- Inseparable part of me My mother
- My go-to man for advice My father
- My love Rajitha, Avanti
- Best friend Dilip Rangachari
- Most prized possession Old photo albums
- Can’t do without A bit of passion, emotion, laughter,blood pressure going up
- Best part of my career Now! Also loved my time in Egypt
- Lowest point in life When appa called early in the morning, saying, amma was no more. I was in Egypt. Felt orphaned. You don’t realize when you are growing old, your parents are also growing old
- Truly happy when When people you work with do better, and progress. When I see Avanti being meticulous about things
- Sleepless nights 12th & 13th August 2015 - Bombay HC was to decide the fate of Maggi
- Favourites Tamil song - Kalyana Samayal Sadham, meal at Karnataka Bhawan, Sholay, tennis, golf, hills, red wine
- Inspiration It is amazing what can be achieved if you don’t care who gets the credit
- Greatest realisation Everything in life is transitory
- One thing that stumps me What explains, sometimes, the direct correlation between lousy leadership and exceptional corporate performance?
I didn’t want the job. Like most middle-class Tambrahms of the early 1980s, I was preparing for the IAS. I was in Delhi School of Economics, doing my master’s in Economics, when Hindustan Lever came to our campus. That was a first — in Delhi University, HLL usually went only to St Stephen’s. My father had heard that HLL interviews were tough and would be good practice for the UPSC ones, so I applied. Neither he nor I were interested in a corporate career for me — my background of boarding school and college degree in economics had made me enough of an outlier already. The first couldn’t be helped really — my father’s career as a civil engineer in the Border Roads Organisation meant frequent transfers and after switching schools a couple of times, my parents decided to send me to Rishi Valley School. Those five years provided me what is today fashionably called a liberal, stress free education and continued to instill the values my family held dear — hard work, honesty, thrift and humility. The location (south India) was also reassuring — my grandmother, especially, was comforted by knowing I would continue to be fed my rasam, sambhar; etc.
But then I went on to do my bachelor’s in Economics, from Shri Ram College of Commerce. A characteristic of South Indians is that we don’t bother too much about wealth; your — and your children’s — education is your calling card: “Meet So-and-so. His son went to IIM/ his daughter went to IIT.” At a time when almost everybody else was an engineer, doctor or lawyer, my father sometimes had to explain to his friends that his son was really very intelligent and an honours degree in economics is a prestigious course in Delhi University — many people thought my choice of subject meant I wasn’t bright enough to get into IIT!
With my eyes set firmly on the IAS, I went for the first round of interviews at HLL’s office on Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg convinced I would be rejected early in any case — I wasn’t even a management graduate and my specialisation in Economics was Monetary Policy and Agricultural Policy. Why would they even be interested? But when the shortlist was announced, my name was on it; I would have to go to Bombay for the final interview. HLL was offering first-class train fare but my final exams were just a month away and I didn’t want to waste four days on train travel. Besides, I wasn’t interested in the job, remember? So this was the best way to make them change their minds. I asked for plane fare — in 1981, travelling by plane was exorbitant, much more than first-class train tickets would cost. But HLL agreed, and I was on my way to Bombay.
Once inside the boardroom at Lever House, we were supposed to discuss case studies for almost the entire day. Small problem— I didn’t know what a case study was. Economics students do situational analysis, macro and micro economic analysis, statistics, econometrics… but we don’t do case studies. So I asked the candidate sitting next to me, “What is a case study?” She was from IIM Calcutta and I still remember the look she gave me.
The case study went on and I made a couple of points even though I didn’t understand half of it, since it was all about marketing and topics I had never studied. Still, I was called for the final round of interviews and the selection and training manager, Mr Mansukhani, warned that many of us would return disappointed. Making it as a management trainee (MT) at HLL was a very big deal and the company was very, very selective; perhaps one or two of us would get the job; perhaps none would be selected in this round. I think of those assembled, I was the least worried — I had come to Bombay for the experience and was getting to meet my aunt who lived in the city, at someone else’s expense.
