“But you are the CEO of a hugely successful company, our profits have only gone up year on year, and ours is the most respected brand with such a variety of footwear, what troubles you dad?”, asked Milind.
“I will show you in a minute”, Dilip took a deep breath and looked away at the vistas of the city from his corner office. As the clock struck the hour, a knock on the door followed by, “did you want to see me Mr. Dilip, and hello Milind…”, said Ganesh, the production manager of the company. “Yes, please come in Ganesh, have we started scaling the production with the 3D just-on-the-feet shoes? How do the numbers look?”, asked Dilip.
“It is an instant hit with young people, as we expected, the ability to select the material of choice, place your foot in the simulator, select the design and get your shoes delivered in minutes…the numbers are going up and we see the need for building more walk-in centers across the country”, said Ganesh with pride. “We will soon innovate further with more modeling and data points and precisely make every shoe uniquely tailored to the foot that it will adopt”, he smiled.
“And what shoes do you wear Ganesh?”, the question came out of nowhere with an uncomfortable one minute silence in the room. “What sort of a question is that dad, he heads the production and he has been a loyal associate to us for several years, he would of course wear our company shoes, wouldn’t you sir?”, Milind tried to ease the atmosphere.
“I have been using the shoes from STF Mr. Dilip, they make me smile each time I put them on and I feel healthy wearing them”, answered Ganesh apologetically. “Now do you understand what makes me discontented Milind?”, came a heavy and disappointed tone from Dilip. “Thank you Ganesh, you may kindly continue your work, and please do not take any offense, you are free to wear what you like of course, keep up the good work with the new machine”, Dilip tried his most pleasing tone.
“I have heard of STF and that they are mostly run like a family business, existed for a long time, and they are an exclusive make-to-order shop. So what’s the big deal dad?”, asked Milind. “Do you know what STF stands for Milind? Smiling Through the Feet! Their promise and their challenge is that the moment someone tries their footwear on and as long as they wear them, they will have a smile on their face. That is being successful in our kind business, not just selling more…”, said Dilip, “…it is just that their business ethics don’t permit them to do what other companies normally do, but I don’t know how long that would last and that is a threat I cannot take lightly”, he added.
“We tried everything – sent some of our employees as customers to buy their shoes which our experts evaluated, modeled them via advanced sensing, and built replicas. But it cannot match the comfort and touch of the original. They are magicians in making footwear. There is something about their process which makes them unique, you have to go there as a student and learn the technique. I want to scale the smile and make more money, that is when I will feel contented and successful”, Dilip looked intently at Milind.
“Who should I meet? Why would they accept me? I have a management degree and I also understand practically everything about shoe making, I am more than capable of running this company for you and after you, I don’t understand dad, going back to school at an old shoe making shop?”, spoke Milind running his hands through his hair as if trying to ease of the burden of this expectation.
“They call him ‘The Cobbler’, his name is Shanker and he is a kind soul. As long as you convince him that you love the profession and your goal is to make people happy, he will teach you. Of course make him feel that you need the job and he will test you for your ‘hands-on’ skills that you so feel proud of. I’d say practice a few days making lasts before you meet him”, Dilip sounded as if he meant what he said. “I have arranged it with Ganesh, he must be waiting for you outside the room. He will help you with some old fashioned ‘last’ making” and brush your skills on the “curing” process. “I love the work Dad, just because I am an MBA doesn’t change how I grew up learning the trade, I will make you proud as I always said”, Milind took on the challenge much to the relief of Dilip.
After a few days of practice, it was time to meet “The Cobbler” and make an attempt at learning the art. “We are sorry sir, we are fully booked for the next six months, we cannot accept any new orders”, came a cordial reply at the front desk of what seemed to be like an old fashioned but extremly organized establishment. “I am here to meet your CEO”, said Milind. “Oh! who? Ah you are here to see Shanker sir, he is in his workshop and will not see anyone without prior appointment. He worships his job, not that he doesn’t want to meet customers. I will try, who should I say is asking?”. “Please tell him that my name is Milind and I am the son of the CEO of TBS, Dilip Das”. “Oh! please have a seat, this is not the first time TBS came by to steal sir’s knowledge, but let me assure you, it is not easy”.
After what seemed like an hour, Milind is taken to the back of the showroom into the “working chambers” as they called it. ‘This is so well organized naturally aligned to the process, like our machines‘, he thought. As if someone heard his thoughts, “the difference is that you will see everything is handmade, not many machines around”, came a cheerful voice of an old man in his late sixties dressed in the same uniform as the rest. “Your father finally resorted to sending you here, you remind me so much of him”, said Shanker.
