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An Interview with Smruti Sriram, CEO of Supreme Creations/Bags of Ethics
Many family enterprises are known for their positive impact on their industries and communities. In fact, the most exciting entrepreneurial adventures and the most favourable change often results when a family’s values collide with systemic problems. But doing ‘the right thing’ isn’t always easy, and when ethics and sustainability are top of the agenda, a great deal of innovation and agility is required to ensure an enterprise can thrive across generations.
In this episode, Smruti Sriram, CEO of leading sustainable packaging and merchandise manufacturer Supreme Creations/Bag of Ethics, provides a unique perspective on how her ethically driven family business continues to innovate and adapt in an era of change while remaining true to its core principles. Even when confronting today’s challenging uncertainties, Smruti believes respect and kindness is the strategy that brings success both in leadership and life.
- Rather than selling sustainable materials and working with suppliers, Smruti’s father, Dr Sri Ram, took the risk of building a factory, effectively controlling the supply chain from manufacturer to consumer. The move enabled the company to hire a predominantly female workforce, empowering women who faced many social and economic challenges in the factory’s Indian community.
- There’s always great interest in hyper-growth businesses, especially in the tech sector, but companies that climb fast often fall fast. A business strategy that delivers steady compound annual growth of 20% or 30% generates the same multiples over time and with more stability.
- During the global COVID pandemic, the company transformed its traditional packaging production business into manufacturing reusable face coverings. The pivot demonstrated the importance of maintaining an agile business mindset and working with like-minded, trusted networks and partners.
- Feeling gratitude and taking time to appreciate life’s gifts, especially trees and nature, is a better approach to fulfilment than seeking importance through activities. Finding professional and personal balance is the key to finding success in both.
Ramia: Welcome to another episode of Women in Family Business. I’m here joined with Smruti Sriram who is the CEO of Supreme Creations. Welcome to the show.
Smruti: Thank you so much for having me.
Ramia: It is so nice to talk to you because I love a story of a female CEO. Not just because it is still not such a frequent phenomenon but also because I actually think that you are in a very interesting industry. Tell us a little bit more about the early days of Supreme Creations and how you guys turned this idea into a reality.
Smruti: I joined the business about 14 years ago. When my father started the business, I was actually four years old. He was a management trainee with the Birla Group, which are big conglomerates in India, and he was posted to London to be the managing director of these businesses. After some time, he thought he had the courage to create his own business. I have lived in a very entrepreneurial setting from a very young age. One doesn’t realize the amount of advice or mentorship you get at the dinner table, in the bedroom when you have bedtime stories, or when you go on family holidays. It all permeates and one doesn’t recognize the skills and techniques that you develop, which come through by osmosis.
Anyway, I had no intentions of joining the family business whatsoever. It was extremely off my career path horizon. I studied nothing to do with what the business does currently. I studied philosophy, politics, and economics at university at Oxford, and I thought I would set out on a career in the corporate world in either finance or consulting or in strategy work. I joined the business during the 2008 financial crash and I thought, let me be in the business for a few months, learn from my father, and see what else is out there. It’s been 14 years since and I haven’t left.
The title of CEO is neither here nor there, in my opinion, because we have a very excellent organization and team and colleagues. I never wanted to join the business with the label of nepotism and I really hope that hasn’t permeated at all and I’m sure that’s always a fear for people in family businesses, to make sure that you’ve earned your stripes. But I have come to accept that I have led many great campaigns and changes within the business and it’s taken a long time for me to recognize that yes, that is because of Smruti’s involvement and whether it’s skills or love for creativity of building networks, great connections, that has really supported the business.
Ramia: Usually that transition from what it’s like to, I guess, grow up alongside a business, grow up alongside a father and a family deeply involved in building a business at that stage. Looking at that side of it and then I guess really starting to work in it, what kind of difference that can make, can you speak to what it was that maybe surprised you the most once you actually joined? Did your relationship with your father change for instance once you did?