The final interview was a nice, long chat for about 30-45 minutes. We had stalwarts in the interview panel — R Gopalakrishnan, the late marketing guru Shunu Sen, Tarun Sheth who went on to start Shilputsi, Mathew Panicker… The questions were mostly economics related and there was some discussion on what a guy like me was doing there. I was candid about being there for the experience. I enjoyed what I was doing, was happy with my progress in life thus far and while I wanted to be a civil servant, it was interesting to consider a corporate career, if that was indeed a better option. Meeting over, I went back to the boardroom and waited with the other candidates. After a while, Mr Mansukhani came in and made an announcement: one candidate had been selected as MT and he named me. Even as the others looked at me as if I were an alien — and I was, perhaps, as the only non-MBA — I didn’t know how to react.
I came out, booked a trunk call and spoke with my father, who was posted in Dhanbad. He thought the salary I was being offered was a good deal for a 20-year old but asked me to consult my uncle, who was in the IAS. So I did. My uncle had two points to make: one, Shunu Sen was his batchmate from St Stephen’s and he seemed to be doing pretty well at HLL; two, there was no guarantee I would make it to the IAS — would I regret giving this up if that happened? When I said yes, he told me to take up the job. And that is how a guy who did not go to business school — had no desire for it, actually — went on to log a 35-year (& counting) career in the corporate world.
We were a batch of 12 and I think I was the only non-MBA. But I could not allow myself to be less than any of the others, even though I had two or three big strikes against me. One, a lack of conceptual framework of management. Two, a lack of relevant jargon. Three, an unwillingness to show-off in presentations. That was not how I had been brought up, nor did Rishi Valley or DSE encourage drawing attention to oneself, whereas B-schools emphasise the importance of making an impact. I decided to convert all three into plus points. My economics background had given me a strong analytical framework, which I would leverage. My lack of case study experience meant I couldn’t make things complicated; instead, I would keep them in the simplest possible terms. And I instinctively started crediting success to my team, rather than myself. I think it was a refreshing thing for many that this guy was not all about, “I did this; I did that” and instead said, “We did this/my team did that”.
I also learnt a lot as I went on in my career. I had to be a salesman. I had to be a supervisor. I had to be in the refinery oil plant learning about chemical technology. At HLL’s Sewri factory, the factory manager, CV Narasimhan, asked me something about oil refining techniques and I said, “Sir, I am an economics graduate.” His reply was short, and to the point: “You are in a bloody chemical engineering company, you had better learn it.” I did.
My MT stint took me to Rajasthan in the summer. The branch manager was Atul Tandon, big-built with a lush, imperial moustache; he was also the brand ambassador for Lipton Tiger Tea. Tandon called his sales manager and asked him to choose the hottest spots in the state; those were the places I would have to visit. Naturally, I asked why. “You will never learn unless you get roasted,” he replied. Fair enough— I was on my way. An MT on a salesman’s job travels on a salesman’s allowance — which meant I was in the scorching desert, travelling in buses where my co-passengers included goats and other livestock that preferred to nuzzle my legs.
A transfer to Jodhpur didn’t improve matters. We were supposed to visit stores and wipe the stains off Dalda tins since customers were not to be sold dirty tins. At one store, I had enough — it was close to 50 degrees in the shade, and I had cleaned five of the eight tins. I was about to take a break when someone caught me by the scruff of my neck and said, Baaki kaun saaf karega? Tera baap? It was my sales supervisor, JM Kapoor. He waited till I finished cleaning the remaining tins and simply said, Shaam ko milte hain. At my hotel that night, he explained, “You may go on to become my boss but you should understand a salesman’s work. And if you accept that a salesman will clean only five out of eight tins, you will have a decline in performance that you are responsible for.”
After the trip I was in line to make the jump from MT to manager. At HLL, there are multiple interviews before confirmation — your immediate boss, head of business, personnel director, marketing director, vice chairman and then, chairman — and almost a third don’t make it. I got the call to meet the chairman — Dr AS Ganguly— at 8 pm. His assistant, Meher Gaya, simply said, “Doc wants to see you.” I went upstairs, hoping for a short, sweet interview— 15 minutes meant you were through; above half an hour, you were on shaky ground.
We started off on expected lines, discussing the rural development programme in Etah, UP, that all MTs attended. Suddenly, he asked, “What is an economist doing in this company?” Something flipped— I have never spoken like that ever again, to anybody — and I retorted, “Dr Ganguly, what is a biochemist doing in this company as the chairman?” He looked at me: “Are you seriously asking me that?” I replied: “You are a biochemist and you have risen to become the chairman. So why can’t an economist at least work here? I’m not even seeking your chair.”
