A leaf out of Eloor

Eloor Libraries’ branch in T. Nagar was a popular option for many of those seeking to borrow books, and they must be missing it. As the group restructures its operations in other cities in the light of new challenges, an insight into what it means to take the middle path

“Before shutting down a branch, we exhaust all options, giving it enough time to make a recovery. Because, closing a branch is easy; building one is not,” begins 34-year-old Anup, who holds the reins of an enterprise with three branches — Kochi, Trivandrum and Bengaluru — and runs it with the help of his mother Mini Luiz.

Anup has watched Eloor branches being planted in new soil, and also seen some of them — Chennai, Kolkatta, New Delhi and Calicut — being pulled up by the roots.

He has never seen both situations being treated flippantly, first when his father P. Luiz John was at the helm, and later when his brother Gautam Luiz was.

Since 1979, when he established the first Eloor library in Kochi, founder P. Luiz John had followed a tradition.

Each time Eloor Libraries would establish a branch in a new city, the family would tag along, stay in the new place for sometime, which ensured that both Gautam and Anup had a ringside view of processes being followed at the evolving organisation.

Anup points out that this tradition was dispensed with, only when the Kolkatta and Calicut branches were established.

“I grew up in Chennai, doing my schooling there. So, the branch in Chennai is the one I have visited the most number of times,” he announces. “Before closing the Chennai branch, we considered going digital and also looked for a space at a lower rent. The overheads had shot up, and the branch was bleeding the brand, and we had to ultimately let go of it, in the interests of employees across the group, many of them serving Eloor Libraries for decades. The longest-serving employee is our Kochi branch manager K. Sabu, at 35 years of service; followed by Narayanan, our Trivandram branch manager, at 34-and-a-half years of service.”

While digital technology is certainly testing the endurance of traditional businesses, which include lending libraries that are run largely with in-person processes, Eloor Libraries’ setbacks over the last decade largely have to do with just the existential burden of being human.

“My father passed away 11 years ago suddenly due to heart attack, and he was just 59 then. My brother succumbed to cancer in 2017, at age 36, after battling the disease for seven years,” reveals Anup. With an MBA to his name, Anup had been working in the corporate sector, before the mantle of running Eloor Libraries was on him due to the two untimely deaths in the family.

“If my father and brother were around now, Eloor Libraries would be in a different position altogether. Twelve years ago, when my dad was alive we had an online plan for the business. Ninety per cent of what people are doing now, we had planned 12 years ago,” explains Anup. “When a life crisis is raging, you would naturally want to attend to that and everything else could be in a state of suspension, and we tried everything we could to save my brother, and all other concerns had receded from our mind.”

Going digital

With the pandemic bringing a set of new challenges, how is Eloor Libraries responding to the twin challenges faced by most businesses across the spectrum: Holding the fort and at the same time crowning it with a digital superstructure.

Anup views the pandemic as the best opportunity to be innovative, and make those decisions that should have been made long ago, but were not.

He reveals that he has empowered a millennial employee working with the Kochi branch to launch brand-building campaigns on social media by just engaging with members and the world at large by just talking books.

Besides, last year, in the midst of the pandemic, Anup held a huddle with the managers of three branches and the outcome was revelatory.

“The Trivandrum manager said the business would be ruined if we went totally digital in Trivandrum,” discloses Anup. “In Trivandrum, a majority of the members would not warm up to door-delivery of books. Government employees constitute a big section of the membership and they would like to talk with the staff personally and get book recommendations. The same culture can be expected at Kochi.”

Only Bengaluru would likely be fertile soil for an out-an-out digital strategy.

“Though the majority of the work processes have been moved digital, and only the door-delivery part has to be integrated into it,” Eloor Libraries plans to chop and change its digital programme based on local realities.

Anup reports, “Last Sunday, at our Kochi branch, 39 members walked in and between them, they took 165 books.”

This number is indeed a significant pointer when viewed against the backdrop of an ongoing pandemic.

So, as with most other things, the answer probably lies in choosing the middle path.

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