When you interview Tatiana Abramova, the founder of RITO, you can skip some questions. For example, “How do you cope with emotional burnout?”, or “How do you delegate your functions to colleagues?” A work-inspired person has no answers.
Still, Abramova has detailed answers to other questions. For example, how to establish your brand and a full production cycle in a country where the light industry was killed by smuggling and uncontrolled imports. Currently, RITO is not only a trademark, but also a knitting factory, and a full-fledged fashion house.
Leadership Journey asked Tatyana how she dresses the presidents and why she never bought a Lexus.
Leadership Journey (LJ): I remember your speech at the meeting of the Union of Ukrainian Entrepreneurs. You were inspired and energetic. Such an attitude to business differs a lot from the traditionally dramatic. How much does such an engagement and emotionality help or hinder in a pragmatic business?
Tatyana Abramova (T.A.): I love Henry Ford very much for many points important to me. (Henry Ford is an American industrialist, inventor. – Ed.) Firstly, he used to say that business is production. To me, business means only creation, only production. Other types like buying-reselling are irrelevant. When you have created something, this makes the most significant and strong positive energy.
To me, business means only creation, only production
Second: in a company that starts its path on the market, there must be at least one non-professional person. He has no ceiling, no template, and the words “This cannot be done” are always followed by his question, “Why not?” In our company, I was the non-professional. A kind of a “bull terrier”, who sees the goal and ignores the obstacles. My friend was a designer, a technologist; she knew how to do. I did not know. Of course, I have learned some basics to understand the process. But when she was saying to me, “This is not done this way”, I was asking: “Why not? Why not this way? »
Recently, four speakers spoke at the panel of the women’s forum in Lviv, three of whom started their business not being experts in it.
And third: for me personally, this is a very important point. Success to 85 % depends on people. No matter how cool is the produced product, it is obvious, it is created, thought out, made by people and then sold to people. It’s all about people.
Today, emotional intelligence is replaced by love intelligence (LQ), that is, human relationships. Emotion is what drives the world now.
Today, emotional intelligence is replaced by love intelligence (LQ), that is, human relationships
For example, we make an opinion about a person in the first 20 seconds. Our likes and dislikes evoke an emotional response in the soul. Therefore, an «emotional» temperature and internal energy are extremely important for the company. For instance, we do not have a high staff turnover. In total, our company employs about 100 people, and among them, there are people who are with us for 15–20 years.
Of course, we constantly provide training for new specialists, so that the company would have an influx of new ideas, energies, and knowledge all the time. Scarcity of professionals in our industry is a huge problem, and, unfortunately, the country does nothing to increase the prestige of technological specialties in higher and vocational education institutions.
LJ: I know that in our country there is a significant lack of trust. The owners do not trust the hired management, and employees do not trust their employers. What should a leader do to establish a trustful relationship with employees?
T.A.: Every person in the company should feel his importance. Only when you respect people, they start to love their job. The owner as a leader plays a great role in this respect. No manager can substitute the owner. I was always wondering: how could shareholders, owners withdraw themselves from management? After all, it is important for the company to create personal connections initiated by the “parent”. If the connection is broken or someone else, a person who can leave the company at any time (for example, the CEO) becomes the connection, then this is dangerous.
NO MANAGER CAN REPLACE THE OWNER
For me, a leader is «the seller of a dream» — there exists such a cool description. Recently, in the framework of the Happy Ukraine project, we were determining the values of the company, and it was interesting to see, that we were very close in our views, but at the same time, different. “Dream”, “sustainable development” and “innovation” are our values. One of the girls who defended the value of the “dream” said, “We came here to realize the dream of Abramova, but her dream became our dream.”
FOR ME A LEADER IS THE «SELLER OF DREAMS»
Such things help to understand how people feel. Therefore, we do a lot for corporate culture. We do not just have joint trips — we visit different cities, go to theaters, discuss different issues, tell about the small victories of our company.
When we have corporate parties, we always say, “RITO is the best knitwear company on the planet.” It may sound funny, but it imprints in minds, and people eventually feel proud of the company.
LJ: Do you have a feedback culture? It is not easy to cultivate feedback in countries without a long business tradition.
