The most delicious irony in Harsh Realities is Marico’s battle with the then Hindustan Lever for supremacy in the hair oil market. A phone conversation between the multinational’s Chairman, Keki Dadiseth, and Marico’s boss Harsh Mariwala provides a fascinating insight into the minds of these two protagonists. The offer to buy the Indian consumer company was unambiguous and in the event of Mariwala not agreeing to do so, the words uttered were, “Marico will be history.” If Dadiseth thought the Indian entrepreneur was a pushover, his assessment was hopelessly off the mark. Not only did Mariwala say no, he also lived to tell the tale and that, too, in the most remarkable way.
In his book, co-authored with Ram Charan, Mariwala brings to the reader a story of how he created a business almost from scratch based entirely on consumer insights and a lot of common sense. Not armed with any other educational qualification beyond a degree in commerce, the man surrounded himself with sharp minds and remained a consummate learner. Almost a decade after that fateful interaction with Dadiseth, it was now Marico’s turn to swoop down on Nihar, a brand that Levers in India had put on the block. The story of how Mariwala got help from an unexpected quarter on the Chembur golf course and how he proceeded to win the bid is one of the highlights of the book.
Mariwala comes across as a man who is dogged, curious and open to new ideas. Coming from a business family meant he was born into privilege but still having to fight his way out of many a tricky situation. Mariwala is forthright about what is contentious, and right up there is the family separation. For those who know him as largely being calm and collected, how that period saw him breaking down in front of his colleagues at an offsite makes for interesting reading. Once past that, he got into the listing of Marico and building high-quality, robust Indian consumer brands. Parachute and Saffola have endured the test of time and, with timely brand extensions, made themselves relevant to successive generations. The book faithfully captures the journey of the young man from Mumbai’s congested Masjid Bunder, dabbling in the commoditised coconut oil business, who ended up running a corporate.
One of his biggest skills, as the book does speak of articulately, remains the ability to identify the basic insight and convert that to a large idea. Selling coconut oil in plastic bottles was an innovation ahead of its time and is the norm today. Equally important is the desire to grow Marico beyond the boundaries of India. That has led to a presence in Bangladesh and Africa, among other markets.
Harsh Realities is not just a smart pun but also a commentary on how the many knocks on the head strengthened Mariwala’s resolve to make it big. Doubtlessly, that journey has been successful and rewarding in the monetary sense. But it has also given the Marico boss satisfaction at a very emotional level.
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