Smruti: Yes. Absolutely. My father has been extremely hard-working throughout my life. I’ve always known him to go on business trips, create great business connections, he would always have dinners with his clients and suppliers, very cherished relationships he fostered. I recognized that when I was very young but he wasn’t intimately involved in the day-to-day machinations of picking me up from school, dropping me off, or going to a swimming lesson. He was very much present and would do bedtime stories and family dinners and family holidays and weekends but in terms of day-to-day relationship, it really blossomed in my early to late teens when he would be more involved in my coursework and essays and reading and his passion for history and politics and geography and art would come through.
I didn’t realize that he has a very Socratic way of teaching, and he absolutely loves mentoring. He really loves teaching. Everything he has taught me has been with a lot of compassion, patience. I now recognize with friends in other family businesses that their parents, mainly fathers had not given them that same patience and care. I feel quite privileged in that the relationship has definitely strengthened, we operate as a team, and that’s probably quite unique. We have a mutual respect for each other, which at times can seem strange because you’d often think, oh, well, if someone’s in their 20s, they’re either put down by their father or not respected enough, but we have a mutual understanding of our core skills and we know, okay, you have a lot of experience in this or you have a lot of passion in this or you may have a know-how in this, therefore, I must listen to you.
He always says, “Smruti, you have two ears and one mouth. Let’s not switch it around. You shouldn’t have two mouths and one ear. Take time to listen.” In the early stages, I think when I was 22, 23, 24, it took me a while to bed in to understand my role within the business. I didn’t have a formal title. I would never put my surname in email signatures to be in any way connected to him to the outside world so that it wasn’t taken advantage of or misunderstood. It took me quite a few years to realize that being in a business is an amazing opportunity.
Ramia: That’s wonderful to hear. I think that you’re right in saying I think that it is rare maybe to be able to for family members to get along and so consistently and so constructively. Remarkable then also considering you transitioned into the role of CEO and your father still being very much present. You’ve also been a major disrupter in terms of how sustainably you’ve gone about the whole business model. Maybe a little bit more about Supreme Creations’ sustainability vision because I think this is an important message to convey.
Smruti: Sure. Supreme Creations is the business name and Bags of Ethics is our brand. We are a leading manufacturer of reusable and sustainable packaging and merchandise, mainly for the fashion retail, lifestyle beauty, food, and drink industry across the world. We have our headquarters in London but our manufacturing base is in South India in a place called Pondicherry. It’s a coastal town. Proudly, the business was set up to reduce single-use plastic usage. Fundamentally, that was the basis of that factory being built.
In 2004, 2003, the UK supermarkets or big grocery stores were wanting to reduce their footprint of single-use plastic bags and came to Supreme Creations because of my father’s expertise in a material called jute. He had been trading jute and cotton for a very long time in his younger years. They said, “Look, can you make us a reusable shopping bag at scale?” Because some of the largest supermarkets, I don’t know if your listeners will know of Tesco, of the Coop, of Sainsbury’s, they wanted to be the first supermarket to be single-use plastic free, or offer options. That was the basis of the business.
When my father then took a major risk in building the factory, building instead of just trading materials and working with a variety of suppliers, he said, “Look, I want to take ownership of the supply chain from A to Z.” When he built the factory, it’s a really stunning looking factory in a very small bit of India, which often doesn’t get a huge amount of investment but it embraces beautiful colonial architecture from the French. Classical architectural footprint. He specifically wanted to empower, that word empower really is used a lot today in a variety of circumstances but actually, this is really interesting in that he wanted to have a predominantly female workforce in which the women were able to be breadwinners in their family, which in that bit of India, sometimes a lot of the men face issues of alcoholism and the women are subjected to not being able to have their own financial independence. He really sent a message saying, “This is what I want.”