Doc took out his pen, drew something and pushed the paper towards me: “What are these called?” I looked at the two organic structures and remembered what Mr Narasimhan had drummed into my head and said, “These are covalent bonds.” He looked at me and said, “You know them? But you are an economist.” I said, “No sir, I work for a company that manufactures soaps and detergents and vanaspati. I have to know this.”
We spoke for 45 minutes. At the 30-minute mark, Meher called him and he replied, “No, he is alive.” When I came out of his office, she asked me whether I was okay. A little while later, she called me to go and pick up my letter of confirmation. “You have created a record. Normally trainees don’t last so long with Dr Ganguly and get confirmed.” I remember I bought sweets from Madras Café in Matunga for my grandmother when I went home that night.
Paati wasn’t happy when I told her what my first job would be — area manager for HLL’s animal feed division. This was not work for people like us, my grandmother insisted, before accepting that for people like us, work comes first regardless. That’s a thought I had to keep top of mind over the next year or so. After spending six to eight months in Nagpur, I was transferred to Ahmedabad, where I had my first brush with crisis management. I believe that, like greatness, some people in life are destined to either create or fall into crisis. And just like the rest of the quote goes, I have had crises thrust upon me — either there is a problem I am sent to solve or a problem arises that I have to take care of. Ahmedabad was a classic case of the latter.
The 1985 Gujarat anti-reservation riots started almost immediately after I reached there, leading to, among other things, problems in cash collection from the poultry farms. Frequent curfew meant closing the factory on several days. This was a small factory — some 35-odd workers churning out Rs.75 lakh-80 lakh in turnover. They were all much older than me but we were working together fairly well, when I was told that the factory was to be shut down and production moved to Halol. I was still in my mid-20s and dumbfounded.
I spoke with the union leader, a very difficult man called Chidambaram. He looked at me and said, Chinna paiyya, enna seidee?, meaning, “Hey, little boy, what’s the matter?” Clearing my throat, I explained the situation in Tamil and said I had to do my job but wanted to do whatever I could for the workers. For some reason, he accepted that and we started speaking with the workers. It was one of the most humbling lessons of my career and taught me the power of how people can be, how people should be treated. If you deal with people with respect, transparency and sincerity, even the crustiest person responds. These were unionised workers who could have made things really difficult. But, they didn’t. At the end, all they asked for was a watch, saying they had all spent 15 to 20 years in the company and wanted this token. HLL in those days was a very strict, process-driven organisation. When I approached headquarters, the initial response was no. I was very young and didn’t even have the salary to cover this but I said if you won’t give the workers watches, I will buy them. At which point they said, “Calm down. We’ll find a way.” Finally, we did give them a watch as part of their settlement.
The whole process went through very smoothly but it was very challenging, not just professionally but also emotionally. There was a lot of conflict in me. When the decision was first conveyed to me by a regional manager and area personnel manager, I felt it was wrong; the workers didn’t deserve to lose their jobs this way. I was torn: my DSE background, where there were several Leftists, told me this is what capitalism led to, while the free market believer in me understood it to be a pragmatic decision. The human aspect, meanwhile, couldn’t be wished away. There was a sense of “why me?”, considering my more experienced predecessor had moved out just six months earlier, and the fact that I had gotten close to these 35 workers and knew this decision would hurt them. But that also translated itself into a strong desire and passion to do the best for them. And ironically, on the last day, it was the workers who gave me a farewell, rather than the other way round!
My next stop was Bombay. We had just launched what I still consider to be the finest fruit drink, Tree Top. Even Frooti was shaken by the launch. But, as we soon realised, Lipton had gotten a couple of things very wrong. One, our volume estimates were way off the chart. Two, at the time — 1987 or thereabouts — Lipton was a financially weak company and we didn’t have the money to support the brand. So when Frooti upped the ante, we couldn’t match up. Three, we had a serious quality issue with the laminate on the package. Ultimately, the brand was pulled off the market but had Tree Top become successful; it would have become bigger than Kissan.
I learnt a valuable lesson in leadership from the Tree Top episode. The man in-charge of the product was Pradeep Dutt, vice-chairman and head of new products. With enormous courage, he took the rap for the failure. All of us had contributed to it but Pradeep ensured none of us paid a price. Although he probably took a hit because his career at HLL didn’t go very far after this, he protected his team and I got my break in Hindustan Lever exports right after this.
