A Middle-Class Soul

Like the consumers it talks to, HUL has managed to keep a culture that is quintessentially Indian middle class. Hard-working, frugal, aspiring and humble. Hierarchical, stolid and generally unimaginative.

It starts with the people it recruits: middle-class young men and women who have made it through the gruelling Indian education system. As a consequence, middle-class frugality is built into the company.

I recall travelling with Harish to Delhi when he was COO of Unilever and the keynote speaker at “Ad Asia”, a big advertising industry conference. He refused to be put up in a suite at the Taj and instead the two of us stayed in a comfortable but sober company guest house in Vasant Vihar.

When I joined the company, fresh from IIM- Ahmedabad (IIMA), I became a sales manager and would travel across Madhya Pradesh in 38-degree heat. I was not entitled to an AC car. The reasoning was that if the company salespeople were expected to make forty sales calls in searing heat, it would be most unbecoming for the manager to look cool and well-turned-out when he or she entered the market.

Middle-class living can be a bit stifling too. HUL employees don’t wear suits and ties but neither do they wear jeans and T-shirts.

Just an ordinary shirt and trousers. It is neither the Silicon Valley culture nor is it the investment banking culture.The joke in office was that only the drivers and directors wore a tie and nowadays it is only the former who do.

One thing that has changed with time is the “carpet and tea” rule. If you rose to become a work level (WL)-2C grade manager, you were entitled to a carpet in your room and a bearer who served you tea at designated times. With increasing space constraint, WL-2C managers started sharing office rooms with the more junior 2B. No matter. The carpets in the room were cut into half, notionally dividing the room, and the bearer would ignore the WL-2B manager and serve only the WL-2C manager in the room.

We have certainly inherited the idiosyncrasies of the rule- and status-conscious Indian middle class. But remember that means we have also inherited the best features of the Indian middle class: a hunger to grow and an inborn conservatism in costs.

Comfortable in Lakhimpur and in London

The third aspect of the HUL way that Harish [Manwani] stressed was a culture that can, as Rudyard Kipling put it, “walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch”. R Gopalakrishnan, former vice chairman of HUL and director in Tata Sons, says that to build an antenna one first needs to get the earthing done.

In 1979, when HUL faced a problem of poor milk yields in the catchment of its ghee and milk powder factory in Etah, Uttar Pradesh (UP), then chairman T Thomas started sending management trainees to stay for eight weeks in a village in Etah district. They were to instil confidence among villagers to adopt artificial insemination of cows to improve the milk yield.

In January 2000, just after I joined HUL, my batchmate Shobhit and I were sent for our Etah stint. Our hosts were a poor farming family in Bakrai village close to the tehsil headquarter Patiyali, the birthplace of the thirteenth-century poet Amir Khusrau.

My target was to build a road in the village and to inseminate seventy-eight cows.

We slept on a charpai inside a mud hut, performed our morning ablutions in the field outside, had a quick meal of potatoes and roti at 8 am and then got on to a bike containing cryogenic cans with sperms.

Cows and milk are central to the agrarian economy of UP. To improve the milk yield of cows, the government was subsidising the artificial insemination of cows with sperm from higher yielding varieties. HUL was supporting the cause. We roamed around villages trying to identify cows in heat. When we saw cows emitting a characteristic white discharge, we would meet the farmer and convince him of the merits of paying us Rs 10 to artificially inseminate his cow. Milk yield, we would argue, would go up from 4 litres to 10 litres if we crossed the Indian cow with a Jersey bull.

After observing my boss Gautam do this a couple of times, I had a go at artificial insemination. Once I got over the squeamishness, it wasn’t a very tough task. I can honestly say when asked in truth-or-dare sessions that I lost my virginity to a cow.

After a hard day’s work, we would go back to our village. The Ganga was only a few kilometres away and occasionally we would saunter along its bank, take a quick dip in the icy-cold water and then smoke a chillum with the sadhus on the bank to warm ourselves. On most days we would simply get back to our adopted home, have yet another meal of roti and potato, warm ourselves by a fire and shut our eyes shortly after dusk.

While the first few days felt alien, we adjusted quickly and started enjoying our rural life. Maybe it is nostalgia, but I don’t remember being healthier and happier than I was during our time there. I have made many visits to rural India since. But even now, when I think about how some product will work in rural India, my mind goes back to our time in the village in Etah.

Mohit Sud, currently the branch manager of HUL’s Central India Branch, wrote a blog about his travails while travelling in buses in Tamil Nadu as a management trainee in 2004.

These include words of wisdom such as “Every TN bus has overhead shelves all along the side of the bus to keep luggage. Unfortunately, the designer did not take into consideration the abysmal condition of roads in TN and that certain people such as me are above average height. Consequently, when the rubber and pothole meet, so will your head and the shelf”. and “If the seat in front of you is occupied by women then it is best to move back 2 seats. The primary reason for this word of caution is that on a long-distance journey the odds that the woman in front of you will throw up are 3:4.”

Swarnim Bharadwaj, global brand director on Lux, recalls how a graduate from the Faculty of Management Studies, Delhi, famously said in his recruitment interview that the smallest city he had been to in India was . . . Noida! He was selected but promptly dispatched to train in Bihar.

The Delhi boy reported in at the East branch office in Calcutta and the first thing he asked was where the nearest jewellery store was. When they asked why, the Delhi boy’s answer had the whole office in splits. He had been told by friends and family that eligible bachelors like him were often kidnapped in Bihar and forcibly married, so he wanted to wear a ring and asked Swarnim to spread the word that he was well and truly married. While his stint had many memorable experiences, the joy of a rural wedding wasn’t going to be one of them.

Dinesh Biddappa, a former HR director at HUL, recalls how when he was the HR manager in the Orai factory in UP, freshly minted management trainees had to go through the grind. The factory had just been set up. The temperature was 45 degrees-plus, the guest house was a ramshackle shed and food was insipid.

But so used to hardships were the trainees that when he asked his HR trainee Piyush Mehta for suggestions to improve living conditions, Piyush merely said that everything was excellent, just that at night rats would come and nibble his ear. Was there any solution to this minor inconvenience?

If my own career in HUL started with a deep introduction to the real India, my taste for the high life came four years later, when I was a brand manager on Surf detergent. My boss Sanjay Behl, currently CEO of Raymond, asked me to accompany our director, Aart Weijburg, on a trip to Singapore. Aart was travelling to meet his boss for an annual presentation and wanted help with his presentation – or a “bag carrier”, as we brand managers called it.

I was given a wardrobe allowance of Rs 8000 to spruce up and travelled business class for the first time. I could sleep on a flat bed in the plane, watch a film of my choice and order cuisine I wanted rather than stomach the food wrapped in silver foil that was placed in front of me. When we got to Singapore, I stayed in a hotel on Orchard Road that cost $250 a night, and Aart took me to a plush restaurant for dinner, where rice cost roughly my monthly salary. Coming from a middle-class background – with a teacher mother and engineer father – this was as alien to me as Etah had been. But it was all part of training in the CEO factory.

The CEO Factory

Excerpted with permission from The CEO Factory: Management Lessons From Hindustan Unilever, Sudhir Sitapati, Juggernaut.