I was at the right place, at the right time. After Rajiv quit in 2001, Mathew Cadbury, one of the heirs of the Cadbury family, came to lead India; but he could not settle down and left within a year. The top job fell into my lap. I was CEO of Cadbury at 40! That gave me quite a kick. I’ve always been the youngest in most things — I had a double promotion in school, so was the youngest when I passed out of college and there-on was the youngest area manager, youngest branch manager, youngest marketing head and, now, the youngest CEO.
By then, I knew one thing clearly: we needed to keep things simple. You need to do nothing much to be a great company — set up the company on a fast growth track, for which my way was to create new categories to grow, not fight for market share; and secondly, make it a place where people love to work. The second part was already in place — it’s more fun to sell chocolates than toothpaste, hair oil and detergents!
For me, the best part as country head was that I was working for a British company — that largely left you alone to do what you wanted to do. I couldn’t have asked for anything better. We did so many things; we developed gifting and did so many new launches — Milk Treat, Chocki Celebrations, Rich Dry Fruit Collection, re-launched Perk and Picnic… and most importantly, built a great team.
After Cadbury acquired the confectionery division from Warner Lambert, we wanted to grow the candies business in India. But although we were pushing hard, we weren’t making progress. I understood why when I went on a field visit — the sales guy was clearly focusing on Dairy Milk chocolate and ignoring candy. He explained when I asked him why: one carton of Dairy Milk equalled 20 jars of éclair in sales, so it was easier to achieve targets by pushing the chocolate. Class A stores sell 80% of chocolate; chocolate requires depth, while candy required width.
I knew what had to be done — but there was resistance to my suggestion of having a different sales force for selling candy. Those were the days of consolidation and I was recommending adding an entire sales team! The global marketing head was sent to India to evaluate this. I told him, “Keep an open mind. I’ll take you to the market and you can take a call after that.” He went back and suggested the same thing.
Working at Cadbury was like having your cake — or rather, your chocolate — and eating it, too. Just peeping into the fridge full of chocolate, both at Cadbury House and at home, was enough to make your day. My dear little children Abhay and Meghana also got some bragging rights — I convinced their friends that they had different kinds of chocolates for breakfast, lunch and dinner! All of their friends wanted to come to Cadbury House to see the secret place where hot chocolate flowed out of the tap and the shower!
It was our best year ever. October 2003, the senior management team was at the Shangri-La in Bangkok for our annual budget finalisation where we were also being feted as the best performing unit in the region. There was so much camaraderie that you get a high anyway, and then you are also actually high. Things can’t get any better, you think. And then comes the call: “Sir, CNBC is running this news that there is infestation in our chocolate.” We had an incident management team in Mumbai at the time, as most food companies do. Quickly, we put together a communication team, and I was back at Cadbury House the next day. The first thing I saw was the CNBC van — it was like a cold welcome, I thought to myself. It couldn’t be for the infestation, I was debating mentally — out of the 1 million bars a day of sales, infestation was found in about nine bars; could it be that big a deal? Man, what a nightmare it turned out to be…
For the first time in my life, I could see buri nazar wale tera muh kaala actually waiting to play out. Needless to say, I was the buri nazar wala, bure karam wala…and it was the local MLA who turned up with a tin of black paint to blacken my face! I was so worked up, I wanted to step out and talk to him; HR head Radha Menon told me to relax and sit tight — it was theatrics at play, nothing else. There was a call from someone at Sahara TV, saying they had found a chocolate with worms and were going to run the story; they wanted my comments but what was I going to say? Then there was a call from an old man in Rajkot: unbelievable as it sounds, he tried to blackmail us, threatening to report an infestation in our chocolates to the consumer court unless we featured his son in a Cadbury ad! Bizarre!
Sales dropped immediately, but much more so in the impacted regions — 40% in the first month, another 20% on top of that the next month. This was really bad news because, in the end, only what the consumer believed mattered. It was painful to hear that both in Maharashtra and Kerala our brand confidence survey showed a drop from 90% to 40%. We had asked just three, straightforward questions — would you buy Cadbury, would you buy it for your children and would you gift it; and the hard truth was consumer confidence was shattered.
It was not just customers, everyone looked so unhappy. Morale was down. I can’t forget the day my sales head came to me with a long face saying his wife and daughter were in tears — the child’s teacher had refused to let her distribute the box of Cadbury chocolates she took to school on her birthday.
There could have been no better way to build confidence but to make people actually see that we didn’t have a problem. I don’t remember whose idea it was, but it worked! We asked our sales staff to buy Cadbury chocolates worth 1,000 from their nearby stores. If they found any infestation, they were to report it to the company and send across samples; if not, enjoy the chocolates! God, that lifted spirits instantly! One, everyone realised there wasn’t anything wrong with our chocolates and then they got to eat them, too!
Keeping up morale and keeping the faith are most important in a crisis. In the middle of all this, headhunters would call and say, “It’s over now. You should consider so-and-so offer.” I couldn’t believe it! I had to tell them, I was the captain of the ship that was in stormy waters and there was no way I was going to abandon the ship.