A couple of years down the line, I got my marching orders once again — this time to Varanasi. This time, Paati was thrilled — you must have done a lot of good in your previous lives, she exulted. It was a matter of pride for her to tell all the relatives that “Suresh Kashi poran (Suresh is going to Kashi)”.
I was to handle hand-knotted carpets. I didn’t know the front side of a carpet from its back and here I was, supposed to manage that business. Even as I was learning everything related to carpets — warp and weft, distinguishing between silk knotted and wool knotted, the types of loom, the Persian terminology… — crisis followed me, as usual. Ram Janmabhoomi happened. It was a tense time, especially for someone who was in the heart of rural India. But Varanasi is truly a city that God protects. Those were not the days of digital, so we didn’t know exactly what was happening elsewhere, but there were rumours everywhere, making the situation tense. Yet, I never sensed any ill-feeling among our suppliers, a bulk of them who were Muslims.
From Varanasi, I moved to Bombay, to take care of HLL’s garments export business. My father was amused at the twists and turns my career was taking, since I am not prone to anything remotely fashion oriented. Paati, though, was not impressed. “He would have been better off in the accountant-general’s office,” she would declare. “At least he would have had a steady job and not this kind of thing.”
‘This kind of thing’ continued. I moved to Lipton once again, this time as the branch manager. Within a year, Unilever acquired Brooke Bond worldwide, which meant Brooke Bond and Lipton merged in India. Crisis once more. The rivalry between Brooke Bond and Lipton burrowed deep down, right to the salesmen: the Lipton salesmen would knock Red Label packs off shelves in stores while Brooke Bond teams would play football with Taaza packs. And there I was, responsible for bringing together five branch offices of Brooke Bond and Lipton in the western region. The field forces were an aging lot, but expected to set aside the habits and beliefs of a lifetime to form a unified team. Meanwhile, the unions were extremely belligerent. They didn’t like what was happening but since this was an acquisition, they couldn’t do anything about it.
I reached back for the lessons learnt from my first stint — be transparent, be firm when required and keep your sense of humour intact. Like I told one of the union members who understood Tamil, Taali kattiyachu (the marriage has been solemnised). You can’t walk away from it. Let’s find a way of making this marriage work.” That’s exactly what we did, bringing the five branches together as Brooke Bond Lipton. In early 1997, I was appointed as head for sales for Brooke Bond Lipton for the tea and coffee business, a very important role. During that period, we achieved the highest ever sales of Brooke Bond and Lipton teas — I think it was 134,000 tonnes of tea — and the market share reached a peak for both companies combined. Now, of course, Lever has a much smaller share in the tea market.
At Lipton, my boss Amit Bose taught me the power of imagination and ideas. He was the marketing manager of new products and could rattle off 20 ideas a minute. Perhaps 60% of them couldn’t be implemented but he would still come up with them. Every morning, he would hand over a three-page note on 20 different ideas to promote the brand. So, he used to keep stretching my imagination in terms of what is possible. His ideas would be largely around execution plans: “We’ll go to every island in the Andamans, we will have a boat and there will be dancers on the boat…” You’d be left wondering: where will you get the boat, where will you get the dancers, where will you…. But he would have already written a note on this and moved on to the next idea.
I was ready to move on. In the past 15 years, I had done very well at HLL: I was one of the youngest general managers in the company. But I could well be doing more of the same going forward; there would be no real challenges, my crisis-magnet status notwithstanding. There was an offer on the table from Colgate, to join as associate director with a view to take over as vice-president of sales for India. Colgate seemed to offer a new, interesting arena — the battle with Pepsodent was raging, with Lever claiming Pepsodent was 102% better. My job was to reinvigorate and redefine Colgate India’s sales machine. It was a big challenge, certainly, but I was working with very sincere people — Colgate is one of the best managed companies, with great people and great values. I soon discovered, though, that I was not a toothpaste/personal care products person— even in HLL, I had worked more with foods. That’s when Nestlé approached me.
Carlo Donati had just come in as the new managing director and he was looking at making a change in terms of the sales set-up. The head hunter cautioned me before the interview: if he doesn’t like you in five minutes, you’re out of the door; if he does, the meeting will go on for a long while. I think we hit it off — close to an hour later, Carlo made me an offer to come on board as the executive vice-president for sales. Nestlé was also setting up its chilled dairy business at the time and wanted me to head that business as well. Nestle was an iconic brand but it was also very insular. People retired from Nestlé; it never brought in senior people from outside: at the time, I was the only outside recruit in the management committee.
