Shabier Subian – CEO of Fashion Bug (Pvt) Ltd

Shabier Subian, the CEO of Fashion Bug (Pvt) Ltd belongs to the 2nd generation to take over the running of one of the country’s most popular and widespread retail fashion networks – Fashion Bug (Pvt) Ltd. 

“Fashion Bug is a family owned business established in 1994. We were groomed from our youth, and taught the basic aspects and functions of the business. At times, we used to help out at the office premises during school holidays and gradually began to understand the process of the business.” 

Describing his career journey, Shabier explained, “After completing my education at S. Thomas’ College – Mount Lavinia, I pursued my higher education at Macquarie University in Sydney Australia, where I graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Marketing. I also hold a professional qualification from CIM. I worked at a digital advertising company in a managerial position for a couple of years before returning to Sri Lanka to join the family business on a formal scale on the 1st of January 2013 (right in time to participate at the company’s annual staff sports day, which is held every year on the 1st of January). Even during my time in Australia, I was involved with many isolated projects for Fashion Bug. Something that really caught my attention was the mobile app, which my cousin Aqeill Subian, who is also involved with Fashion Bug at present, and I developed for Fashion Bug along with a tech team. It was the first mobile app within the Fashion Retail landscape in Sri Lanka. As of today, it’s been 7+ years since I became fully involved in the functioning of Fashion Bug. It has definitely had its ups and downs, but nevertheless no business can run without challenges.”

Reminiscing upon the 3 most significant achievements by Fashion Bug during his tenure as CEO, Shabier listed – 

“Establishing the Sisu Dirimaga Foundation – Previously we conducted all CSR projects on an adhoc basis. One thing I always wanted to do during my tenure was to give back to society in a meaningful way. Today’s students are the future of society and as a corporate, we want to be a part of uplifting our society. Sisu Dirimaga Foundation focuses on school infrastructure and education related projects looking at the development of future generations. We have 2 signature programs that are conducted by this foundation – the career guidance program and the annual Roo Siththam art competition. Following its successful launch, the Sisu Dirimaga Foundation has conducted career guidance programs for over 25000 students from over 30 schools in the island, which is a significant achievement considering our target of 100,000 students. The art competition is organized at a national level and is one of the few competitions endorsed by the Ministry of Education. The competition attracts over 50000 entries every year and is much anticipated by students every year.

The expansion of our reach through e-commerce. We launched our brand-new website through which we offer a range of over 2000+ SKU’s of fashionable products to choose from the comfort of one’s fingertips. We offer convenient payment options such as cash on delivery and card payments. We are also one of the few retailers accepting exchanges at any Fashion Bug store for any products purchased online. 

And the launch of Fashion Bug Matara has been a significant achievement to date, as we have now managed to offer unparalleled fashion to the southern coastlines of Sri Lanka. With the recent refurbishment and expansion of shopping space, it is one the biggest outlets within our network.” 

Being compassionate and empathetic are traits I believe a leader should possess, especially during a time of crisis. Understanding what your employees, customers and stakeholders are going through is essential in difficult times as it plays a vital role in the overall success of the business, as it will help one make well-balanced decisions.  Effective crisis communication is another vital aspect during a crisis. For example, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Fashion Bug had step by step instructions communicated to our staff and customers in terms of safety policies and precautions, which were publicized digitally as well as at our outlets. It’s important to keep your staff, stakeholders and customers up to date on the activities of the company during a crisis. Demonstrating control is also essential as there will be many ideas, suggestions and opinions flowing in. by maintaining a systemized approach, demonstrating control and assuming tasks effectively, you will be able to make the right decisions at the right time and ensure that they are put into action”, commented Shabier on the topic of the necessary traits of a leader in a time of crisis. 

Speaking of what makes Fashion Bug one of the Top 25 of Sri Lanka’s Great Places To Work and what goes into leading such an organization, Shabier stated, “One of our main pillars is our staff who are as important as our customers, as they form the roots of every company. We give a significant amount of thought and attention to building an efficient, cohesive and compatible team for every aspect of the business, making it a priority at the recruitment stage as well, considering the fact that the workplace is the location where most of us spend most of our time during any given day. We always try to inculcate a culture that includes diversity and inclusivity.  We offer an open and transparent communication network with our open-door policy to build trust at all levels.  As a family-based business, we also extend a sense of family to the totality of the enterprise. Therefore, each staff member of Fashion Bug is made to feel at home in a fun atmosphere. Structured programs for employee development are conducted, which encourages all team members to progress in their professional and skill categories. Those with professional affiliations are required to continuously upgrade their skills in order to maintain their memberships in professional bodies. We, at Fashion Bug, also support employees in developing their areas of expertise.  They are encouraged to take part in internal and external development programs that will foster their careers. Looking at all the recognition we have gained in this area including being named ‘One of the Best Workplaces in Asia – 2020’ is definitely a highlight.”

Questioned as to how Fashion Bug ensures an equal and inclusive work culture for employees from all backgrounds and walks of life, the CEO replied, “As an equal opportunity employment provider, the organization is gender balanced as well as ethnically and culturally diverse. Fashion Bug is where diversity is regarded as an asset. We can proudly say that our staff members come from all religious and ethnic backgrounds, in all levels of operation.”

Detailing how Fashion Bug faced up to the challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, Shabier spoke highly of the company’s adaptiveness and dedication to the safety of its staff and customers.  

“The security of our customers and our staff were 2 key areas, which we had to focus on overnight, apart from running the day to day operations. Ensuring that our outlets were safe for our customers was our highest priority in terms of offering a peaceful and safe shopping experience. We took preventive measures throughout our value chain and all the way to the outlets, ensuring that every part of the process was secure. That being said, all of our staff’s temperatures are checked regularly before they enter the store, all key touch points are disinfected regularly and all clothes are steam ironed regularly. We have also temporarily suspended product exchanges in a bid to prevent any transmission while complying with all government regulations with regards to COVID-19

Our second challenge was the whole online shopping dilemma.  We had initiated online shopping during the early stages of 2019 and enjoyed a successful year around. However, like all online operators we too, faced a sudden shift in the scale and volume of orders over a very short period of time, and based on observations during the lockdown, we planned for it well in advance to scale up to cater to the demands, which were brought upon by COVID-19. We initially did have issues, but we were able to adapt to the demand and meet our customers’ requirements at a rapid speed. Overnight our operations shifted from offline to online, which was new to most of our team. However, we overcame this challenge thanks to the early implementation of e-commerce. 

Once business resumed, we initiated a program called ‘Reserve & Pickup’, offering consumers the ease of shopping by just calling the outlet where we had a dedicated person to take down our customers’ requests and orders,  pack it and keep it ready for our customers to simply pay and check out. Thus, reducing the time spent in store. This has been very successful and we are continuing to offer this moving forward. From day one, we were looking at all options to ensure that our customers are safe at all times while offering our products and services.” 

“The new normal is a context that will continue for at least another 6 months depending on the future curve of the COVID tested patients, which eventually impacts consumer confidence. What we see is that more consumers are shifting and adapting towards the online trend within Colombo. The outstation areas will gradually return to normal, resuming activities much like it has been in the past. Businesses will have to reach out and push their products and services towards consumers more”, noted Shabier, expressing his opinion on what the “new normal” would be like for the Retail Fashion industry of Sri Lanka.