T.A.: This culture originated long ago and by itself. Of course, the employees will not say everything directly, but they can express a wish. It is important for people to have access to leadership. This is an advantage of a small company when you control many things and feel the atmosphere emotionally. If you are a woman, then your power manifests through energy and emotion. After all, business is not a dead object. Business is a living organism with people who have their emotions, and you can feel, react and control all this.
Business is not a dead object; it is a living organism with living people
LJ: I heard about your art parties. This is not like some kind of amateur initiative. You invite actors and other celebrities – what’s the point of such meetings? There is a long distance between the knitwear and the cinema.
T.A.: I will tell you from the very beginning. When a strategic session is held with a coach, the question is put, “How do you see the company in 10–20 years?” I would answer with Churchill’s words “Looking too far ahead is short-sighted”, especially in our country. You do not know what will happen in five years.
Our task is not to become the second Zara or the second Chanel. Now all services or products can be easily copied and difficult to sustain uniqueness. I am not talking about innovations in IT, but about blouses and skirts that can be replicated. But there is something that cannot be copied. These are intangible assets, which are currently a global trend.
Our task is not to become the second Zara or the second Chanel
Reputation, the uniqueness of the brand is built over the years on trust, on some non-verbal things. A long time ago, an idea had emerged to show our collections using customers as models. Thus, the unusual format “Club RITO” had originated, where we invited interesting, smart and worthy people. We had actors, writers, musicians – for example, Victor Stepanov, the greatest actor who played the roles of Lomonosov and Pugachev, Nikolai Karachentsev, Anatoly Khostikoev, “unfading” dancer Grigory Chapkis, Georgian ambassador Grigol Katamadze, Yuri Rybchinsky, and many other incredible guests. A young poet Miriam Dragina inspired us to hold a series of literature and art parties. We talk about everything, but the main thing is that the guests associate the amazing atmosphere with RITO.
An idea had emerged to show our collections using customers as models
All these things create such a strong bond with the brand, make people love it, that it is much more important than any advertising. This is just the intangible asset of the brand, which is impossible to copy. For example, today our events are a great success. You need to register in advance. We are even thinking about video recording of such meetings. At the same time, it is very important for me when the brand customers are people who share the company’s values.
LJ: How do such intangible brand investments affect the company’s economic performance?
T.A.: Certainly, the number of loyal customers is growing. This is a very important point because we have our loyalty program.
I use to ask the girls, “Have there been new people today?” They answer, “No, Tatyana Borisovna, they were new last month, and now they are permanent customers already”.
This is the brand intangible asset, which is impossible to copy
When meeting a new audience, I always ask, “Who does know RITO?” And by the number of hands raised, I understand that brand awareness is already quite high. It is especially nice when there is feedback — both in social networks and in face-to-face meetings. When they say to me, “Oh, I have been wearing your piece for 15 years.” Or, for example, I know that Inna Kapinos was wearing a dress from RITO when she received “Pectoral” as the best actress. And someone wrote to us on Facebook: “I was wearing your dress when I was proposed to marry”. We even decided to start a flash mob “Your first and favorite thing from RITO”. It speaks of the loyalty that is valuable to the business.
Such an emotional component of the business is much more important for me than the race for scale and quantity. Values, essence, and quality are much more important for a long and happy life of the brand.
We do not have the task to grow business by 10 times. We understand that today it is unrealistic and inexpedient. The values of a person, of the business founder, are translated into the values of his (her) business.
LJ: You know, for the second time this week I hear a paradoxical thing that business needs to be a pleasure. Let me explain why paradoxical. Your colleagues often complain how hard everything is, all is rot and despondency and, in general, the state does not help. Although, of course, the state should not help the business. And here you are talking about pleasure. How come?
T.A.: Well, first of all, you should be showing pleasure. Remember, how Nikulin was carrying a heavy log, but still was smiling and kept pulling it further (A reference to a famous Soviet circus act. – Ed).
Others can only fall in love with your business if you yourself are in love with it. I love RITO so much that when I talk about the company, I even have tears in my eyes. Every person working in the company feels my attachment. For example, on March 8, the team presented me with a film about RITO. Surely, it was an amateur work, but it was full of love and sincerity. It was obvious; RITO was a value and pride for these people.
