Cairo-founded firm finds entrepreneurial success in flexibility Men don't define Chitra Chellaram, but they certainly surround her. Mrs Chellaram's men include her father-in-law, Udharam Shamdas 'US' Chellaram, 84; her husband, Manolo Chellaram, 51; and their two sons, Manesh, 26 and Manoj, 22. They represent the fifth, sixth and seventh generations of this exporting family that has managed to keep its business alive for 147 years. And they owe their success to adhering to a core business strategy that, in part by being flexible, has weathered some of the world's most tumultuous times. D. Chellaram (HK) Limited - with offices in Central and Gibraltar - traces its infancy back to Cairo, where it started in 1860 in local arts and goods. As the company matured, it expanded to cities throughout the world, including Shanghai, Gibraltar and Johannesburg. A branch was set up in Hong Kong in 1894. By the 1920s, D. Chellaram had 27 branches and claimed: 'The sun never sets on the Chellarams', echoing a motto of the British Empire. It was one of the six largest firms run by Indian merchants out of Hyderabad. 'When China was closed during the 1980s, I really focused on making the business grow' worldwide, said Manolo Chellaram. He positioned the company as a cog within the supply chains of firms all over the world. To keep ahead of the competition, D. Chellaram was willing to provide its clients with anything under the sun. 'We sold millions of T-shirts in New Guinea,' Manolo said, recalling one of the many products the company sourced and shipped within the Southeast Asia region and also worldwide. Among some of his other hot-sellers a generation ago were embossed plastic shopping bags, tins of chopped nuts, dolls, paper goods, and textiles, all of which the family managed as the cargo moved around the world on container ships. But, as with international politics, global business changed dramatically, and the Chellarams had to start refining their strategies as China emerged. Suddenly, the Chellarams' expertise in sourcing inexpensive goods was being outdone by agents and exporters on the mainland. 'We had to narrow our focus and build up our other strengths,' Manolo said. The company started to concentrate on its higher-quality goods, such as the successful private- label apparel lines it was manufacturing. These included an item that hit the fashion world by storm in the late 1990s. 'When Lane Crawford started selling pashminas around 1998, I thought I could do that, too,' Chitra said. Her 'side business' under the Chellaram name was originally intended as an outlet to keep her occupied while her sons were attending university in England. But it thrived. She regularly attends Hong Kong's seasonal shopping fairs, and her elaborate cashmere wraps have wound up around the shoulders of local celebrities and on the shelves of various global retailers. When Manesh, her elder son, joined the company after getting a degree in architecture, he quickly went to work designing new products for the firm. He started his own luxury fashion line, a tailored collection for men and women, alongside the company's successful cashmere clothing and other apparel. Manesh also designs finished leather goods, such as handbags and wallets, but the piece de resistance are his 'fashionable hijab' outfits. While these conform to tailoring preferred by observant Muslim women, their look is more modern and individualistic. He and his brother Manoj work on sending out a myriad of headscarves and figure-hiding denim coats and trousers for women in the United States, Europe, the Middle East and Australia. 'The market for conservative clothing is endless,' Manesh explained. The family and their eight office employees manage the manufacturing of their goods in Nepal and China and distribute them from a warehouse in Kwai Chung, in the New Territories. They also have representatives working for them worldwide. For now, the company's latest formula seems to be working. Despite not offering the lowest prices, the newest generation of D. Chellaram prides itself on producing higher-end merchandise for retailers worldwide. 'This is all according to my five-year plan,' said Manesh, who added that he and his brother were looking forward to celebrating D. Chellaram's 150th anniversary with the rest of the family.