“How do you know him? Do you know each other? Do you know why I am here?”, rushed Milind. “We came to this city almost at the same time although from different villages, both of us knew something about mending footwear. We were struggling to make a living, until the time when we found this organization, the founder took us in. He taught us both his knowledge…”, Shanker tried to recollect his old days.
“He is too humble to reveal the full story and belittle his friend”, said a nearby associate finishing up on a shoe. “Please sir, I would like to know, and I want to be honest with you. I have spent the last few days trying to learn about you as a person and also about STF. You uphold an amazing moral and ethical code of work. You only deal with natural products with ‘cruelty free’ origin. One old gentleman that I met was saying ‘one could die wearing shoes from STF, they are such a natural extension to one’s feet! My father sent me here to steal your knowledge and scale it to make more money, and to lie to you if necessary. But I want to learn and not steal from you”.
“It is easy to be humble when one knows not much. You are free to try, I try to teach all these associates & those who are interested, freely and they have picked up the skill to varying degrees, but not completely”, said Shanker smiling. “That is because you don’t tell, it is tough to ‘watch and learn’ everything, we are not magicians like you sir”, said another associate. “That is because you all have to still learn to let go of what you know and teach others. If you hold on to what you know for want of appreciation, how will you learn something higher?”, smirked Shanker. “That is true Milind, this is an art and like most arts, there is only so much to tell. My hands know things that my mind does not, if they get convinced that your hands also respect & love this art to make others smile, the knowledge might pass on to you, who knows! But first let me tell you our story”, said Shanker.
It was not called STF at that time, this was never run like a business but more like a mission – to make people happy and to make an example of how noble this profession can be. It is not clear from who our founder, Karunakar, learnt this skill. There were several stories that once he served a holy man and was blessed by him – “you will reach the pinnacle of your skill and when you find your successor it will be transferred, the legacy shall continue – as long as you teach freely”. He openly accepted anyone who would come to him looking for support and teach them all he could. Dilip and I found him one day, rather he found us, in our little shop by the street and took us in.
There were 20 people, ‘associates’ he called them, working here. Each of them with different degree of the skill, and Karunakar taught them based on their interest. Dilip was excellent at identifying the right material and making good soles. But he was impatient too, and was looking for remuneration all the time. Karunakar helped him perfect his skill, and Dilip was proud of it. Karunakar passed on the appreciation from customers to his associates and Dilip mistook it to be all his skill. He wanted more and one day he was offered big money, I am told, by a business man, and left us.
I understood very quickly that this wasn’t about making footwear, it was much more than that. Karunakar interacted with people, studied them, and factored all of that in designing the last and every component of the shoe. I wanted to learn all of it and spent long hours. One day, he saw me working late and said, “if you want to be good at something, work hard and long. But if you want to perfect the art, you should learn a little, practice a little and teach a little. Teaching others and helping others overcome their problems makes your art flow better. It makes you selfless”. I followed him to the letter, and spent time learning, practicing and learning to teach. As I taught the others, they taught me back, they let me into their skill. So much so that when I worked with someone, my hands started to learn by themselves.
“Is this how Mr. Karunakar’s skill got transferred to you? This beats all that I have learnt so far!”, Milind spoke with childish enthusiasm. “I don’t know what got transferred and how good I am, Karunakar left this place with me to run and continue teaching others. Yes I do all the designs and play a key role in making people smile. These lads are yet to pick that up from me, although they are the best out there in their craft”, he smiled.
Milind joined the group at STF. “There are no machines here, you need to relearn most of your knowledge”, the associates kept reminding him. What amazed him was the culture that Shanker drove, busy as everyone was, there was a practice to slot out few hours a day to actively seek out and help the other person, to teach what they have discovered and progressively make the process of shoe making fun. “What do I know that I could teach them”, Milind thought hard, and he remembered his father’s words, “I have perfected the art of picking up the right materials and making exquisite soles and you have that gift with you too…”. Slowly Milind integrated himself with the rest of the group and acquired finesse in every aspect of making footwear. He kept his father posted on the progress initially, but after a while he lost himself in the craft and completely disregarded his father’s ambition.
“Do you think I am ready to learn more from you sir?”, asked Milind. “No!”, came the reply from Shanker with a smile. “But I have designed a few shoes without telling you, and my friends tell me that the customers gave the same reaction as they would, when you designed their shoes”, said Milind with disappointment. “Watch, learn, practice, teach“, came the reply.
Two more years passed and Shanker gradually stopped going to the workshop. He spent more time talking to the customers and discussing with Milind on what should the designs be. Milind renounced the legacy of the father and dedicated his life to making people smile. He did not bother asking Shanker again whether the skill passed on to him, but continued the mantra of learning and teaching. But deep down Shanker knew that their hands exchanged the art and he has found his successor.