An emotional component of the business is much more important for me than the race for scale and quantity
For example, if our things are in the wardrobe of Grybauskaite (Dalia Grybauskaite, President of Lithuania. – Ed.), and our online store sells around the world, then all our employees in production know this and are proud of it.
I do not like it very much when people ask, “What stars are you dressing?” Actually, every person is a star. We are dressing wonderful doctors, wonderful teachers. They are our stars. This is how the “RITO People” project emerged. We created this project specifically to show amazing people, the pride of Ukraine, who change our country by their achievements and who love our brand. This is very cool when people have an emotional bond with the brand. This bond leads to pleasure. For some people, the pleasure is to create clothes, and for others – to wear these clothes.
LJ: I am sure that in the modern history of Ukraine the 1990s and the beginning of 2000s will be called the age of the “lost generation”. Many professions were lost, including for knitwear production. How did you solve staffing issues?
T.A.: We have been creating our professional background for a long time. We gathered competent specialists — technologists, designers, knitters, and seamstresses. They are almost nowhere to be found. The second task was to develop this potential further because some people were in their 60s, and I understood that young people should be hired.
Starting this autumn, the Faculty of Knitting Technology will be opened at the College of Light Industry, especially for our industry. We have signed several more knitwear companies for this project because the industry is gradually reviving. Our company already has several students, and we plan to attract more young people. After all, our task is to be modern, which means we must run twice as fast.
The quality, not the number of employees is important for the team
The quality, not the number of employees is important for the team. So, in the first years, we gathered a pool of qualified technology specialists; it was crucial to creating a cool, high-quality product. When we had already built the factory with a modern technological base and opened our stores, then top management began to be interested to work with us. They saw a decent competitive product. For example, our current director of development has extensive experience working with luxury brands. She simply said, “I like the way RITO develops. Let’s have a cup of coffee together.” We had coffee together … and realized that we could be mutually beneficent and reveal the huge potential of RITO. She never in her life thought that she would work with a Ukrainian company. I have never worked with premium brands, and I was very interested in how this experience could be transferred to our production. Such a symbiosis gave amazing results.
LJ: Have you managed to implement some useful practices of large business at a medium-sized enterprise? And what in particular?
T.A.: We have changed the style and all the visuals. We have changed the team working with SMM, website, and PR. The planned production time has changed; cooperation of the factory and trade has become much more flexible and coordinated. All elements of a complex business structure began to work much more innovatively and efficiently.
LJ: How did your company survive the crises in the country? What was your response?
T.A.: In such situations, both your and your team’s brains begin to think harder to find “the ways out of the crisis”.
In one of these crises, we have expanded even the product line. We have always produced women’s clothes. At some point, we thought, why should we limit ourselves? We have started to produce RITOkids collections of children’s knitwear, RITOmen for men; we launched a line of home knitwear – RITOhome. We came up with interesting proposals for corporate orders — that is, we have expanded our horizons.
In crisis, BOth youR and your team’S BRAINS begin to think harder
In another crisis, in 2014, we went out to the world – to the foreign markets. Lithuania was one of the first countries where we had opened our store. Tradition, climate, and knitwear culture, as well as our courage and perseverance – all this created favorable conditions for the promotion of RITO in Lithuania. The country, once known for its knitwear, after joining the European Union practically “freed” its market for the Ukrainian products.
LJ: And Canada? What was it that helped you to enter the Canadian market?
T.A.: With Canada, it was an interesting story. It is the category of a story when there is no need to look for hard roads; people always are the decisive factor. Many of our business contacts are former clients who have become brand ambassadors. One of such ambassadors saw our collection for the Ukrainian Independence Day in the shop window of our store and immediately offered to organize an exhibition-show in Canada. She was a very active representative of the diaspora. We immediately reacted, “Yes, yes, let’s do it!” It was a real surprise when, two months later, she called me saying, “I have organized everything, prepared everything. We have models for the show and a bundle of interested people.” Our show in Toronto has become a real pilgrimage. The Ukrainian collection, modern, no “naphthalene”, was a real surprise for the Canadians women. Those were the first steps of RITO in the Canadian market.
Our show in Toronto has become a real pilgrimage
LJ: I know you have a special “smart knitwear” brand. How did it emerge and what is “smart knitwear”?