As usual (for me), I was walking into a crisis situation. Nestlé had issues with sales and distributors and I was to handle that. But once again, I was blessed with a fantastic team. My four branch managers were even older than my father but I managed to earn their respect. I have always made it a point to imbibe the culture of the business I am in, and not make comparisons with what I have been used to. That’s like trying to drive looking only at the rear-view mirror. You have to turn to the windscreen and look forward. That approach stood me in good stead here as well.
We had some very good years between 1999 and 2003 when I was called upon by the company to go to Indo-China as the marketing and sales director for Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar. This was my first expatriation — the job was based in Bangkok — and my wife, daughter and I were very excited. I had been told Thai people are very sensitive, they have to be dealt with very carefully. But I found that if you treated them with respect and built the relationship, they always reciprocated. We enjoyed those two years in the country and Nestlé did well as a business, too.
Back in India for two years and I was out once again, this time as managing director of Nestlé Singapore. The first few months went well and then came the crash of 2008. The global economy was in meltdown, but I still had the task of ensuring growth and profitability of Nestlé Singapore despite the downturn. So, we did several engagements in terms of on-ground activities with the government, the health promotion board, and the people’s association in Singapore. For brands like Milo, we worked with the Singapore Sports Foundation. And we did have good growth during this period. At the celebration of the 40th anniversary of a Nestlé factory in Jurong, I went on record saying no one would be retrenched, neither from the company nor the factory. I think my statement was deeply appreciated at the time by the government. We also had excellent labour relations during the period — in fact, the Singapore government awarded me a medal of commendation at the Labour Day celebrations for excellence in employee relations.
Singapore is a very popular posting in Nestlé so, normally, you are moved out in about 18 months. But I had made a special request asking to stay on so my daughter could complete her education — I had said that if need be, I was willing to forgo a promotion. Within a month of Avanti finishing school, though, my boss Frits van Dijk called me. “I am sending you to Cairo as CEO of Nestlé Egypt, with responsibility for Libya and Sudan as well.” Frits explained this was a very peaceful part of the world where nothing had changed for the past 30 years. “Normally we use it as a retirement posting for people posted in Africa — they finish Burundi, Botswana; etc, and then come to Cairo and have a good time. You still have many years to go but this is the job that is available right now.”
I reached Cairo in October 2010 and Frits visited me in late December, reiterating the positives he had listed earlier. I agreed, saying my wife and I were enjoying Egypt now that my daughter had moved to the US to study. 25 January 2011 — Arab Spring happens. I called Frits and asked him, “Wasn’t this supposed to be a ‘retirement posting’?” and he promptly replied, “It’s something in your horoscope — wherever you go, you cause some issue.”
Arab Spring or no, those were five of the most glorious years in my career. I loved the country, loved the people. Egypt is truly a gem of civilisation. They say families with lineage have certain culture and values; I believe that is true of cultures and civilisations with lineage, too. And the Egyptians have that — I have never seen such good behaviour towards foreigners as I did during the Arab Spring.
As a company, we had two options: pack up or stay put. I spoke with my boss and said my team and I would stay. But some of my colleagues had small children and I decided we would send our families home. My wife was very reluctant to leave; she said Cairo is safer than Chennai! But the decision was common to all the expats in Egypt and the CEO’s wife was not exempt. In the days that followed, we didn’t have internet, mobile connections or even working landlines. But after nearly two weeks, Mubarak resigned and we decided to visit our two factories in the industrial district. I was with my technical director, a Swiss Italian, and we were guessing how many workers would turn up — the whole city was under curfew, about 15% of the workforce at the ice cream factory was female, so if even 5-10% turned up, it would be good. As it turned out, we had almost complete attendance at the ice cream factory and about 80-90% attendance at the other factory. I addressed the workers, thanking them for turning up, when one of them stood up and said, “You never left.” That was an important factor for them — that the leader doesn’t leave.
Another time I was giving a speech — I would speak in English, which would be translated into Arabic — and I quoted Abdel Gamal Nasser. And these five burly men in the front row started weeping. I was shocked, and asked my HR director whether I had said something wrong. He said no, but let’s find out. So, he called in those men and asked them. They explained: he quoted Nasser, who is like a father figure for us. We were very touched that this Indian knew what Nasser stood for. Truly, I connected with Egypt in a very real way. I am still in touch with the workers there — they send me messages when they get promoted, get married or have children.