But the mood was still not really upbeat. In the end, the customer had to be convinced. I still remember the sales meet in Surajkund, outside Delhi, where everyone had a view on how to get back. I did not quite realise at that time the gravity of what this young sales guy — Amit Upadhyay — was saying. Driving back to the airport, it sank in what a wonderful suggestion that was. Amit was clear that the country took only two people seriously — Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Amitabh Bachchan. Being the prime minister, Vajpayee could not be our ambassador but Bachchan carrying the message would really convince people. The more I thought about it, the more I was convinced it was the right approach. Piyush was sceptical initially, as was Sanjay, our marketing director as they had already worked on a very strong emotional creative. But Piyush quickly sensed the point and before I knew it, he had spoken with Mr Bachchan and we were at Bachchan’s place post-dinner to see him.
We invited Bachchan to our factory to see for himself, for we wanted him to be convinced about it himself. It was his idea to shoot the creative at the factory. That ad worked very well and we were on the road to recovery.
Apart from the creative, of course, if we had not taken that visible action, we would not have gained back consumers. I have to hand it to Todd Stitzer, CEO of Cadbury; he okayed the capex for the new packaging machines, over a phone call! It was 12 crore, not an earth-shattering amount, but sometimes, it can be hard to convince people; this was a welcome change. We still had people saying that double packaging was overkill; there was no point in increasing costs permanently. But we needed to act urgently and thank God, we did. We thought sales would bounce back in 12 months; no one imagined it would in six.
I remember Sir John Sunderland (global chairman of Cadbury) saying, “Bharat, you don’t realise it is such a privilege to be handling a crisis like this”, and intoning, “What is he thinking?” But perhaps he was right because but for the crisis, you would not know your friends from your foes and how important it is to have a great team, friends and family support who serve as sounding boards during such times. My wife and I would take short walks on the terrace dissecting the day’s events while Piyush and Madhukar (also of Ogilvy) would frequent Cadbury House so many times — it did not matter whether we had anything to discuss or not but just his being there felt so reassuring. Another evening, there was a media function and I was reluctant to attend. Aditya dragged me there, persuading me all the way that the crisis was nothing personal and I should just be myself. He stood next to me the entire time as though he were my bodyguard and then we went off for a hearty dinner at Delhi Durbar. I still remember those melting tikkas.
Food never fails to lift my spirits although, to my regret, I can’t eat rice with my fingers — that was beaten out of me at Sanawar! In Madurai, my lack of finger-eating skills made for an amusing incident. We were at Shree Ram Mess with delicious sapadu laid on the banana leaf and there I was, waiting for a spoon. Only thing was, there wasn’t a single spoon in the mess! They finally unearthed an old, bent utensil used for pickle but my team declared it unfit for my use. One guy immediately ran out and — Madurai being Madurai, there are stainless steel stores everywhere — returned with a dozen spoons, all for me!
Moving to Singapore in 2006 to head marketing and sales for Asia Pacific, as well as specifically handle China was a natural career progression but what an experience it was. I realised just how different India and China are after leaving the country for my first overseas stint.
I still remember the first group meeting I called in Beijing. The China CEO Kim Seng and six members of the leadership team were present, and no one spoke a word. It was like extracting blood from a stone. I would ask them what they liked about the company and they would look at Kim Seng, their boss and then stare at me blankly. I asked what we should do to perk up sales and I could almost see them thinking, “What kind of guy is this? He is the super boss; he should be telling us what to do.” I had to cut short the meeting and then meet each one individually; they were much more forthcoming then.
This was a world removed from my experience in India. Here, people competed with each other to express their opinions in group meetings — we could discuss and debate topics for hours and days, without reaching a conclusion. Chinese culture, on the other hand, is such that if you are the boss and you ask someone whether they want coffee, the reply will be, “Yes, I don’t want coffee.” It’s almost as if they are trained to say yes to everything. I learnt my lesson quickly — never ask for opinions in a group meeting.
The other lesson was to stick to tried and tested food. KFC became my default destination after my initial insistence on authentic food backfired miserably. I still vividly recall the meal at this restaurant in a small town close to Nanjing. The branch manager who was accompanying me repeatedly told the waiter we wanted only chicken or prawns, nothing else. And then came the chicken, with its wings sticking out, and the prawn with its antennae still moving! I decided there and then that at least when it came to food, I was not going to experiment any more.
Australia was just the opposite of China. What a bunch of fiercely individualistic people! Unless you established personal credibility with them, there was no way to get those guys to listen to you. Their behaviour was exacerbated by the fact that before Singapore, Australia was the regional headquarters and they contributed the most to the kitty. I would ask the marketing director what he thought of an idea and the immediate response would be, no, that won’t work. Every time they thumped the table, I had to thump twice as hard!
Japan lay somewhere between China and Australia, both literally and culturally. On my first visit to the Tokyo office, my boss Rajiv Wahi, our regional president and I couldn’t help but notice that the Japanese love fragrances — wherever you go, you’ll find yourself enveloped in some nice smell. Rajiv remarked lightly that what a hit we would have if we launched a gum that would fill the room with fragrance when chewed. All of us had a good laugh but to my astonishment, the R&D team actually worked on the idea and presented us a sample when we returned for a review meeting four months later!