My grandparents were keen that I stay at home when it came to college. I guess having been away from the family in boarding school since I was seven, they wanted me close by at least now. With Papa getting posted to a new place every three years, my parents had sent me to Lawrence School, Sanawar, to ensure I got a steady education — but when you’re still in short pants and used to your mama holding your chin to comb your hair, all that registers is that you were being left alone in this unfamiliar place, not the thought behind the deed. But now, I was glad I had been in boarding school, for not only had it taught me to cope when I was away from home but also the value of home itself. And staying with my grandparents gave me the best of both worlds — the palatial home in Chandigarh where papaji and maaji pampered me, while chacha would sneak me in through the back door when I returned home late. Papaji would keep wondering when I studied, since he slept early: “Padhe bina itne achche number aate hai, to padh ke kitna achcha kar sakte ho.” But I was enjoying my freedom too much to listen to him — parties, playing tennis and hanging out with my friends.
Papa had cut a not so good deal — he had persuaded me to study science in school, hoping I would be inspired to look at engineering thereafter. But I had agreed only on the condition that I would be free to choose my subjects after school. How his face fell when I told him I wanted to study humanities — “Baba, it’s not for serious students”. Finally, we settled on commerce in college and I don’t know if I was lucky or the others were unlucky but I made it to IIM Ahmedabad. The two years at IIM were wonderful and, before I knew it, it was time to graduate. That was 1982.
Back then, Labdhi [Bhandari] Sir was almost like a god to us and when he said Asian Paints was a great company for me to work, I went in happily. Mama wasn’t so convinced when she came to Agra to help me settle down at my first posting. “Baba, exactly what do you do?” she asked, almost naïvely. I earnestly explained to her how I visited dealers and pushed them to stock Asian Paints. “Yeh to phir salesman ka kaam karte ho, na? Agar yeh hi karna hai, toh MBA ka kya fayda hua?” There I was, patting myself on the back for landing a much sought-after job straight from campus and in five seconds, I was back to Mother Earth. Even my posting in Western Uttar Pradesh — not too surprisingly — didn’t excite her too much!
UP was a different world. Of the 12 districts allotted to me, eight were dacoit-infested, which meant the state did not guarantee your safety. My first visit to Mainpuri was an eye opener. Sharadbabu had two rifles displayed prominently above the counter at his shop. When I asked him why there were firearms in a paint store, he replied, “Yahan kabhi kabhi goli chal jaati hai. Aapke hote hue goli chal jaye, to aap counter ke peeche aa jaana.” He would give me the other rifle, he added; after all, the son of a military man would know how to shoot.
In the early eighties, small towns such as Mainpuri typically had a main street with one store each for various things — one grocer, one utensils seller, perhaps a couple of clothing stores… But there were a number of jewellers here. Sharadbabu explained why: “Dacoity ka maal kahin toh bikega, na.”
This was the real India! And for three years, this was what I was exposed to, 24/7. Every dealer activity in UP would bring fresh excitement. At one painter meet, a rival dealer’s team landed up with their laithet (goons). Our organiser was unconcerned — “Aap bolo to hum apne laithet bulwalein?” Was I supposed to sell paints or watch laithets slug it out? Still, the ability to connect with the roots to understand how the system really works is perhaps the most important requirement for a marketing guy. I learnt about the environment, the market and made enduring relationships with dealers — many years and many kilos later, we are still so connected.
There were no distractions from work and my first boss, Verghese Anthony, was a blessing. Very systematic, very patient. I spent my first three months — uninterrupted — with him. I was single, he was quasi single as his wife had gone home for delivery and we focused singularly on work. Not many people are lucky enough to get that kind of mentorship. Verghese was very particular about how he did everything. Even parking his car — not two feet left but right on the spot. If there was another car jutting out, his horn would blare and security would be summoned to ask the owner of the offending car to move it by 12 inches! Getting started at work was also a ritual. Place the briefcase on the table, click it open — one flap was torn so the visiting cards would fall out, which would be put back in place— and then take out all the paraphernalia, pen, diary, small note pad, one by one. Verghese was so meticulous: every envelope had to be cut with a small pair of scissors at precisely 0.3 cm margin; after the letter was pulled out, he would gently press the envelope on the sides and peep into it to double check that it was indeed empty.
Each boss teaches you something — Verghese taught me early on the value of just following through. I was a brash boy raring to go and he was the experienced branch manager whose middle name was patience. He gave me time — while taking away mine — and that gave me a completely different perspective and lots of learning.
From UP, I landed in Bombay as branch head. Suddenly from the rural markets of UP, I was in charge of the company’s largest branch.
Our big boss, Mr Abraham, was an Asian Paints legend, having been in sales and marketing for 20 years. He had an elephantine memory; he forgot nothing. Let me say that again — nothing. If he told you to come back with some assignment on a particular day, no prize for guessing who was on the other side when the phone rang at 9.30 in the morning. “Bharat… Can we meet?” I was not just awestruck but crazily curious on how he managed this. So, I asked him. In his inimitable style, Mr Abraham explained: “I have these different notebooks for different things. At the end of the day, I look at all the jottings of the notebooks and mark them in my diary on that particular date. Every morning at 5 am, I check the diary for the day’s tasks. And until I tick off all the items on the day’s list, I don’t leave for home.” Unsurprisingly, Abraham would be very upset if you were not ready with what you had to deliver on the appointed date — he was perfectly okay if you called in advance and told him you were not ready and set another date for the discussion. Looking at Abraham, I used to often think the phrase should have been “Time and Abraham wait for no man.”