We come from a very charitable background and him and my mother are extremely charitable socially focused people. I think those principles have permeated into the business-led decisions, into hiring, into retaining staff. For example, if there is a crisis in one of the workers, whether it’s the tailor or a printer or a sweeper, if they have a crisis within their family and they have financial needs, he is always ready to support and help. No questions asked. Whether it’s burying someone at a funeral and they need some money for that or they’re sending off their kids to university and they need a deposit or they need to get a loan for a home, these are small things that he deeply has recognized, which is taken me a lot of time to understand how valuable that is. I suppose he is a lot more compassionate than sometimes I am.
He really says, “What is the human being who’s doing that job and what’s their sense of fulfillment?” Now, it sounds pretty brilliant but I think when you study a lot of entrepreneurs, a lot of classic entrepreneurs, they really do need to support a building and growing fast growing team. He has all of the qualities of a first-generation entrepreneur and I possibly have the qualities of a second-generation entrepreneur. I’m less risky. I’m more risk-averse I suppose. I possibly haven’t until now realized the importance of empathy and really understanding how to nurture and build teams and how crucial that is to really get under the skin of people.
Yes, the people and planet values of our business have been the DNA of the business and we’ve been doing it for over 20 years. That’s because of his personal passions.
Ramia: I love what you just said about saying he’s a typical founder and then you’re probably a typical second-gen because I really sympathize with that as well. What do you think were the differences between the expectations the company had from you, your family had from you, and the expectations you had from yourself coming into the family business?
Smruti: I think there were no expectations from a business perspective. I don’t think my clients knew any bit of my background. Frankly, at one point, I thought I was far too overqualified. I had this ego. I’d been to Oxford, I’d done this top-class degree, and I thought, “Okay, I’m going to come into this business and talk strategy and implement things.” Little did I know how little I knew about business and how it’s a combination of so many factors. Only when you get more and more responsibilities and your neck is on the line do you realize how complex it is to be in a business. I have had changing expectations. I continue to have many expectations of myself at different stages of my life.
I believe that if you’re given certain platforms or abilities to be in brilliant educational institutions amongst incredible people, you have a brilliant network, it really should be used for good. To grow a business, to support your community, to lead positive campaigns. If you’re asking what my historic expectations were, I’d say we need to have hundreds of millions of dollars business and we need to do it right now. Would I have had a correct strategy for it? Probably not. It has taken many, many years and it’s still going to take many years to get there.
I’ve always found it really interesting to follow hyper growth businesses, especially the Silicon Valley kind of mindset, the lean mindset, the hyper growth mindset, whatever it is that we hear. I think a really good friend of mine, she’s an ex-Bain consultant and she started her own venture capital firm, she said, “A lot of these businesses, they grow very fast and they die very fast.” Actually, a compound annual growth rate of 20%, 30%. Just a steady incline over time gets you that same multiple that those businesses are chasing and it’s the same metaphors that a lot of people talk about.
My father’s actually a recreational pilot. He always talks about flying a plane and if you have a very sharp incline, you are going to nosedive that plane, whereas if you have a gentle incline, you will get there and you’ll have a very safe journey and you will obviously get to appreciate the surroundings. I’m learning that that is right, but also, I think now we’re in such an exciting space, that it is our time to shine. We’ve shone quite a bit but I think it’s really our time to shine right now and we have all of the credentials, all of the great team, and all of the right product to deliver that.
Ramia: You are in an interesting space, you have a supply chain that links you to India, to Pondi, and you have that global supply chain aspect to it.
That also makes you exposed to the fast-changing landscape we see just generally in the world. There’s one trend obviously that is very much in favor of Supreme Creations as you said. People turn towards sustainability. Everyone is very much now keen to just turn things around as quickly as possible because consumers are so much more critical. It’s such a big opportunity but then there’s also the risk of a global supply chain, there’s a risk of so much uncertainty that we’ve seen. How do you combine the calmness and the steadiness it takes to achieve that growth with the quick and agile decisions that you’re having to make quite immediately sometimes? How do you balance that out?
