I joined Pond’s in 1985 and was part of the Western region. As a management trainee, you are always given the state of Madhya Pradesh to begin with because it was the biggest out of the four states in the region and considered to be the ideal place to learn. You had to travel a lot because of the size of the state. I was to handle a team of nearly nine people including sales leaders and sales guys on the ground. I was 24-years-old and some of the sales leaders I had to manage had been with the company for about 10-25 years. Imagine, now I was their boss! There was one senior sales leader who was 55-years-old, Kapil Sawhney. He was like the godfather — well-respected and knew the business inside out.
On the first day of work, I went up to him and told him that I was like his son: “I want to learn, so teach me everything you know.” By the end of the day, he put his arms around me, agreed to teach me and said, “I am going to make you successful.” Initially, I would go up to him and ask a lot of questions about things I didn’t know. This is not a bad approach to have in life irrespective of whether you are a leader or a customer or a supplier — if you are walking into a new situation and you are surrounded by people who know more, you just tell them upfront that you don’t know a lot and very quickly ask them to teach you. When you do that, it works to your advantage every single time. I spent the next seven years at Pond’s and learnt more than anywhere else. I learnt how to motivate both the retailer and the sales guy to sell more products. We had about 100 sales distributors and, by the end of the first year, I had visited them all. I would spend the day with them, get to know their business, have dinner with them in the evening and leave the next day. Their business was their lives and so they really felt good that someone from headquarters had come and spent time with them to understand more about them.
I learnt how you drive a performance culture and how metrics and competition play an important role in improving performance. All the sales guys had to snail mail a daily call report (remember this was late 1980s; so no emails) with details on how many customers they had met and the products they had sold to each of the retailers, etc. So, I started to randomly open one of these mails everyday and read it and dump the others. I would then highlight the best part of that one person’s performance. Most of the times it was great stuff, but at times I would point out what was going wrong as well. More importantly, people started to think: “he reads that stuff I fill in and send!” All of them started sending in their reports daily because they too wanted to get recognised for their work and didn’t want to be in the bad books of the boss.
It was not just the sales team and the distributors that I built an equation with. I made a strong connect with the people in the factories as well. That was important. You see, if a product was in great demand and short in supply, the guys at the factories would ration what you get. If you placed an order for 1,000 bottles of shampoo, you would only get 600 bottles. This would impact sales, and I understood that very early. So, I got to know the factory people better and built a good rapport with them so that when I ordered 1,000 bottles, I would be given 800 and some other region would get 200 bottles less! Similarly, I was a favorite with the accounting department at the headquarters. They would basically close books at the end of the month. So, they would start with one region and move to the next one. They would always take western region — my region — as the last region to close so that it would give us some extra time to get in more collections. I discovered that getting to know people in other departments, understanding what they do and their problems help a great deal in delivering your own performance. Building a relationship with them makes a difference to your performance because the other person understands your problems, gets empathetic and helps you get to your goals. Even today, I try and find ways to get others to help achieve my goals.
After my sixth year at Pond’s, I was starting to feel restless, I wanted to move to Hindustan Lever since it was the bigger mother company. The people at Pond’s didn’t think it was a great move. They kept telling me that I will be a small fish in a big pond. I told them I would rather be a small fish in a big pond than a big fish in a small pond! I had been handling the southern region for two years then. I went up to my all-India sales head and said that I was leaving and my reason for doing so. I told him I don’t know where I was heading and I needed help from him to figure that out. So, for nine months, we spent time together creating a succession plan and figuring out where I should land next. I believe that when you have complete transparency with your boss, suppliers, customers or even the board, and you put everything on the table, you get your answers faster.
Though banking meant clerical jobs, the sector was growing by leaps and bounds. A lot of the sales and marketing people from FMCG companies were moving to banks. I made a list of five banks — one of them was going to be my next employer — Citibank, Grindlays, Standard Chartered, HSBC and Bank of America. I got interview calls from all of them. My boss K Anand’s wife was working with Grindlays at that time and he told me that Grindlays or Standard Chartered would be better fits for me since their culture is collegial and people help each others, whereas Citibank was more ‘cut-throat’. I went for interviews with HSBC and Stan Chart and found them to be too laid back. I was close to getting calls from Citi, Bank Am and Grindlays. I was leaning towards Citi and Anand (he was called Kandy) kept telling me I was going to get stabbed in the back! I assured him that I would be the only person who will end up getting the benefit of not getting stabbed. We agreed to disagree and in December 1991, I joined Citibank. It was the day John Reid had signed a MOU with the US Fed regarding Citi’s mortgage business. About 4,500 people were fired and their mortgage subsidiary was shut down. Every quarter, the bank had to show the Feds how things were improving; until then, there would be no increase in compensation or promotions. All of us in India got this mail at 5 p.m. It was my first day at work and what a way to begin my stint there!
In Citibank, Mahesh Mani, who interviewed me, gave me two options — I could either build the mortgage business in the south from the ground up starting with Bangalore and Madras, or head the existing auto business in the west. I chose the mortgage business. Six months later, things were going well. I got a call from Mahesh. He told me that he had just got off a management committee meeting. The auto finance business was in a mess he said and they are firing the entire team because they discovered fraudulent transactions. He told me the committee wanted me to relocate and build a team from scratch and clean up the mess. They thought I was the best guy for the job. He said that knowing that mortgage was a better option, if I didn’t want to take it, he’d totally understand. I told him I would take it because I believed whenever one is offered a change, it has to answer three questions: Are you getting into a situation where you can immediately contribute? Is there a specific reason why someone is asking you to do something? Are you going to work with people you really like and will you be learning something new? The new position ticked all the boxes. Also, my wife and I loved Bombay. We grew up there so I knew she would gladly agree to move back there. I still believe Bombay has the best people as a population — simple, down to earth, respect women, value speed and time, and power connections are less important, and caste/creed background are unimportant.
Six months in, as things were settling down in the auto business, I had built a reputation of being the clean-up guy in Citi. This time around, I was asked to move to collections as delinquencies had risen dramatically and they wanted someone to step in and clear the mess. I said yes again but on one condition — that I wanted to pick and choose my people. I assured them I would pick absolute rockstars but they would have to move them to my team despite collections having a history of not being given great talent. I wanted to change that. They agreed and, on that condition, I took the job.
It was the best team that had ever been built in collections. We made sure we had reviews with Jerry Rao, who was at that time the CEO of Citibank in India, and got as much visibility within the organisation as the sales guys. We got into cleaning up the portfolio very quickly and within nine months, our losses came down and delinquency levels were negligible. Meanwhile, the all-India auto business leadership job became available. I was asked to take over. It was based in Delhi. I took it, worked in Delhi but would come home to Bombay on weekends. I had to travel extensively across the country. I was on the job for nine months and then I quit. I realised that the bank was never going to be serious about growing the consumer lending portfolio other than credit cards. Globally, too, credit cards and branch banking was the king. Citi wasn’t a big player in auto loans globally and they refused to move me to cards. Thus, I told them I was moving.