Secret Diary Of A CEO 2017

"You have to turn to the windscreen and look forward"

Secret Diary of Suresh Narayanan Part-2

Photograph by Vishal Koul

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.”

This is the second of a three-part series. You can read part one here and part three here.