T.A.: We are now creating two lines of women’s clothing. One line that has long been loved in Ukraine is RITO. The second line is 91LAB, knitwear as an art, incredibly complex from the technological point, in which our creative staff (designers, stylists, technologists, and programmers) demonstrate their “knitwear fantasies”. This line is more premium and is mainly exported.
The background of this line creation was a slightly sad and funny story. A long time ago, in the years of RITO formation, we limited ourselves to the registration of a trademark in Ukraine only. It seemed sufficient for us. Although we were dreaming and actually were selling small parties of our knitwear in other countries, we did not take care to register in the world. After all, our brand originated from an abbreviation of the “Development and Manufacture of Knitted Clothing” (in Russian). Besides, as a small developing manufacturing company, we never had enough money.
So, two years ago, when we felt the capacity, confidence and decided to register RITO in the world, we faced terrible news: the clothing brand RITO existed in Japan. They were already registered in leading countries. Moreover, RITO is also a very popular male name in Latin America, and there is a Rito city in Angola … But we were feeling upset for exactly two days.
Entering foreign markets with some trivial product is completely dull
As a result, we came up with a new brand – 91LAB. It is quite a different path. Under this brand, we show knitwear as art. That is, it is kind of a couture prêt-à-porter. This is quite a successful strategy because going globally with a trivial product is completely dull. When you show something creative, innovative, it immediately attracts attention.
LJ: Did you make mistakes that really became a bitter but useful experience?
T.A.: Once we had an idea to go in for accessories – leather bags. We decided to supplement the existing product range. We invested money, created a new brand, rented premises, found money to buy an assortment … and realized that we dissolved in similar traders who sell almost similar bags as we do.
The principle was proved; do what you do well and do it even better. And I enjoy this!
LJ: Is it true that in your company for a long time there were no production plans?
T.A.: At least the last four years. I had no experience in the trade and nor was I ever a hired employee. After the post-graduate studies, I somehow spontaneously became a leader. I acquired many skills during my life journey. However, the most important principle for me is respect and attitude towards people. You can build everything; you can achieve everything, only if you have this “human bond”. And when the director of development had come to the company, she said, “The stores should work according to plans.” I said, “But how will people live by these plans? They cannot predict how many buyers there will be.” I was afraid inside, but I went for this experiment with myself because I understood, it was worth trying.
LJ: What was the result?
T.A.: It worked! First, this is a strong motivation for the staff, because people begin to think themselves. They are not just waiting for us to get clients, but they are starting to think about how to fulfill the plan, what other resources and tools can be used. Instagram, photos, calls …
The sellers are no longer just sellers. They are brand ambassadors. Wherever they go, a notary, a school, an alumni meeting — they always talk about RITO. They become carriers of the brand. Such things really help to fulfill the plan.
LJ: I talked with entrepreneurs of different ages and with a different understanding of why they needed business education. Some people say that you should go to study only if you have your own experience, as in your case. Then it is useful. If you get an MBA in 25 years, then you will be trapped in decisions. What about your diplomas of different colors?
T.A.: Honestly, I would go for an MBA degree, but is it worth a 30,000 … ($ 30,000. — Ed.). For the company and me it is expensive. If I worked in a large corporation and had an opportunity to study, I would go. In my case I think, no, I had better buy one more machine.
I would go for an MBA degree, but is it worth $ 30,000
But I am always learning, either at interesting master classes or simply from people. Most of all I like to learn from my contemporaries, from people of practice. This is much more important to me than just some theory. Brains are muscles that constantly need to be trained. When you study on your own, you can broadcast more to people by teaching others. Thus, the ideas that you have received are cemented even more.
Right now, I am studying an incredibly interesting course in Mogilyanka («Kyiv-Mohyla Academy» National University. – Ed.). “School of a Strategic Architect”. Very interesting format. First, this is systemic thinking, when you perceive everything in the world as a holistic and interconnected system.
No wonder, RITO’s slogan is “Everything is connected in the world”. Integration, interaction, interpenetration – we increasingly use these words to describe any sphere of our life. This applies primarily to human beings. We ourselves are constantly changing. In my view, we transit from racing for material values to racing for spiritual values.