Youth Inc.

CEO at 27...WTF?

Exactly. Rajiv Mehta recounts his highs and lows of taking over as the Puma chief

Nilotpal Baruah

It was a muggy June morning in 2005. At Mumbai’s Renaissance Hotel, 27-year-old Rajiv Mehta gave his presentation the once-over before making his way to a conference room. The freshly minted MBA from Singapore’s INSEAD had been a little perplexed ever since a headhunter had set up this meeting. Over the next couple of hours, the fresh-faced youngster was grilled by Martyn Bowen, Puma’s general manager for Eastern Europe, West Asia and Africa. Bowen, an Oxford University alumnus, said Puma was seriously considering a joint venture with Pantaloon. Mehta was quick to retort that it was a bad idea since Puma was an aspirational brand while Pantaloon was “really middle of the road.” Bowen heard him out but said little. 

Seven years after that meeting, Mehta, MD of Puma India since, speaks proudly of the entrepreneurial spirit at his organisation. “We are expected to show a lot of initiative here,” says the now 34-year-old. “It’s a pretty tightly run place.” In his years leading the iconic sports brand’s India run, Mehta has grown Puma India from a ₹21 crore company in 2006 to its ₹350 crore presence in the subcontinent, a CAGR of 75.5%. 

 Age no bar

Mehta says sheer intuition guided a lot of his initial decisions. “Bowen has always been a firm believer in the philosophy of following your gut,” he says. “When we started off, I had a feeling that the low-end of the market may not work for us. My gut told me the big money was the funky end. We eventually went for both options. After 2-3 years, the low-end was not working and it was the funky end that worked.” 

But, often, he simply wasn’t taken seriously. “Around the end of 2005, I remember meeting a retailer who was at least 15 years older than me,” he says. “When I showed him some product samples, he did not seem interested at all. When I persisted, he lost his cool and said, ‘Yeh brand toh chalegi nahin. Pata nahin kahaan se bachcha log aate hain. Kuch samajhte nahin’ (This brand will not work. Don’t know where these kids come from. They can’t understand a damn thing). That was really awful to hear, but it also made me a very determined person.”

At another crucial meeting in Delhi that had Bowen sitting in, the supplier kept talking to Bowen, thinking Mehta was a junior level executive. But Bowen kept referring to Mehta on important issues and the supplier couldn’t keep quiet any longer. “Why are you talking to him?” he asked Bowen, who smiled and calmly told him the “boy” was Puma India’s managing director. Profuse apologies and laughter followed. “It was quite a comical situation,” Mehta says with a disarming smile. 

In fact, the average age of Puma India’s 200 employees is barely 30 and Mehta’s second-in-command, executive director (sales and retail), Abhishek Ganguly, is also 1978-born. “It lends itself to a lot of democratic discussion and a very free exchange of views and opinions,” Mehta figures. “Everyone can pretty much express whatever they feel.” The buck, though, stops with him. “I think it’s important for me to decide but that does not mean I’m right all the time. Like I thought Commercial Street in Bangalore was a great location for a retail store but it didn’t work and we had to close it down.”

 Getting there 

It certainly helped that Puma was a strong global brand and it wasn’t a completely unfamiliar name in India. “This was, in fact, Puma's third entry (there were earlier joint ventures with Carona and Planet Sports),” recalls Mehta. “I can say it was relatively simple since the designs were in place, which meant we had products that could be quickly launched." But he says it was also difficult at the same time because India was and is a complex market. "We had to work quite hard to understand how to execute sales and marketing strategies.” 

Puma’s first India consumer research study is currently underway. Some lessons, though, need no learning. “When I deal with juniors in the organisation, I make sure I listen to their point of view,” says the guy who is finally nudging towards the age his boss originally had in mind for his job. “I keep telling myself there was a time when I was 27.”