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From the Factory Floor: Family Ties at Penguin Apparel

Although she is simply referred to as Amma, which means mother, by the factory workers at Penguin Apparel in Madurai, her word is clearly taken as law on the shop floor. Women workers say that they are comforted by her presence. They can count on her for counsel for their personal, as well as work problems, and that Amma, who is in her late 70s, is always fair.  

Her son and managing director M. Anbukani, who started the business 31 years ago, defers to her the same way, even though the enterprise has grown to encompass 10 factories manufacturing sportswear, winterwear and down jackets for companies like Timberland Kids, Hummel, Hugo Boss and Villard. Anbukani is modest about the fact that his factory is a rarity in the neighboring areas, where value production is the focus, and outerwear, which requires a far greater degree of specialized machinery and know-how, is not the norm.

“Ninety-eight percent of our work force is women. For the village people to approach a male member was difficult. My mother handles not only professional issues, but personal related matters. She counsels, she motivates,” he explained, adding: “She distributes the paychecks, she knows everyone by name.”

The factory floor at Penguin apparel is held together by more than one familial relationship. Sourcing Journal met with the three different generations that stitch together this factory and it is clear that while innovation comes in many forms, it is held together by trust and respect.

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Anbukani’s two sons who have also joined the business bring with them an awareness of technology and new ideas.

Although the company originally focused on European markets, the mix has changed with 40 percent of exports to Europe, 50 percent to the U.S. and 10 percent to Canada. What started with 40 machines, now counts more than 2,000.

At approximately 280 miles from Chennai, the capital of the state of Tamil Nadu, and 110 miles from Tirupur, the knitwear capital of India, Madurai is a quiet town of 1.7 million people, dominated by the famous Meenakshi Amman temple, where the prayers are only rivaled by the architecture.

The Penguin group broke the mold that dictated for years that apparel manufacturers need to be located near the production hubs of Chennai, Tirupur or Bengaluru.

Sitting in his cabin, near the front entrance of the two-level factory, the walls, the drapery, his shirt bathed in blue– his favorite color—Anbukani talks about the difficulty of the location in the early days.

“When I started this factory in 1989, everyone told me it would not work. People in the industry don’t place orders until they see the factory. At that time, there was only one flight from Chennai to Madurai, the connectivity was very poor. I was told I would only get job work, not to start a factory in Madurai…But we know that Meenakshi Aman is the goddess who guards and takes care of the people here in Madurai.”

“Amma” and M. Anbukani

“I sat with my family and we thought—this is the city where we have grown up. We knew this business was labor intensive and could empower women. I believed that it was the time to give back to our city, to create jobs,” he said.

He realizes the value of job creation. His father was one of 11 children, and the only working member to provide support in tough financial times for the family. He took up a job in a textile mill with the Thyagaraja Mills Group, which founded more than 100 mills in southern Tamil Nadu. He spent his entire career with the organization, almost 45 years. “He knew the textile trade inside and out. He handles the finances for our company,” said Anubukani.

But can family bonds help innovation and efficiency on the factory floor?

Apparently. It is a model that works at Penguin, and in many other factories across Asia. In the last two years, Penguin has created digital-first plans to set up a smart factory, to modernize and gear up with technology, with the younger generation invested in finding better communication tools, and the family elders looking to keep the finances in working order.

“All of the workers are like my children. It is like a big family, of 3,000 children,” said Amma. “Like children too, they grow with time. When they first come for jobs, they are very shy and quiet—and you can see how the girls transform within six months of working, and the way their level of confidence changes.”

Standing next to his mother, the managing director dissolves into a boy himself—deferential, respectful. A family meeting held every Saturday afternoon resolves problems regarding the running of the factory and other pending issues.  

The pandemic, however, has altered the process. “In the last two years we have not seen many customers come here, nor have we gone to them, it’s mostly on Zoom. In terms of our carbon footprint and in terms of international travel savings, it does add up. Customers have also adapted. Now we send digital pictures or send samples, so they look at them and that is how the business is going. The impact has been all over including in countries like China, Vietnam, Bangladesh —now customers are looking at India as a strategic country in terms of sourcing management, something they weren’t doing as much,” Anbukani said.

Having started with wovens, the shift has been toward specialty areas—down jackets, ski jackets, sportswear and highly technical garments. “Many people are scared to touch products like these, but we were able to learn the technicalities, and how to source the special fabrics these need. For example, high-altitude fabric needs to be like human skin —which doesn’t allow water from outside to enter, but allows perspiration. These come from our partners in Korea, Taiwan, etc..,” he explained.

As orders have evolved, so has the design of the factory floors themselves.

In Vadipatti, North-West of Madurai, another of the group’s factories sits within a green building under solar panels, and energy efficient glass which reduces the heat, energy-efficient lighting, eco-friendly refrigerant to reduce ozone depletion and other sustainable solutions. It is a move toward the future, with technology marrying sustainability.

However, the protocols established in the flagship factory remain. As the workday finishes at 5 p.m., a stream of workers head toward the waiting buses that will carry them home.

Anbukani said that time has also been spent further developing other projects.

“We fund many orphanages, old age homes, hospitals, this is what is driving us, and our aspiration is to create a township in Madurai where you have all the amenities and basic things that are required in life that help people transform their future. What we are offering to the community and society all our family members are very keen about,” he said.

“I never wanted to be a businessman,” Anbukani stated simply. “I wanted to be an industrialist.”

That means to have a larger plan, a vision. “That is part of the plan, that we will take the workers and our buyers along on this journey.”