Secret Diary Of A CEO 2017

"The strength of a relationship is tested only during bad times"

Secret Diary of Suresh Narayanan Part-1

Photograph by Vishal Koul

personal information of Suresh NarayananI 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. 

liberal scool of Suresh NarayananBut 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! 

Suresh Narayanan with mom and dadWith 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.  

case studyOnce 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. 

HLL callingThe 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. 

sketch bus full of peopleWe 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.

Sketch dalda packA 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.  

Dr AS GangulyWe 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. 


Suresh Narayanan with grandmotherPaati 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.

1985 Gujrat riotsI 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.

lipton tree topThe 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!

This is the first of a three-part series. You can read part two here and part three here.


You don’t want to be left behind. Do you?

Our work is exclusively for discerning readers. To read our edgy stories and access our archives, you’ve to subscribe