'Spirited' to the core

“Hunt elephants, don’t shoot ants,” says Asif Adil as we discuss life’s many mysteries over a drink. And the MD of Diageo India gives us many fascinating insights into his colourful life.

Dhiman Chattopadhyay        Print Edition: August 10, 2008

Asif Adil
Asif Adil
When, as a college student, Asif Adil decided to launch his own enterprise Eggs and Chicken (to distribute and sell eggs, as the name suggests), little did he realise that this little entrepreneurial attempt in Mumbai would land him a job in the US.

“I was doing my MBA in Cornell in 1980 when I got a call from this guy who wanted me to come to Dallas to attend his reception. He had seen my resume and was impressed that I had started my own enterprise so early in life.

I landed up for the reception and the guy turned out to be Head of Planning at Frito Lay (PepsiCo). Next morning, he offered me a job and soon I was working at Frito Lay as a Senior Business Analyst,” says Adil matter-of-factly as we sit at the exclusive bar at the Sheraton in Delhi, sipping Scotch.

Asif Adil with wife Padma at their Mumbai home
Asif Adil with wife Padma at their Mumbai home
Over the last 28 years, Adil, now a Person of Indian Origin (he has homes in New Jersey and Mumbai), has graduated from being a “soft drink guy” (he worked for Pepsi for a decade) to a hardcore “spirited” executive, heading Diageo’s India operations.

In between, he worked in the Philippines (where he arrived at the height of the Marcos revolution and bought himself a Chinese Bridal Bed before leaving the country), the US and India for firms as diverse as McKinsey and Luminous.

He also started the beauty care chain Kaya, took the franchisee for KFC in India and sat on the board of Shaw Wallace. Now, at 54, Adil says he is happy at Diageo and “mellowing gracefully”.

And as we “mellow” together over a few glasses of Johnnie Walker Black Label, Adil talks about spirited things he has done in life.

 Inside track
Born: April 24, 1954; Mumbai
Family: Wife Padma and sons Tarik and Samir
Educated: St Xavier’s, Mumbai; National Law College, Mumbai; Cornell University, US
First job: With Frito Lay
First salary: $36,000 p.a.
Favourite film: Dr Zhivago, Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna
Favourite book: The Fountainhead
Favourite destination: Vevey in Switzerland
Would love to visit: St Petersburg  
Mantra in life: Life is like an elevator ride. Make sure you build relationships on the way up

“I was always a fun-loving guy,” he says with a smile, as he remembers his St Xavier’s days when friends would head out to Bullock Cart or Slip Disc (the discos) to have shots of Old Monk or, if they felt flush, Vat 69.

“Once I was driving my friend’s Ambassador and the guys wanted the girls to ‘slide’ into their laps in the back seat. I don’t know how, but I managed to drive the car on two wheels for about 20 seconds, so that the girls slid to one side, as we had wanted,” he says, a trifle embarrassed as his son Tarik, in Delhi with his father on personal work, gives him the wow-I-am-impressed-dad look.

Adil, who worked in McKinsey for 12 years, says brand loyalty is important. “I have been a Polo shirt loyalist for 15 years. And my shoes are Ferragamo,” he says.

 Asif’s day out
6.30 am: Wake up, and be on the phone for an hour with the Asia-Pacific region office
8.30 am: Go for a walk on the Carter Road bandstand or to the gym
10.30 am: At work. Have a cracker for breakfast
7.30 pm: Leave for home
8.30 pm: Dinner engagements (mostly official) at least four times a week
10.30 pm: Visit a few bars (in whichever city he happens to be on a day) to check out brand visibility, perception, etc.
12.30 am: Hit the sack

So, what does the man drink himself? “I pick up a lot of my liquor from London. Check out this shop called The World of Whisky in the duty-free area of the airport. They have the best collection,” he says. What kind of a boss is this jet-setting man? “I like to think I am a kick-ass entrepreneur. I am friendly but I demand returns on time invested. I tell my team to hunt elephants and not to shoot ants.”

He loves to travel, and a recent family vacation in Black Forest (Germany) remains etched in his mind. The glasses are empty by now and Adil has work to do. After 10 p.m., he will have to head to several pubs in town to check the brand visibility and perception about Diageo. “I do this every night. It builds relationships with so many people,” he says. From bunking classes, playing “Teen Patti” with friends in Mumbai and driving an Amby on two wheels, this man has come a long way.

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