"I look for opportunities in a challenge"
Prosenjit Datta and Ajita Shashidhar July 23, 2018
You took over when growth dipped significantly. What was the mandate given to you?
A: I completed 25 years with Unilever last October. I started in Dubai when Unilever had come onshore in the Middle East. We were operating like a start-up, launching several new brands. Then, an opportunity came to go to Bangladesh, where our business was in dire straits. We were losing market share to a competitor who was propagating 'Halal' products. We turned around the business and in two years I went on to become chairman of Unilever Bangladesh. From there, I moved to Unilever Philippines as chairman and then to Unilever North Africa and Middle East. When I first joined Unilever in the early 90s, it was an operating company called Unilever Arabia. When I took over, it had expanded into 20 countries in the region.
During this period, we went through the Arab Spring. The challenge was not only to protect people and assets but also to grow the business. I always look for opportunities within a challenge. During the Arab Spring, I called my Managing Director and asked him to make a revised plan and increase investments in Egypt. When the country came to a standstill, the only thing people were doing was watching television. While competitors struggled for growth, we continued growing in double digits. Our Egypt business flourished and in 2013 we won the Compass Award, the highest award in the Unilever world that is given to the best performing business during the year.
Having worked for 11-12 years as chairman/CEO before India, Unilever had prepared me for the new role. I was very excited because I was coming back home, and within the Unilever world, there is no business like Hindustan Unilever.
What did you tell your team when you took over in 2013?
Before I landed in India, I sent each of my management committee members a two-three page note on what I wanted to see, and not what they wanted to show me.
In the first three months, I travelled a lot, met consumers, competitors, analysts and investors, and asked them what they thought about HUL. Some came up with nuggets and insights. That enabled me to frame the building blocks of our journey.
I also used my experience of running 20 countries. One thing that struck me was that all those countries are more homogeneous than India. There was one language, Arabic; one predominant culture, Islamic. Hamare desh mein bhasha alag hai, competitors are different, levels of penetration are different, economic growth is different.
You can't run India as one unit. We manufacture around 3.5 million tonnes of finished products and over 40 billion units of finished products every year. When India was at a nascent stage of development, you could have had one India strategy. I knew that it would not work in 2013. So, I introduced Winning In Many Indias (WIMI) to my team. WIMI was not only about rewiring the company but changing the philosophy. Under WIMI, we have divided the country into 14 consumer clusters.
Was the entry of upstarts like Patanjali which disrupted the market one of the triggers for change in HUL?
We had launched Lever Ayush at the beginning of the millennium, but were ahead of time. And it came at a premium. We did not persevere the way we should have. Naturals is not something which only one competitor brought in. There were many competitors playing around it.
You have been passionate about the 15 CCBTs you set up. Can you throw some light on it?
In a globalised world, it is important to ensure that the essence of Dove in the way it is marketed, be it in the US, the UK or India, remains consistent. Now, we are getting competitors who are local and very agile. So, how do we bring in speed and agility and become focused on local markets? Under the banner of 'Connected for Growth', or C4G, we set up 15 Country Category Business Teams (CCBTs). These are like mini-boards of the company led by young general managers (GMs). Each CCBT has representatives from sales, R&D, finance, consumer & marketing insights and HR. In a complete reorientation of the company, the 15 GMs have been given the mandate to deliver P&L for the year.
What is your digital re-imagination strategy all about?
It was in 2014 that we decided to develop capabilities in e-commerce. We set up a separate e-commerce model and brought talent from outside. We have now built capabilities in e-commerce, much bigger than what the business is. My share in e-commerce is greater than my share in modern trade and my share in modern trade is greater than in general trade. These are the channels of the future.
We believe that digitisation, analytics, AI and data as the back-bone will have a profound impact on our industry. So two years back, we started working on 'Re-imagining HUL'. In this, we started creating a holistic vision of what technology can do for our business in the near future. Today, we have about 35 experiments running across the company.