One day, he called me in and asked very seriously, “Bharat, what are your plans for marriage?” The question came out of the blue and I looked at him blankly, not knowing what to say. “I keep getting these enquiries about your marriage plans from various people across the industry. What do I tell them?” Finally, I replied. “Sir, you could say he has left it to his parents.” He was delighted to have found a convincing answer. Actually, one of the best things that happened to me at Asian Paints was Alka, who was my first management trainee! Abraham grinned widely when Alka and I went up to him in 1989 and told him we planned to marry. We suggested that one of us would look for another job and move on. He rejected that notion immediately. “No. Both of you are assets to this organisation and both of you should stay.”
I still don’t know what gave me the courage to refuse the factory assignment in 1990 — every high-pot was sent on a factory assignment and refusing that natural progression simply meant stalling your own growth. Sukumar, my immediate boss and Abraham were stunned when I said no, but I was clear I did not want to do a job I did not enjoy. Sukumar told Mr Abraham, “I’ll talk to him and come back to you, Sir.” Next thing, I get a call from Abraham: “Bharat…I understand what you are saying. You do what you think is right!”
My best performing boss was PM Murty! If there had been a Man of the Moment award at Asian Paints, Murty would have won it every single moment. It seemed as if there was no problem he couldn’t handle, instantaneously.
“Sir, Agra has a problem. The dealers are…”
“Bharti, connect me to Sharadbabu in Agra.”
“Sir, they are saying they have already raised this issue with…”
“Meera, call the area sales head for UP.” “Haan, hello…”
Three minutes later, the issue resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, he would turn to me and ask, “What else, Bharat?”
I have been truly blessed as I have had great bosses all through. I can’t forget the clarity Mr [Rajagopala] Chari, one of the institution builders at Asian Paints gave me when Asian Paints was going through that rift back in 1997. There were constant, conflicting messages from the families and I went to Mr Chari for advice. What he said is etched in my memory: “We are professionals. We work for Asian Paints, no one else. So, whatever is good for the company is what we should do.” It was so simple and thereafter there was never any ambiguity in my mind. That’s an important lesson I learnt— when you are pulled in different directions because of multiple power centres, always stick to the ground rule: do what’s in the best interest of the company.
Ultimately, what shapes you as a leader is the sum of all your learning experience, especially in the initial years. I was lucky to have been with Asian Paints where every single person was extraordinary in some respect or the other. Labdhi Sir was bang on.
The best part of the journey was how during that period, Asian Paints transformed from a dealer-push business to a customer-pull business. It was also the time I realized how things could be lost in translation, literally! Raoul da Gama Rose, our creative head at O&M, had made a lovely English creative — “Celebrate with Asian Paints” — but, whoa, the Hindi creative was “Asian Paints ke saath jashn manao”. My heart sank in that meeting — we were looking to expand; literal translations of English lines just wouldn’t cut it. Thankfully, Piyush [Pandey] came along — he was the Hindi copy chief — and he instantly came up with the line, “Har khushi mein rang laye”. I fell in love. It’s been such a lovely and long partnership. That was 1988.
At the heart of Asian Paints’ makeover was a very simple but powerful insight: that people bought shades, not paint. “Mera wala cream” was a smashing hit. Launching 150 shades, then launching Colour World with tinting machines and taking the shades all the way to 1,500, and then the exterior paints — all of it changed the complexion of the paint market. What great thinking by the team!
That’s the time I learnt successful ad campaigns are not really about just having a great creative but packaging a message borne out of a powerful insight.
I was happily growing at Asian Paints when a headhunter called to ask if I wanted to head sales and marketing at Cadbury. As in many other cases, I said no. We were at a family dinner with my cousin Aditya [yes, HDFC Bank wala] who asked me, “Do you realize that you may be doing this job for the next twenty years? You are only 36 and the next job — that of the managing director — is held by the family. Had he not put that niggling thought in my head, I may not have actively considered Cadbury.
Some months later (after a set of very emotional farewells) Cadbury happened, I was happy — at least, this product tasted better! Not that I’ve ever tasted paint, I would like to clarify. My first thought was of my sister Shivani. After the IIM-A placements, I’d gone with my batchmates to Shimla where my parents were posted at the time. Shivani had made a face and said, “Bharat, your friends are going to Pond’s, Lakmé, and other such interesting products… and you are joining a paints company. Couldn’t you have joined an interesting product such as chocolate?”
In 1998, when I joined as sales and marketing head, there was a feeling that Dairy Milk was saturated and that we needed to develop new brands. What a colossal mistake it would have been to go with that premise. Meanwhile Geeta and Jasmeet (from Third Eye Communication) narrowed down on something else — grown-ups are not comfortable eating chocolates openly. The same message was coming in from small towns all over India: People said, “It’s not for us older people. It’s a Westernised product, so you can take a little bite from your child quietly but not be seen indulging yourself.” That insight was 50% of the battle won. We needed to legitimise eating of chocolates. The idea was to make chocolates for the masses without losing its class. But how?
“Khaane walon ko khane ka bahana chahiye.” It was incredible how Piyush, Sonal Dabral and Rajiv Menon meshed it in the message. Cyrus Broacha looked just the part: the street vendor who would go around encouraging people to share their reasons —“Iss mein doodh hi doodh chhalakta hai.” And, then, the 5 price tag worked like magic! Dairy Milk was on fire — it was the hottest chocolate in town and we couldn’t produce enough. We were growing 40% month-on-month. Then we did other memorable campaigns such as Kuchh meetha ho jaaye, Pappu pass hogaya… Rajeev Bakshi [then MD, Cadbury] was great when it came to seeing the big picture, and giving you the freedom to execute.