Life has become a lot busier for Harsh C. Mariwala, Chairman of Marico, ever since he stepped down as Managing Director of the Rs 5,000 crore consumergoods company in March. He now spends half his time on Marico and his wellness company, Kaya. He devotes much of his remaining time on his entrepreneurial mentoring venture Ascent and son Rishab's handmade soap company, Soap Opera N More. He has also set up a family office to invest in various businesses. "I don't want to invest in gold, real estate or debt," he says. "I am a strong believer in investing in capital markets. I invest in businesses. I would like to take risks from a long-term point of view in the capital market and private equity and even in seed funds."What enables Mariwala, 63, to multi-task so well? He says simply that he is "wired" to do many things at the same time. His colleagues, however, say the secret is an old, hard-bound diary that helps him to be incredibly meticulous and organised. "He [Mariwala] even knows what he would be doing at 4.30 on a Friday evening exactly two months later," says Vijay Subramaniam, former CEO of Marico's international business division and now Managing Director of Bacardi India. "He once called to tell me that two months later he was travelling by road from Delhi to Jaipur and if I could join him to discuss a certain strategy."
Mariwala's humble diary not just allows him to manage his time but also helps him focus on the tiniest of details. He notes down each conversation he has had with his staff and often recalls those discussions later to the embarrassment of those employees. "He reminded me of a comment that I had made on a particular strategy five years later during a strategy meeting," says B. Sridhar, Chief Operating Officer (Rest of Asia & Middle East, North and Sub-Saharan Africa) at Marico. "Now, even I have started noting down each conversation I have with my colleagues."
This attention to detail has helped him grow his hair oil and edible oil business into a company that sells valueadded goods in hair styling and men's grooming and even health foods. "His laser focus on details is apparent in every initiative he undertakes," says strategic HR advisor Hema Ravichander, who is on the Marico board.
Friends and colleagues of Mariwala say his greatest quality is his ability to pick up potentially high-growth categories and grow them to their full potential. A recent instance is his decision to focus on the male grooming and hair styling categories, much more than deodorants. Marico entered these categories last year after it acquired the personal-care business of Paras Pharmaceuticals. Mariwala's top lieutenant, Managing Director Saugata Gupta, explains: "The idea is to do fewer things, bigger things and do them better. Trying to chase too many things gives an escape button to dump something."
In foods, the company, after trying its hands in a range of things such as fortified flour to health-based snacks, decided to focus only on the flavoured oats category. Saffola Oats now has a dominant market share of 61 per cent. In fact, Marico's consumer product business in the June-to-September quarter of the current financial year recorded the highest volume growth in the last five quarters. It's styling and male grooming products grew 21 per cent, while sales of food products increased 31 per cent.
Mariwala's ability to make the right choices also reflects in his selection of the international markets that he decided to do business in, says Subramaniam of Bacardi. He says the decision to do business in Asia and Africa and not in Latin America was a brilliant choice. "He didn't want to go to Latin America as it was too far way and hence that much more difficult. Our [Marico's] international business when I took over in 2006 was just $20 million. When I moved out last year, it was $200 million."
It's not that Mariwala hasn't made mistakes, but he says the mistakes helped him learn how to make the right bets. He admits that changing Kaya's positioning from a dermatological-led skin care services brand to a regular skin services m a n a g e m e n t brand could have been avoided. Last year, Mariwala demerged Kaya from Marico and moved back to its original positioning. The strategy has worked and Kaya is now a profitable venture.This ability to not fear from making mistakes and instead learn from them has been one of the main reasons why Mariwala has been able to retain professional talent in Marico despite it being an entrepreneur-run organisation. "A lot of people who have thrived here will be willing to work in a boundaryless environment where they can take risks and challenge themselves. In most professionally run companies, the employees are asked to merely execute, but Harsh has brought in the culture of empowerment," says Gupta. Sridhar concurs. "In my 15-year stint I have tried my hands at various functions and that has kept me intellectually occupied," he says. One of the reasons why Mariwala has thousands of conversations recorded in his diary is because of his openness to patiently listen to each employee of his company. This philosophy of inclusiveness is also exemplified in the way he chairs and leads the board meetings, says Ravichander. "He seeks insights of individual board members and summarises the key decisions that have been reached. When board feedback is required between meetings he reaches out individually or collectively to the board counsel."
Mariwala has now handed over the day-to-day operations of the company to a team of professionals headed by Gupta. "I am not as involved as I was earlier," he says. But he sets high standards. He is hoping Marico's revenue will quadruple in the next four years. He wants to spend a lot more time scaling up his entrepreneurial mentoring venture. "In Ascent we have mentored over 300 entrepreneurs. We need to grow that much faster," says Mariwala, a fitness freak who makes it a point to leave office by 5.30 p.m. every day and heads straight to the Gold's Gym in Bandra in suburban Mumbai. In fact, he hardly remembers a day when he didn't work out.
Where does he see himself five years from now? Will he be spending more time at the golf course or at the gym? He smiles. "Fitness will forever remain a part of life, but I see myself continuing to do all that I am doing today even five years from now."