The Gothic-styled Jer Mahal structure in Mumbai’s Dhobi Talao area is more than a century old. A cluster of seven buildings with wide windows are its distinctive features. On the ground floor of the building is LM Furtado & Co, a 150-year-old music instrument company.
Furtados’ bright red eye-grabbing banner is easy to spot in an otherwise dilapidated heritage building. Step inside and it is a whole new world with bright lights, acoustic guitars, royal pianos, shiny drum sets, pitch pipes, violins, tablas and more — some of which are limited editions like the piano by Steinway & Sons.
Standing out in a chawl that almost goes unnoticed is a reflection of Furtados’ history.
The story begins when a 25-year-old John Gomes had purchased the brand from a Britisher, Bernard Xavier Furtado, in 1953. Being a company that sold sheet music and Western classical instruments, it was not in line with the nationalism fervour in the newly independent India. What was more challenging was the high tariffs imposed on imports till the Indian economy opened up in 1991.
However, insufficient finances, stringent policies, growing competitors and a crashing economy did not stop John from constantly innovating and scaling up the business.
Not many might know that Furtados was once a tiny department store with many other divisions such as luggage, toys, LP records, sporting and Christian religious goods. It even ran a successful printing business with the second-highest volume after Times of India.
Today, the iconic brand has the bigwigs of the music world swear by their quality of instruments, and even the non-music inclined lot are aware of their legacy. Furtados has 17 showrooms across India from Chandigarh, Panjim, Ahmedabad to Bengaluru and over 350 dealer outlets.
“The music industry was unorganised when my father started his journey,” begins Anthony Gomes, son of John and Director at Furtados Group of Companies.
He adds, “Dealers and competitors were doing bill-less transactions without charging sales taxes. From the outset, but Furtados was different. Every single sale was and still is transparently invoiced and accounted for. This led to the issues of high prices on account of the taxes and we lost customers. Our ethics helped us establish a brand synonymous with security, credibility and quality. It created a loyal customer base of famous musicians, performers, teachers and our reputation grew.”
Anthony along with three other siblings, Christopher, Nonabel and Joseph Gomes drive the retail business. Meanwhile, Furtados School of Music (FSM) is run by Joseph’s wife, Tanuja Gomes and her former bank colleague, Dharini Upadhyaya.
A Business Built On Trust
Born in Divar, Goa, John came to Bombay (now Mumbai) when he was 11 and stayed with
his father, who worked as a butler, at Wadia household’s employee quarters in posh Malabar Hills.
More than a decade later when he learnt that the Furtado brothers, Bernard Xavier and Luis Manoel, wanted to sell their 1865-established company, John, with no musical inclination, saw a lucrative business opportunity.
He didn’t have the funds but still went ahead and made them an offer of Rs 5,000 more than another prospective buyer. Now, he had the task of arranging a total of Rs 1,05,000. However, his reputation of running a small store — Vincent & Co, which sold religious books, saved him.
“A significant amount was loaned to him by his sister, Celestina, and the rest he borrowed from Goan businessmen living in Dhobitalao. Even the local tailors came together and loaned him money based on trust,” says Anthony. Overwhelmed by the kindness, John purchased insurance policies for the tailors so that if he failed, they would get their money back.
John then purchased BXF (Bernard Xavier Furtado) in 1953 and LM Furtado & Co in 1959 and merged them under the brand name ‘Furtados’. With the shop came 10 staff workers, guitars, violins, trumpets, banjos and more.
However, the real challenge was to sustain the business in an unfavourable environment.
‘Diversification Was Key’
Post independence, India was a closed economy. The country adopted a socialist ideology that focussed on ‘Swadeshi’ goods. The introduction of ‘license raj’ banned most imports, sparing essential goods that were permitted. International investments meant a tedious permission process.
Caught in the web of stringent trade practices, John’s business suffered. No Western instruments were allowed in India, and according to reports, he even received buyout offers from banks.
“The period between 1958 to 1990 was very unhelpful for our business due to high taxes and a strong socialist agenda that was not conducive to entrepreneurship. The main strategy was diversification into other categories and divisions,” says Anthony.
John saw that the government had not put any restrictions on books. So, he imported them and gained a strong foothold in music learning books. Additionally, he rented pianos to families and music students.
John also took advantage of India’s rising interest in sports like cricket and started supplying sporting goods.
He also started a printing press to print music sheets, diaries, examination papers and wedding cards. Soon, it would go on to become one of the city’s largest printing presses. They also printed exam papers for around 50 schools across the city and sold music books to students.
In 1961, Furtados opened its first branch in Margao, Goa.
The decade of the ’70s and ’80s saw an interesting turn of events for the brand that helped them create a household name. Their sports goods section had taken off with about a market share of 50%. On the other hand, the printing press cut down on its operations.
Another significant development for John was becoming the regional coordinator for the music examination board of Trinity College London, UK. He was even given an HonTCL degree from Trinity College of Music for his services.
As the economy opened in 1991 under the leadership of former Finance Minister Dr Manmohan Singh, Furtados was back to importing foreign instruments and increasing the dealer network across the world.
“The principal strategy (in the ’90s) was to import and distribute instruments to a strong dealer network along with opening new showrooms. Technology was the mainstay, with strong internal systems for inventory management, pioneering initiatives in e-commerce and the use of the internet,” says Anthony.
From being the first ones in the country to introduce digital and acoustic pianos, creating a website in 2006 to introducing their own brand ‘Granada’ for guitars and starting an all-India Piano annual competition called ‘Con Brio’, by 2010, the brand had diversified and how.
Taking forward John’s vision to change the music education scene in India, FSM was started in 2011.
“Our approach was to implement a learning pedagogy, which can make music learning fun and engaging. For young learners aged 1 to 6, we have a content-based learning programme. For K12, we established a scalable music education programme in schools. For home-learners, we provide certified music teachers who would come to their doorstep to deliver the best music learning programme,” says Tanuja.
She adds, “Learners can also come to our centres for advanced learning and courses for international accreditation. We manage an end-to-end journey for the student that starts with providing instruments, live learning classes and examinations. As of March 2020, we had 75,000 students across 150 schools across India. Since April 2020 we have additionally trained over 25,000 students through our online vertical. In a way, the pandemic has helped us reach a wider range of audiences.”
Meanwhile, the Furtados Institute of Piano Technology started in 2012, offers a two-year course covering tuning, regulating, repairing, rebuilding and restoring of instruments.
As we conclude our discussion, Anthony sums up Furtados’ journey beautifully. He says, “In our survey conducted in 2007, quality, reliability and trust were the three principles that were most associated with the company among our customer base and clientele. Building relationships through trustworthy and uncompromising business practices has been the hallmark and mainstay of Furtados. We owe it all to our father’s integrity, charisma and his faith.”
Images are sourced from the Gomes family
Edited by Yoshita Rao