Smruti: You are super smart, Ramia. You’ve touched on some really interesting issues that all businesses face at all times. Let us not forget that supply chain issues are common across time and whether you want a product made in France or made in Egypt or made in the UK, there will always be issues across supply chains. The people who make it, the resources that you have from the planet are not controllable in many aspects. I think during COVID was a great example of the agility that we have as an organization. We have very quick decision-making when we need to and we have that agile mindset. We really have that let’s go, let’s go, let’s go, let’s figure it out, let’s push one door open. If that doesn’t work, let’s go to another one.
We very quickly transformed our business from being a packaging manufacturer of reusable shopping bags and reusable packaging for the beauty industry and a lot within the events industry, which shut down during COVID, we then thought, how can we help during the pandemic and became one of the leading if not the largest supplier of reusable face coverings or face masks within the UK. We changed our skill set at the factory. We got grants and licenses to open the factory. We worked our network to get our long-standing partnerships on raw materials. Those trusted long-standing embedded relationships worked. That trust was critical. Trusted relationships were really, really critical in moving a supply chain, whether it’s for finance, whether it’s for money, or it’s for working with your supplier who they’re choosing between different customers that they want to work with and you become their number one choice because they have the trust to work with you.
We’ve always had an agile mindset and I think that supply chain issues are always going to be there. We’ll always have quick modes of transport. There will always be questions around provenance and it’s great that there’s a lot of questions around provenance. Where’s your product made? How is it made? We’re really excited about that conversation. We’re quite vocal in that conversation. I also find it disdainful to talk about it. It’s quite ridiculous that we’re saying, “Oh, who is making your product, and how is it being made?” Of course, that’s a critical question, but it’s basic.
It’s just like these big issues around diversity and inclusivity. We shouldn’t really be having it. We’re all human beings and we should all really just be respecting each other for the qualities that we have. It doesn’t really matter what kind of skin you have or what gender you are or where are you based in the world. We all have special skills. Let’s go and shine those skills. We’re very vocal in the conversations about provenance and about celebrating the supply chain and it’s wrong that so many companies completely forget about it or think about it at the end. We’re also forgiving. Let’s not be too harsh. I think when companies, for example, we had a big oil company, BP want to work with us and many, many suppliers or many brands would say, “Look, that’s a brand that we don’t want to touch because they have a negative effect on us.”
The fact that they actually want to embrace sustainability, not in a mode of greenwashing or anything like that, they deeply wanted to say, “Look, we’re not in a great place right now. Can you support us and can we be a brand partner with you along the way?” I thought that was a very humble and honorable thing to do. Now, that shouldn’t be taken out of context. There are many issues around many different businesses and I wouldn’t want to condone some of the activities they have but I think in this age of very quick opinions, quick media reactions being immediate, people are less forgiving and less thorough in how they analyze whether something is right or wrong.
Ramia: My next question for you is really, from the experience that you have now and where you’re at, taking into account what you’ve declared, all the learning that you still feel is ahead of you, but looking at your industry and looking at this move towards sustainability, what kind of leadership do these kinds of businesses need now? I’m including here, of course, as well, family enterprises of the future. What kind of leadership? What kind of mindsets do we need to bring to our businesses, especially maybe when they’re legacy businesses and they tend to maybe be harder to change because we’re like, this is how we’ve always done it? What kind of skill set do you think we need to bring to the table in order to truly be able to navigate these choppy waters?
Smruti: I think life is quite simple and we really try and overcomplicate it. We forget that being kind and respectful in everything that we do will actually lead to success. Now, that doesn’t mean you stymie ambition with that but being kind and respectful in everything that you do and transparent is quite important.
Frankly, it’s extraordinary that we are still not at par on so many levels and that the systems around us are really designed not to support what we need. At the same time, I also understand the urgency for businesses to thrive, for organizations to propel themselves in growth. What I’m referring to here is, childcare, maternity cover, maternity leave, packages around to support that. Again, I have leaned on my family for a huge amount of support and privilege. I look at parents who don’t have enough money, single parents families who have broken down for all sorts of challenges that face you as being parents, and I weep. I think this is really sad that we can’t support as a community. I think when you’re saying what are the basic skills, I just think keep it simple.
