While my early days at HLL was all about learning, it also led to some great relationships that I still cherish. As a hostel-experienced, starving young man, I was 50 kg with a near 6-ft frame. I, however, had competition from Labdhi Bhandari. He had similar statistics, but was from IIM-A. Compared to other trainees, I was very young, just over 21 years of age, while Labdhi was yet to hit 19!
While I joined the computer department as an analyst, Labdhi joined the marketing department. In due course, he became the assistant brand manager for washing products. It was clear to all the recruits that Labdhi was exceptionally bright. While we were operational by temperament, Labdhi was cerebral.
Three years later, around the end of 1970, Labdhi was the first from our batch to be promoted to “Grade 2.” Labdhi got a cabin to himself as the head of market research in the Management Services Group, while we had to share a cabin with a colleague. Labdhi would get invited to certain meetings where we would be requested to “be available”. There was tension and jealousy, but in a collegial way.
To Labdhi’s credit, not once did he flaunt his new found status. It was merely an event, just the luck of a draw. But, unexpectedly, he had begun to sound discontented. “Who wants to spend a lifetime selling soaps and toiletry products,” he would ask. “Surely, we were destined to do better things?” “Like what?” “Like teaching and research!” I thought he was being pretentious. Why would anyone chuck a terrific job in a premier company?
But to our great surprise, he did quit to teach at his alma mater. He was the first to tell me: “We must enjoy what we do and do what we enjoy.”
Despite five years of strenuous effort by my colleagues and me, the management decided to shut the newly formed computer department down. With licence raj and price controls, it was proving to be an expensive affair. As luck would have it, I bumped into Burney. I told him I was looking for other opportunities. He said, “Do you remember my offer? If you change your mind, come and see me? You can have a career in this company, rather than look for a career in computers elsewhere.” I took up the offer. I learnt from him that, as a leader, you have to take an interest in people. You don’t have to do big things, just be authentic.
It’s here that I first met Bhau Phansalkar, HLL’s general sales manager and one of my first bosses. He had a very large view of life. Though he was number-focused, he knew where to draw the line by not going overboard. For instance, we were going to launch a soap brand in the ’70s and the brand team had made an AV in which war was declared on the competition. It was sort of a violent film with fighter planes, bazookas and explosions. The team was excited and so was the agency, which believed that it would pump up sales.
But Phansalkar said, “I don’t approve of this film. At the end of the day, you’re selling soap. It is destructive to use war as a theatre.” Then, his view seemed narrow-minded and petty. But, his authority prevailed. He then explained: “You may be religious, but don’t impose your religion on others. In the same way, you may follow the happenings from the World War ii, but don’t carry it so far as to sell a soap.” I learnt from him that you can be passionate about other things beyond work too.
Hindustan Lever was and continues to be a competitive place with a lot of competent people. Promotions were given, not at regular intervals, but based on performance. I have never had to ask for my next promotion. It was always a pleasant surprise when somebody called me and said, “Hey, we would like you to take up the next assignment.”
At one point, I was asked to head the exports department. I had a boss, Mr. Bipin Shah, who also turned out to be a fine mentor. I could write a book on the lessons he taught me. There were so many. He showed me simple ways of calculating whether a particular project or product was efficient or not, and if it was worth chasing. If I learnt intuitive commercial sense, it is because of him. If I have to list my HLL mentors, there was Bipin Shah, Bhau Phansalkar and then Ashok Ganguly, who was the-then HLL chairman.
Following a successful stint in exports, I was told to join the board by Mr. Ganguly in 1987. A delighted Labdhi came home to wish me. The old, petty jealousies of youth were gone. We had a great evening together. Unfortunately, on October 19, 1988, an early morning Bombay-Ahmedabad plane crashed. With that, India had lost a light, and I had lost a friend.
At 41-42, when you make it to the board, you feel you have made it. So, here I was, a bit chuffed and a bit bloated. One day, Mukesh (Micky) Pant, who used to work with me, called up to say that he suspected that the numbers weren’t adding up. I sent him to Dubai to get more details. He called me at 6 o’clock in the morning saying, “I think there’s a fraud. I can’t find a million dollars.”
Now I was in a dilemma. When you can’t find a million dollars, and I’m talking about 1987, you’re instinct is let’s find out more details before blowing the whistle. The second instinct was to go and say I’m in trouble; I need help. And the third was to pretend as if nothing had happened, and let the problem sort itself out.
I, however, went to Mr. Shah and told him, “It sounds a bit silly, but I can’t find a million dollars, and I don’t know what’s going on.” As usual, he gave me his elder brotherly advice: “Listen, these things happen. When you’re in a hole, it is better to seek help than to dig yourself deeper into it. You’ll try to investigate, rumours will start. Instead, just walk across the corridor to Mr. Ganguly, and tell him that you need help.”
Now, the image of a leader that we have created in management is a blue-eyed and self-sufficient person who is always in the know. And here I was, just appointed director, going to tell my chairman that I don’t know what tsunami has hit me.