It was also a good time for the company. Nestlé Egypt grew by almost 25% each year four years in a row; in three years, we invested more than we had in the previous decade. We were strong in community activities and a preferred employer for young MBA graduates. The overall corporate presence for Nestlé increased significantly in Egypt — of course, in Libya we were already a very popular brand. In fact, during this revolution in a speech Mohammed Gaddafi said the two problems he faced were Al Qaeda and Nescafé — he claimed that Nescafé adds hallucinogens that young Libyans drink and go mad. On the day of his speech, the Nescafé site in Switzerland had the highest hits because people were congratulating us as the choice of revolutionaries!
I’d spent nearly five years in Egypt when the company decided to move me to the Philippines. It is one of Nestlé’s biggest operations in Asia and is by far the biggest FMCG player in the country. It’s a little like HUL in India: it has that kind of image and status. I was quite happy about the move — a peaceful country, steady operations, so why not? The worst I could expect were the 19-20 typhoons every year but that was an annual occurrence and I was sure the people there knew how to handle typhoons.
Four months later, I had started settling in. My wife and I had finalised a house and were waiting to finally unpack our container when I got a call from Wan Ling Martello, my boss. I was at a friend’s home for dinner and it was just too loud for conversation. I called her back later that night, and she came straight to the point, “Let me cut it short. I need you back in India.”
The Maggi crisis had just unfolded and Wan told me the board had decided I was the right man to go and fix the mess — if at all it could be fixed. Soon after, the CEO of Nestlé also called me to say they wanted me to go to India. When I told her, my wife’s first comment was succinct: “I don’t know why it always has to be you.”
I thought about it after she mentioned it: Why me? Why was I being pulled out? There are so many other people in this company. But I always have a very optimistic view on life — perhaps this was the time to repay the organisation for all it has done for me. Because I owe a lot to Nestlé India.
As with all major decisions, I also consulted my father before taking up this assignment. He was very positive: “This is a badge of honour. The company is trusting you with the biggest crisis it is facing. You don’t send your biggest idiot to fight your biggest crisis, you send your best person. Do what is right and do it well.” So, I said I would take up the challenge, though I didn’t even know the full extent of the crisis and just how big a challenge it was.
It was big. It was being compared with the Bhopal gas tragedy, Arnab Goswami had called for the arrest of the CEO of Nestlé and people were being shown burning packs! And it had global ramifications, thanks to the ubiquity of digital and social media. So I came to India and my boss, Wan, was also here. “I don’t want this to be brutal either for you or for the organisation. I want to be here to ensure that doesn’t happen,” she said.
My advantage in India was that people here know me — this was my third stint here. More importantly, every company has a DNA and Nestlé’s DNA is food safety and quality. That’s what we stand for. The reason you buy the Nestlé brand is because it is the safest and has the highest quality. It may be more expensive than the others. You may not like our advertising; you may not like our promotions or whatever. But you can be 100% sure that what you eat is absolutely of the best quality and it’s completely safe. I knew my backbone was strong. I knew the company would not have done anything even remotely wrong.
First though, I had to restore confidence in my people. We have 7,200 employees across eight factories. Five of these had been sealed; 35,000 tonnes of stock was being taken back and incinerated. We had about 2,000 distributors who had lost anywhere between 30% and 50% of their business. We had 400,000 wheat farmers who were supplying us through their flour millers, whose sales had dropped to zero overnight. We had 15,000 other suppliers — carton makers, packaging suppliers, spice suppliers — whose business had suddenly crashed. On top of this, we had almost 4 million outlets that were stocking our products. And the thousands of outlets that were preparing and selling Maggi. It was a huge blow for all these people.
The second task was to ensure that the narrative of the company was explained, talked through in a manner in consonance with the Nestlé values of decency, respect, transparency and humility. People tend to compare this with what happened to Coke and Pepsi or the problem at Cadbury’s, but this was very different. Cadbury’s was an internal problem that was corrected very quickly and very well. Coke and Pepsi was a problem with the pesticide measurement as done by the Centre for Science and Environment. But here, it was the Union of India versus Nestlé. When the government, the FSSAI, is after you, it’s like the father of the family going after the children. After all, as a company we are children of this country. So, it was much more serious.