It’s very basic human values of love, of peace, of being respectful, of being kind, being honest, which gets you through life. Surely. Hopefully. Otherwise, what’s the purpose?
Ramia: It’s remarkable how hard keeping it simple can be though. How to find the quiet space I guess where you can think like that and put everything into perspective, any tips on that?
Smruti: I have faced huge challenges in being incredibly ambitious at my work and then wanting to be a very hands-on mom. That juggle and the struggle and running up and down to change your baby’s nappy or driving to pick them up from nursery in the middle of a working day or taking a phone call at 7:00 AM because you can’t make another phone call in the middle of the day, these are active challenges for me currently. Some things that I have had to do are quite simple. I’ve realized that number one, children are quite exceptional and quite amazing. We probably don’t pay enough attention to them, and to the educational institutions that they go to because I think schools are a wonderful place where they learn and they are taught really simple, basic human values like, be kind to one another.
You go to the nursery and you see all these lovely posters on the wall with rainbows and sunshine and smiley faces because they’re trying to teach those critical, basic but important skills for life. For me, going and picking up my son from the nursery and going to see that lovely space has been very centering. Second is a few of my friends, they put alarms on their telephones at certain times of the day where they have to take a moment to take stock and they just appreciate everything around them. Thank you for your health. Thank you for your family. Thank you for your friends. Thank you for this computer. Thank you for my phone. Thank you for my food. They take that 20 seconds when their alarm goes off, they say that and they do that. It sounds silly that you need an alarm to do it but actually yes, we do need to get forced to stop.
Third is, on my table at work, I have certain books that- some philosophy books or some sacred texts where I just open it up. Recently I’ve picked up the Bhagavad Gita, which is a scripture for Hindus I guess but it’s universally accepted. I’ve never read it and my mother keeps talking about it. I said, “Okay, let me buy it.” I just open up a chapter and read three or four lines. Off of it, sometimes I understand, sometimes I don’t, but just seeing the words on the page, which are completely different to my day-to-day machinations of email are centering. Home-cooked lunches are something that I find quite useful. Taking the time to prepare a meal.
Indra Nooyi, number five. I saw this advert for Indra Nooyi on a masterclass. She said, “People think that being busy is what makes them important.” It really isn’t. I read that Bill Gates takes time out every month to just have time to sit in his cabin and it’s time out of his minute-to-minute plan day but he takes time out just to think about life. If someone as busy as Indra Nooyi and someone as important as Bill Gates are doing these practices and they’re so successful, surely, we have the time to do that, to bring it back.
Lastly, something that I’m deeply passionate about are trees and nature. It’s through some work that we’ve been doing in The Queen’s Green Canopy, which is an initiative in the UK to celebrate the late Queen’s for her Platinum Jubilee. They wanted to plant lots and lots of trees. We’ve become very close to the organization and the foresters, and learning how important just trees are, and standing under a tree can really send to you. That’s what I’d say. Go outside and stand under a tree and just look up at the leaves because it’s beautiful and magical.
Ramia: I can’t tell you how much we appreciate this extremely tangible advice. I think things that most of us can do right away, implement into our daily routines, and not at all far-fetched but full of wisdom. Thank you so much, Smruti for joining us on Women in Family Business and for sharing your story and what you’ve learned so far. Hopefully, we’ll catch up again to hear more about how things are evolving for you and Supreme Creations, of course.
Smruti: I’d absolutely love that. It’s been a real pleasure and an exploration of thoughts and ideas I never thought I would.
Ramia: Thank you.
This interview is part of the special series “Agile Minds: How Family Enterprises Evolve” in collaboration with KPMG Private Enterprise.
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