In 2008, Cadbury appointed me as the global head of chocolates, and there was one company that immediately saw its bottom-line swell — Singapore Airlines! I kept the A380 in good use, travelling all over the world. After the “yes sir’s” in China and the “not possibles” in Australia, London kept me guessing. What did they mean when they said “interesting” (the tone was the cue to whether they thought it was good, bad or ugly) and “challenging” (really bad)? You would say, “Lovely day” and the reply — “Isn’t it”— would have you wondering whether they agreed or disagreed. Understanding the subtlety, understatements and self-deprecating remarks was central to getting things moving. Language and its nuances aside, understanding the expectation of a global board and its concerns also took some time.
And then, Kraft made the acquisition bid for Cadbury — in six months after the bid, we were acquired and from Singapore I landed up in Zurich. When you get acquired it is like joining a new job without having left the old one. You have to work hard to establish yourself and can’t live on your past glory. But now we were the largest chocolate company in the world, since Kraft with products such as Milka and Toblerone had an equally big chocolates business. It wasn’t as difficult to be the co-head of chocolates as much as it was to straddle the American and British ways; they are like chalk and cheese.
Cadbury used to be highly decentralised, so countries did not have too much difficulty with the centre; Kraft was just the opposite. Thankfully, I was by then part of the centre. That’s a trend that is becoming increasingly true for countries: individual countries such as India are becoming just the sales and distribution centres with Singapore or Hong Kong calling the shots. To win in India is still a massive task— you need to understand the local market well and develop a strategy accordingly. Europeans are more international, so it’s much easier for them; American companies have much more learning to do.
Working in all those different countries was truly fascinating — the world was my oyster! One good part of being an expat is that you get closer to the family. Especially in Zurich, where we were two hours from five countries; as a family, we drove more in the five years I was in Zurich compared with the 15 years earlier. And my parents always spent the summer with us.
For me personally, if those days had a lighter side, it was because Americans wouldn’t get Britspeak! My gags were lost on them most of the time. At a dinner in Singapore, someone from Kraft asked me about my previous assignment. I said, “I had damaged India enough so I was told to go and damage Asia-Pacific. I was heading India then moved to Asia Pacific before taking over as global head of chocolates.” He took me seriously and asked in a hushed voice, “Really? What happened?” The more you engage, the more you find yourself sitting at the bottom of this ski slope!
Again, on one of my trips to the US, someone asked me, “Bharraat, when did you come in?” I explained, “I came over the weekend; my daughter is in school here [Meghana was in Northwestern University and Americans call college school].” The person said, “You don’t look old enough to have a school-going daughter.” I said with a straight face, “Yes, in India, child marriage is rampant…” And then I realised, these people were actually taking me seriously! So, I backpedalled, “No, no…” One of them asked, “So, you are not married?” “No, no, I am married.” “So, it’s not your daughter?” “No, she is, but…” I was ready to bang my head against the nearest wall, wondering what I had gotten myself into. There are probably some people at Kraft who still believe I was sent to Zurich because I had done enough damage to India; and another set that believes I got married when I was a kid, or I have an illegitimate daughter, or both!
When I was leaving Cadbury in 2015, there could have been no better farewell for me than the flash mob on Mera joota hai Japani that the Zurich team organised. There were about 20 of them who’d obviously spent time and effort on getting it right. I was so touched and their choice of song was bang on. Nothing could have described me better. We had created the most diverse team ever — half of the team were men, half of the team were women; half from developed countries, half from emerging markets; one-third legacy Cadbury, one-third Kraft and one-third newcomers. Everyone was envious of our team.
That has always been the case. I have had great teams — such mavericks! It has always helped me to recruit curious all-rounders who are gentlemen/women, team players — and yet perpetuate a culture where everyone can thump the table and make their point. I can’t even think of having people in my team with whom I can’t spend time outside of work. Thankfully, I’ve never had to suffer anyone so far. And hopefully, no one suffered me either.
I couldn’t believe Mr Madhukar Parekh when he said during our lunch meeting at Singapore that he had come all the way to just meet me. We were acquainted because Cadbury and Pidilite had won awards on several platforms together and we often bumped into each other. But he stunned me when, out of the blue, he said he needed me as partner on the board to take the company to the next level. I refused the first time, tried to dissuade him, citing my frequent travel and crazy schedule, which may not even allow me to make it regularly to the board meetings. But he came back after a month and said, “I have thought about this thoroughly. Even if you come for the meetings only twice or thrice in a year, it’s okay.” When somebody gives you that level of respect, you don’t have the heart to say no but, still, I asked him to look me in the eye and tell me he was really serious — most Indian promoters want to get professionals on board but not everyone is truly willing to take their recommendations seriously. But Parekh was persistent. And the Fevicol bonding began.
Parekh truly walked the talk — Pidilite today has one of the most distinguished boards in the country. The board retreat for three days was a great learning event — everyone was learning more, debating ideas, and enjoying... And then, one fine day, Parekh invited me for dinner and told me that the family and he were convinced that Pidilite needed to have its first non-family head and they wanted me to be that person! I said this was not part of my plan and I may need a long time to think, may be six months. I couldn’t believe it when Parekh said, “Take a year.” I don’t know what gave them that kind of confidence in me. What gave me the confidence was that I had been working with the board for five years, had spent a lot of time with the other board members and the family and I had Parekh’s word that he was ready for a makeover. I did ask him repeatedly if he was really ready— he was, after all, recruiting me to be me, not him. I was from a multinational company and that would mean I would do things in a certain way. He was running a very successful company in his own entrepreneurial way; why should he change? But I could not have become Parekh Version 2. And he had to be comfortable with the changes I would make.