Then, we had to manage our stakeholders — we have 100,000 shareholders. Normally, a change of guard at Nestlé India finds mention in a couple of lines in the pink papers. My appointment made it to a banner headline in The Economic Times — “Shake-up at Nestle”, or something similar. One of my first interviews was a live one on TV for 45 minutes, when I didn’t even know the full facts yet. My media exposure is probably more than that of all my predecessors combined — each of them gave only two or three interviews in their entire term at Nestlé India. Mine was every two or three days.
In a sense, this was the worst crisis I’ve had to handle in my career. My grandmother, though, had given me a unique perspective on the issue when I had gone to seek her blessings on returning to India. The first thing she asked me was, who is behind this? I said I didn’t know — I still don’t, in fact. Her advice: Janangala pattuko (take care of the people). It was such a wise remark because ultimately, it is people who matter.
We took a decision not to terminate anybody: the 3,500 employees from the five sealed factories were put on an extensive training programme. And our people responded with immense ability, support and dignity at a time when our company was the most tested, the most trashed and the most vilified for something we did not even do. We didn’t have a single industrial relations incident — no strike, no lockout. We had so many suppliers who were out of business. Not one went to the media or the government, not one filed a suit against the company. Not one of our 2,000 distributors gave us any trouble. Our sales people are taught to sell — they didn’t know how to take back stock. But we worked out a system. We said we would reimburse distributors the same day for returned stocks, but many refused to raise bills. Many of these are partnerships of decades, running into generations and the relationship with the company is a deep, strong one.
Our stock price tanked 30-40%. But not one of our 100,000 shareholders took us to court. In fact, I had my first AGM in May 2016 and I was expecting to be crucified. Instead, it turned out to be one of the most emotional AGMs I have seen. We had shareholders going up on stage and breaking down. Such a thing should have never happened to this company, they said. In good times, everybody is everybody’s friend. It’s only in bad times that the power of relationships matters. And I think that, in all humility, is the biggest learning Nestlé had in this: if you treat partners, employees and stakeholders with respect and fairness, you can find your way out of any crisis.
One more thing that really helped in this crisis was how the Bombay High Court tried this matter every single day. Imagine if they had adjourned the case for three, six or nine months — we would have been dead as a company. But they understood the seriousness of the matter; the standing of the organisation also helped, I feel. Many people I spoke with were full of praise for Nestlé, saying the only problem was we kept quiet when the matter started. That was the only thing we were faulted on.
Speaking of communication, we did one a few months later that was one of the craziest decisions I’ve ever taken. Maggi was off the market but the buzz on social media was all for bringing it back asap— of course, there was plenty of negative commentary as well. The question was, should we respond. Conventional marketing tells you that you advertise only when you have the brand on the shelf. We didn’t have a product at the time. Advertising would be unrequited. Worse, we could be seen as thumbing our noses at the regulator.
But the crisis committee that discussed the issue every day (and night) came to the conclusion that Maggi is more than a brand; it is an emotion. So, we would issue a communication without the product. Just a simple statement: We miss you too. And real-life situations of young adults missing their midnight snack, couples fighting over not having their food or the young man having to beg food from the neighbour he’s never spoken with. It went on to become one of the most successful digital campaigns done by us. But it could just as easily have boomeranged and been the biggest marketing disaster ever. As it turned out, it was the best decision.
I have learnt a lot from all my bosses, from Amit Bose at Lipton, KK Sridhar at Brooke Bond, Jayaraman at Colgate. My current boss, Wan, is my first woman boss and a source of great inspiration for me. She has enormous courage — it takes a lot of guts to unsettle a person in one place and put him into this situation. She is very trusting of people but at the same time has what I teasingly call a feminine instinct — she is very perceptive and the kind of person who values people very much. Conversations with her begin with questions about my family and only then turn to work — with my other bosses, it was the other way around.
If I consider influences on my life, other women stand out — especially my two grandmothers and my mother. In fact, when we first conceptualised the ‘educate the girl child’ initiative, my grandmothers were the first women I thought of. My mother was a silver medallist at Mysore University. But she was married off when she finished her exams — she was not given the opportunity to study further. Of my Paatis, one had studied till class 9 while the other only till class 2 or 3. I used to tease my paternal grandmother on this — when she signed E Rukmini on cheques, the signature would look different each time. Paati was virtually unlettered but was amazingly enlightened and forward thinking for someone of her generation. When my daughter was heading for university, the first thing she told me was to educate her well and not get her married too early!
