriage, even delivering to clients in Mumbai and Chennai.
But running a full-time business was a completely new terrain, as Munira discovered when the baton passed in 2001. The initial days were difficult. It took a while for her just to familiarise herself with a store catalogue that includes more than 100 products – from screwdrivers to precision measuring instruments.
There were other problems such as sharing a dirty public toilet and standing up to men who would scoff at a woman running a hardware shop. “They laughed behind my back. Different people would often come up, posing as customers, to ask the price of the same product just to see if I fumble,” she recounted.
Munira wasn’t ready to give up. Her approach was simple and hands-on. She started talking directly to suppliers on a regular basis, shunting out middlemen. She also supervised the accounts.
She would personally visit the local suppliers to work out new discount rates. “With each day, I realised I had an aptitude for business. I am talkative by nature. I quickly built up a rapport with my customers and suppliers,” said Munira, who unwinds by reading John Grisham thrillers.
Breaking stereotypes, of course, comes to her naturally. As a student of Calcutta Girls’ High School, she remembers turning heads in spaghetti-strap kurtas in the 80s and having a crush on Kumar Gaurav. She was also an athlete and won several medals in the high jump. That competitiveness helped her run the store and make Imnoor and Company a stable business.
Once the store started yielding profits again, Munira thought of diversifying the product mix. She started selling food-processing equipment such as candy floss machines, ice crushers and equipment to remove chicken feathers.
Munira credits her mother-in-law with helping her achieve success by easing the responsibility of raising her three children – daughters Zainab, 29, and Sakina, 26, and son Burhanuddin, 18.
“Raising them while running the business would not have been possible without my mother-in-law,” she said.
Swapan Chatterjee, a retailer in Bandel, is one of Munira’s regular customers. “The products are almost similar in every store. I visit this one because of her behaviour,” he said.
Munira arrives at her store around 11.30am and stays till it closes at 7.30pm. There are a couple of employees and an accountant to help her. Her husband leaves the shop a little early, around 4pm. “He is very happy, enjoying his leisure time,” she quipped.
Her latest accomplishment is learning to drive. After the daughters got married, the family needed someone to take the wheel, especially to take her in-laws to the mosque. “I am doing a good job of it now,” Munira said.