The rum diaries

From toilet soaps to Rum cocktails, Mahesh Madhavan, CEO, Bacardi, found the easy life the hard way.

Sanjiv Bhattacharya | Print Edition: November 16, 2008

Mahesh Madhavan
 Inside track
Born: Chennai, Sept. 6, 1962
Education: Bachelor of Engineering (Mechanical) from Bangalore University. Masters in Management Studies from S.P. Jain Institute of Management
First job: Engineer Trainee at Mazagon Docks (Rs 700 per month)
Favourite music: Jazz, lounge and oldies from the ’80s (especially Abba, Paul Anka, The Eagles)
Favourite food: My wife’s fish curry! Also Moroccan—the tagine of lamb
Favourite destination: Somewhere serene in Europe like the Grindlewald ( Switzerland) and Mykonos (Greece)
Mantra: Work hard, don’t chase money and have fun—life is too short
It was in 2002 when Mahesh Madhavan, the CEO of Bacardi, gave up spirits for good. He was in Thailand at the time, heading up the brand in the Far East, and having a splendid time of it. A little too splendid. “Oh, it’s a great life,” he says. “Thais love to drink. And they mix spirits with a lot of water, so you don’t notice how much you’re having. I was polishing off half a bottle of whisky in one sitting!” So he called it quits. “Now, I’m a beer guy. It’s easier to control.”

He doesn’t look like a hardened drinker when we meet at the Sheraton in Saket, South Delhi, for brunch. Relatively youthful for 46, gently spoken, a family man with two children (aged 13 and 16), he has the relaxed manner of someone who has spent the last 14 years selling upmarket liquor throughout Asia and the Far East—from India to Thailand to Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Japan and Hong Kong, on a constant whirl of parties, gigs and launches. Working for Bacardi, it seems, is every bit as glamorous as it sounds.

But it wasn’t always such a cushy ride. Madhavan’s career began at Mazagon Docks, and then a power plant at Chembur in Mumbai, working brutal night shifts. He was 23, a recent engineering graduate, and his father had suddenly passed away, leaving Mahesh as the eldest son. It was a turning point. “It was a lot of responsibility, suddenly on my shoulders— I grew up fast.”

He didn’t like engineering, though, so he left to do an MBA, and joined Wipro, where he spent several years selling soap and vanaspati. “I was in one of the worst parts of Bombay, going to all the kirana shops selling toilet soaps door to door,” he laughs. “And kids these days expect 5-star hotels straight out of college!” It was a yearning for glamour that led him to advertising, but he didn’t find it there. So, he segued into marketing Smirnoff vodka doing promotions in the hip Bombay bars like Ghetto, Copa Cabaana and J 49. This was when the drinking started.

At the time, India was addicted to dark spirits, not white, and they mixed them with water and soda. It was a challenge persuading the market to buy a spirit that had no smell, which they mixed with Sprite or Coke. But with the help of trendy marketing vehicles like the Smirnoff Fashion Awards, the sales climbed—so high that Bacardi took note, poaching him to be their marketing head three years later. “I have this itch,” he says. “After three years in one place, I’m ready to move.”
 A day in the life of Madhavan
  • 6 A.M.: Straight to the gym to walk and run for 40 mins followed by light weights. I also practice the breathing exercises we learnt at Art of Living
  • 7 A.M.: Breakfast of cereals with nuts, bananas and skimmed milk
  • 8.15 A.M.: Quick 15-minute commute to work
  • 12 P.M.: Lunch from the office caterer or brought from home. Unless I’m travelling, when I sample the local cuisine. I love dhaba food
  • 5.30 P.M.: Leave for home and encourage my team to leave—I don’t believe in this culture of just hanging around to show that you are working hard
  • 6 P.M.: Go for a walk with my wife and my golden retriever “Zak”
  • 8 P.M.: Socialising, but not at Bacardi events. Sometimes you just want to be with a few friends and a glass of beer

This time, the move was from Bombay to Delhi, which prompted all the typical Mumbaikar grumbles. “Bombay people take you at face value,” he says. “In Delhi, they look at your car and your visiting card before they decide if they want to be friends.”

But it couldn’t have been that bad. When he arrived in Delhi, he drove a Maruti Zen, and now he drives a Mercedes E 200. Again, it was his trendy marketing vehicles that put Bacardi on the map—the star-studded parties he sponsored throughout India, at the Famous Studios in Mahalaxmi, the Helipad at Goa, the 3rd Milestone in Gurgaon.

“Our tag line was ‘Be What You Want To Be’, which was a big change in the way spirits were marketed,” says Madhavan. “Whisky campaigns were aspirational, all about striving for success and status. Look at the names like Officer’s Club. But Bacardi showed people on a beach, taking it easy. The message was—stop trying to be someone else, just relax and enjoy life.” It worked—by year two, Bacardi had overtaken Smirnoff in the spirits market. “Selling spirits is never about the product, it’s about the story you weave around it. It’s all branding and imagery.”

By 2001, he got the itch again and transferred to Bangkok to be Bacardi’s MD in the Far East—a sweet life, by all accounts, with his wife and two children, in a building complex with tennis courts, a swimming pool, a club house. He went fishing, he made loads of friends. It was the first time that he broke his three year rule and stayed six years. “Thai people are very warm. It’s a really social culture.” And it’s not exactly difficult selling rum to Thais. “Thailand drinks as much Bacardi as India. But their population is only 64 million!”

But as an expat, he felt homesick. He could see India’s growth from afar, and he felt left out. So now he’s back home, in Gurgaon, in a swish apartment block, plotting his next trendy Bacardi promotion. “Oh there’s still the parties and launches, but I’m sticking to my regime,” he laughs. “No spirits. Mine’s a beer!”

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