Alka and I were sitting in South Beach, in Florida, discussing if I must make the switch. Of course, my heart was always in India. Unlike most friends and colleagues, I was always clear I would return to India. I am glad I made that decision because it was clear that if you have not worked in the home market, it’s highly unlikely that you’d get the top job at a large American multinational. You could get a number of No. 2 positions, but No. 1 was a tough ask.
It’s getting difficult for multinationals anyway — earlier when their home markets were growing, the cost of experimentation appeared low, so they could experiment and grow. Now that their home markets are not growing, most multinationals are focused on costs rather than growth. The same cookie cutter strategy then applies, be it emerging markets or developed markets. That’s also the reason organisations are becoming increasingly matrixed. New products and strategy is dictated by the headquarters, reducing the sense of ownership. On the other hand, if you are with a Pidilite or any other Indian home-grown company, you are the owner of the brand.
The idea of taking the reins of an Indian company and leaving a legacy is sort of romantic, dreamy, idealistic thinking… I was excited. With a $5 billion market cap and zero debt, we have the capacity to be a global player — that is exciting. I can leverage every bit of what I have. The secret to great companies, ones that have galvanised growth, is just one thing — making the place a pleasure to work at.
I was glad somewhere that I was doing okay on Papa’s benchmark. When I started working, Papa told me three things — soldiers are never good or bad: there are only good and bad generals. So, if anything goes wrong, first look in the mirror. Two, when you put your head on the pillow, you should be able to sleep within 10 minutes. If you face any dilemma, think that you should never have your father look down on anything you do. And most importantly, remember that in the army, there are two kinds of generals: those whose troops love them and those whose superiors love them; ensure both love you.
Post script: What B-school [never] taught me
- The most crucial part of leadership is dealing with people and building teams, something B-school does not teach you. Pushing people towards performance is fine but how, is the question. In a growing organisation, it’s important to stretch, but the stretch has to come with a smile.
- Keep your ear to the ground. In 1997, a pigeon race was conducted in which thousands of birds flew from Nantes in France to southern England. But there was no sign of the pigeons across the Channel. Researchers found that the Concorde flew on the same route and the birds got disoriented by the sound and lost their way. Birds fly by listening to atmospheric infrasounds, which were disturbed by the supersonic aircraft.
Companies fail because they stop listening to the infrasounds. If you want to know the truth about your company, talk to your field staff and your management trainees. They are the most fearless lot, and if there is any chance of getting the truth, it’s only from them. I spent my first six months at Pidilite only meeting employees — each one of them. Make yourself approachable, and make everyone talk to each other. We’ve adopted Workplace by Facebook, so as to encourage two-way communication — it’s fun, it keeps people connected.
- Keep the messages simple: At Pidilite, I asked what are the two things we should never change about the company, and two things we must change.
- The best inputs on the market can come from your sales force; never ignore them. At Cadbury, based on feedback that the 5-star bar was sticking to consumers’ teeth, we improved the product but could not explicitly tell the consumers that it would not stick to their teeth anymore. A creative was made based on the nursery rhyme “Johnny Johnny”. It showed an old man frantically searching for his chocolate bar in a bookstore, which his grown-up son is eating; when the old man demands the younger one open his mouth wide, he does, showing that the chocolate has melted away. I thought the ad was a little downmarket, but the sales force loved it, and so we went ahead; it was an outstanding success. In another instance, we did a campaign styled like an MTV music video — the idea was to marry mass and class. When I showed it to the sales team, there was deathly silence. The agency, though, insisted that it was a great creative and people would love it. So, we went ahead with it; it was a disaster and we pulled out quickly. People on the ground always have higher strike rates in judging what will work. Another lesson from that experience was, you can’t take the customer non-seriously.
- You cannot penalise people for failure. It’s a given that three out of 10 initiatives will fail. But as long as the experiments are well intentioned, hold each other’s hands and move on. In India, the cost of failure is little — it doesn’t cost too much money to experiment. Err on the side of experimentation rather than extreme caution.
- Stay the course. At Cadbury, we didn’t get boxed gifting right for a long time — it was challenging because in foods, what you make at the factory is not the same thing you put in your mouth. To deliver the same experience, your supply chain has to be fixed. We kept at it till we got it right. On the contrary, Cadbury should have been far bigger in candy, but Perfetti is much bigger and that’s because Perfetti stayed the course while Cadbury has not. Cadbury had launched Googly kachcha aam years ago, but gave up too quickly. Now the same product by DS group — Pulse — is a Rs.100-crore brand. It’s because of sheer persistence.
- No company can survive on discounts or more credit. If you keep cutting stuff you won’t succeed. You can win only if you have a better product, service or brand.
- Back your products based on potential, not their present position. Pidilite bought M-Seal for less than Rs.20 crore in 2000. And then, they built it up with the 70-second Ek tapakti boond ad. Now, the brand is far in excess of Rs.100 crore. Identify unserved, underserved segments, fill it with a brand and back it.
- Focus on people’s strengths and not their weaknesses. Each person has a spark of excellence — make sure that is in play when they are at work. All of us will have (and will die with!) some weaknesses.
- If you have to succeed in a multinational career, you need three things in a spouse/partner. Adaptability, support and the ability to manage the home. If your partner is unhappy, your career is threatened. Alka was always upbeat — she took German lessons, blended into local culture wherever we lived, shaped the kids, and held the mirror for me, always. (The higher you fly in your job, the more you are kept rooted by your family. With Meghana and Abhay, now I have three walls, each holding a mirror!)