But I did approach Mr. Ganguly who was initially taken aback. Within an hour, the head of legal, head of treasury and head of finance were all called into the room. Mr. Ganguly said, “We have a little emergency here. We have got to help Gopal.” It was probably a fraud, though we couldn’t conclusively prove it. But, in the days of FERA, a million dollars in foreign exchange could have caused a bad reputation. Voluntarily, HLL went to the RBI and the Finance Ministry, and told them that it was a genuine error of controls, which would be set right. Eventually, the matter was resolved.
But, that’s not the important thing. We grew up reading things such as “Lal Bahadur Shastri resigned as Railway Minister when there was an accident.” I was feeling very heroic and I offered to quit. But Ganguly told me, “When you create a mess, you sort out the mess. Stick around, because walking away for someone else to clear the mess is not a hero’s choice.”
It was a good lesson for me. I would say that the company spent a million dollars giving me the most expensive management lesson in the world. I learnt how to learn from trouble because it is an opportunity in disguise. Later on, when I went to Harvard, the course cost me relatively lesser, only $40,000! Though I stayed on at HLL, I was afraid that my career would suffer. But HLL posted me as the chairman of Unilever Arabia.
I knew a little bit about Saudi Arabia, but not much. When I landed in London, I went to the sixth floor of Unilever House and was told: “Welcome! The war has begun!” Because, that night, Iraqi troops had invaded Kuwait and war was declared. So the next three to four months were tense, personally.
I moved to Saudi Arabia, after eight months, with my family. Thankfully, by then the war was over. It was an era of post-war spending and a good time for doing business. Incidentally, it was when I took one of the most important decisions in my life. When I took over, Unilever Arabia was running a project called Witch Hunt and had already spent millions of dollars, over four years, on market research. It was done to take on P&G by creating a new product. However, I believed that the initiative was going nowhere. I was in a dilemma whether to continue a project that the past CEOs had persisted with or put forward my thoughts. I conveyed my reservations to the head office in London, and they saw merit in what I said. It gave me confidence as a leader and reinforced a learning that true professionalism is about taking a decision and not postponing it. However, there were trying personal circumstances that changed me as a person as well.
I had the habit of reading Sundara Kandam in Ramayana. You had to read it without a break. It usually took about 45 days to finish, reading one or two chapters every day. So, I had to carry the book with me. During a customs check at Riyadh, the security personnel pulled out the book which had a picture of Hanuman. “Who is this monkey? Is he a God? You can’t bring in your God!” They threw away my book. I was very touchy about these small things as religion was my private affair. Luckily, my wife was in Tirupati at that time and I told her to bring me another copy of the Ramayana, which she brought two days later. I had even managed to smuggle in a small idol of Krishna and, in the privacy of our room, we would perform our puja.
It was during this time that the Babri Masjid demolition happened. I still remember the date — December 6, 1992. It was terrifying as, three weeks later, I got an anonymous telephone call from a person, who spoke in Urdu, saying, “I’m calling from Riyadh. You have three children. I think you should leave the kingdom and go away quickly because harm is going to come to you.” I shot back, “Who are you? And why are you telling me all this?” He said, during a meeting in a mosque in Riyadh, a fatwa was issued that there are 10 non-Muslims who are earning lots of money in Saudi Arabia and sending it back to India to fund the demolition of mosques. “You happen to be named as one of them,” he said.
I rang up Unilever HQ and was advised to see the British Ambassador in Saudi Arabia. I also rang up Lever’s local partner, who said, “You should go and see the governor of Mecca.” I went to see the governor of Mecca, who then explained what had happened.
A bunch of militants had gone to a mosque to pray on a Friday and told the gathering there that all the Hindus in India are out breaking mosques, and Babri was only one such example. They told the crowd that the money was being channeled through us. In times like these, religion becomes a touchy subject. For the first and the only time in my life, I was a minority in another country.
I had always wondered why is there so much fuss about minorities in India? We are such an open society. And for the first time, I realised, merely because I’m a Hindu, merely because I’m earning some money, it is assumed that I’m breaking mosques. It is assumed that a person with a certain name or of a certain appearance is harmful to the country or its majority. It is extremely erroneous.
I went to see the British Ambassador and subsequently the Indian Ambassador. I said, “I’m not going to get shot on the streets of Jeddah. I have a partner, a local partner, and it could be disreputable for him to have my head smashed in the middle of the road.” You start imagining these things. And the governor of Mecca said, “Relax, nothing is going to happen. All I request is don’t drink.” To which I replied, “I don’t anyway. Since I’m in this country, I’ll follow the laws.” Secondly, he said, “Don’t chase other people’s wives.” I said, “I don’t do that anyway, in any country.” He said then I would be safe. So I stayed back.
But the governor, to assuage local sentiments, told me that my family and I would be under surveillance. For six months, my car was followed by a guy with a checked keffiyeh covering his face, like you see in the movies. Every time you looked behind, he was there. It’s was very uncomfortable since my daughters were 10-11 years old that time.
It was a big lesson on dealing with stereotypes. So, when I came back here, I started seeing the minority issue with empathy. You can do that only if you have been through it. When the 2002 riots broke out in Gujarat, my Muslim friends in Mumbai said they felt terrorised. I could relate to that. It changed my outlook on what is fair and equitable.