I don’t know how many women have been through their lives without the benefit of education, even though they were bright and capable of doing so much more. I was lucky that I could give my daughter the benefit of a good education; if I can help more girls through this initiative, why not?
For a guy who didn’t know the M of management, it is ironic that today I hold a very responsible position where people look up to me for advice on management. At the same time, this is what I call “give back time” to the company, where leadership and power can do good for people. As a practising Hindu, the teachings of the Bhagwad Gita are always top of mind: life is transitory; what you have today will be someone else’s tomorrow. So, don’t attach too much importance to the position or the attention. I am fully aware that many of the invites I get and the people I get to meet are because I happen to hold an important chair in the corporate world. At the same time, I realise I can use my position and 35 years of experience to do good — there is a huge sense of satisfaction in that. I spend a lot of time with the youngsters in the company and outside. My experience may not always be relevant but at least the general principles of how to look at challenges, manage work pressure and balance work assignments and your personal life, could be useful.
I am very passionate about my work. I love what I do because I feel I can make a difference. And I want to make that difference because I owe it to my people. So, my attitude to work is somewhere between passion and duty. Actually, it’s a bit of both: I am bound to the duty and I am also happy to do it. And I think that’s been something that has driven me in all my assignments. I have always had slightly tough, unpredictable roles with uncertain outcomes, and I love it. My biggest fear is that I will be stuck at a workstation, just sending out emails day after day. I need action, blood pressure going up, some laughter and emotion. That’s why even when I prepare myself for a new life after retirement I will teach or coach as that involves giving. I won’t be sitting at home, writing my memoirs.
Post script: Management lessons from a non-MBA manager
- Revive the art of storytelling. Most of my speeches invariably have a poem, some that I have written myself or a verse I read and liked. I have always tried to use the idiom of a verse to diffuse a situation or heighten the joy of an occasion. When Maggi was relaunched, I wrote a short poem in Hindi that I read out at the launch conferences. I don’t discount the importance of facts and figures but if I explain a leadership lesson through a story, you are more likely than not to remember it and recount it to someone else. Any strategy, any direction that I seek to give the organisation, should be understood by the least educated and by the person of average competence in the company.
- Simplify to energise. The challenge of leadership is to try and decomplexify the world around us into meaningful nuggets for people to imbibe and act upon. The more I make it complicated, the more it is an intellectual exercise of trying to show my superiority, which honestly doesn’t matter. We have an outgoing CEO of our company called Paul Bulcke. I really love his presentations: four words, three images. He is the global CEO of a $95 billion company but he makes it so simple. The purpose of communication and leadership is to leave a residue, an impact and to leave a few questions that people ponder about to act upon for the future.
- Consistency, differentiation and sustainability over a period of time are the three important dimensions for any brand. Be it a product, a person or an organisation. Consistency demands behaviour that is predictable over a period of time. Differentiation is what you bring to the table. And sustainability is, are you capable of doing this over a period of time?
- Don’t copy your competition. And don’t fear it. I like competition because it helps me energise my proposition, to differentiate myself sharper, and to enable the organisation to respond to the environment faster. If there is no competition in a category, we tend to become slothful and less innovative. That is why I like the current environment in India: it is competitive and nobody can take advantage of their historical position and make a straight-line prediction of the future.
- Millennials are not a different species. I work with many millennials in my company; I don’t think I get special millennials. So, I tell people who make a hullabaloo about how millennials are different from, say, my generation — if you have leaders who are credible, walk the talk, have a consistent point of view and a management style that is inclusive, empathetic and considerate, people respond well. Regardless of which generation they belong to.
- Respect is no longer given because of hierarchy. Respect has to be earned every day and through every action. Millennials may not be very different from you and me but the workforce today is a little irreverent towards authority, because of the democratisation of the family as well as the numerous opportunities available. I had the same aspirations as people do even today — a decent life, a happy family and to make a difference in whatever I did. Today’s kids, if they can’t make a difference, they move on. In my time, that wasn’t the case simply because the opportunity didn’t exist. If I had left HLL, where the hell could I go? Or, I if would have left Nestlé, where the hell could I go?
- Nice guys do win. You don’t have to be mean to be a great leader. Be clear about your expectations, be deeply respectful and transparent. Empathy and sympathy are important dimensions of my leadership style. At the same time, I am ambitious with targets and I stretch my team. With me there is no question of not achieving your targets, but I like to do it in a way where I don’t demolish people.