Vinita Bali | Return of the native

Vinita Bali | Return of the native
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First Published: Thu, Jul 16 2009. 09 14 PM IST

It’s still got crunch: Bali’s challenge is to take Britannia back to its historic market leader position. Jayachandran / Mint
It’s still got crunch: Bali’s challenge is to take Britannia back to its historic market leader position. Jayachandran / Mint
Updated: Thu, Jul 16 2009. 09 14 PM IST
Britannia Industries Ltd’s large, old-style verdant campus, spread over 5 acres, is a prime piece of real estate and sits on one of Bangalore’s key arterial roads. Unlike the city’s cramped, new glass-and-chrome technology company offices, Britannia’s low-slung, roomy old buildings are a relief to the eye.
It’s still got crunch: Bali’s challenge is to take Britannia back to its historic market leader position. Jayachandran / Mint
With the airport shifting away to the outskirts at Devanahalli, the traffic flow on this important road is much smoother. This is what Vinita Bali has done at Britannia too—unclogged the arteries of the company by getting growth back and exiting joint ventures that proved to be a drag on its potential.
After a torrid growth phase in the late 1990s, Britannia, led by former honcho Sunil Alagh, was bogged down in a quagmire. Much of the turmoil could be traced back to Alagh’s style of functioning and the company’s bitter spats with various partners. Alagh ran the company as a fiefdom and eventually left Britannia under a hail of allegations after differences cropped up with the owners, including industrialist Nusli Wadia.
Britannia is the crown jewel in Wadia’s empire, and for close to 18 months after Alagh’s departure, it drifted without proper leadership. National and regional players were eating into Britannia’s market share. When Bali joined the company in January 2005, Britannia was well and truly on the ropes. The cookie had all but crumbled.
Wadia’s choice of Bali to run Britannia was a surprise, largely because in the past, she had run multi-billion-dollar divisions for The Coca-Cola Co., was marketing chief for its key brand Coke, and had stayed away from India for 16 years despite numerous lucrative offers. However, Wadia convinced Bali to take up the challenge of turning Britannia’s fortunes around.
I meet Bali for lunch on the beautiful Britannia campus, in order to accommodate her schedule. Bali walks in with her disarming smile and we move to a large dining room where a vegetarian meal awaits us. Naturally, dessert is cakes produced by the company.
Bali says she hails from a “typical educated middle-class family” with a well-read mother whose family had moved to India after Partition. “My father was the director at Air Headquarters at the ministry of defence and a very cerebral guy. He wouldn’t talk much about his job, and dinner conversations would revolve around the latest book we had read.” She, however, credits her mother for her lifelong interest in music, theatre and dance. “Both of them complemented my right and left brain development.” And despite a strong focus on education, Bali found time to train for 13 years in Kathak—“though I don’t dance now”.
The frail-looking Bali says she was a good hockey player (centre forward) and played other games such as badminton, basketball and, till very recently, tennis.
She recounts being an ardent sympathizer of Communist ideology: “That is, till I joined Jamnalal Bajaj and moved to Bombay,” she laughs, referring to the prominent business school. During campus placements in 1977, she decided to join Voltas, a Tata group company.
“Women then weren’t recruited into marketing roles and some companies actually told me as much,” says Bali. One reason was that it was difficult for women marketers on travel assignment to small towns to find reliable accommodation. “In my sales and marketing job, when I visited places like Lucknow or Kanpur, I would stay with friends or relatives.”
Voltas was then setting up a consumer products group and a programme to nurture and market products of small Indian companies. One of the first brands to be launched was Rasna, a soft-drink concentrate created by entrepreneur Piruz Khambatta. “O&M (Ogilvy and Mather) was the agency for us then. As brand manager for Rasna I worked with the likes of Usha Bhandarkar who did the campaign for us, Roda Mehta was the media person, Mani Ayer and other such legends. I got an insight into branding, advertising and creativity, which helped me so much later in my career.”
Rasna went on to become a roaring success. This attracted the attention of Cadbury, which offered her a job as brand manager for its confectionary business. Along with Deepak Shourie, the marketing manager of the company, Bali says they managed to triple the company’s sales in three years.
In 1983, when a “fully paid” one-year scholarship to Michigan State University was offered to Bali, she grabbed it (she even harboured an ambition to do a PhD and become a professor and teach). What helped the decision was Cadbury’s willingness to give her a year’s sabbatical with a promise to hire her back after the course.
Later, Bali was posted at Bournville, at the Cadbury headquarters in England. Here she was involved in the successful launch of Wispa, an aerated chocolate. “More than anything, I loved the location as Bournville is 22km from Stratford-upon-Avon, where I watched every possible Shakespeare play. I gave full vent to my theatre interests.”
After a two-year stint, she returned to India. In 1991, Bali says she got an opportunity to work with Cadbury in Nigeria, where her mandate was to turn the company around. So she says she took what seemed like a heretical decision and advised the company to pull out of chocolates and just focus on the sugar confectionary business—Bournvita, cocoa and drinking chocolate.
“The Nigerian stint taught me how sometimes quick decisions need to be taken and one has to rely on gut too and not just on numbers,” she says. In spite of the setbacks, Cadbury that year managed to register volume, value and market share growth in Nigeria. Bali acquired the reputation of a “turnaround expert”. Cadbury promptly sent her to turn around the South Africa operation.
In 1994, she was recruited as the worldwide marketing director for Coke by chief marketing officer Sergio Zyman, who eventually became a close friend and mentor. “I remember when the call came and Sergio made me this offer, the phone fell from my hand,” reminisces Bali.
Bali quickly rose through the ranks and became vice-president of marketing for Latin America and “could order the corporate Gulfstream jet to fly on business anywhere”. In 1999, Bali relocated to Chile as president of the Andean division, which had sales in excess of $1 billion (around Rs5,000 crore now). By 2001, she was reporting directly to the chairman.
By then, Bali says, Coke had evolved. “The Coke I joined was a company which could do no wrong and by the time I left, it could do nothing right.” She, however, says that the opportunities and learning the company gave her were immense. Also, her mentor Zyman had floated his own consultancy and requested her to join him, which she did as a managing principal and head of business strategy practice.
So what made her come back to India? “It was family. My mother was debilitated by a stroke in 2005. She had sacrificed so much for me. While I was continually visiting India, I wanted to be close to her. So after rejecting several calls for positions in India, finally I decided to accept the Britannia one.” Bali believes it was serendipity. “I have never seriously planned anything. Most things happen to me by chance and happenstance.”
venkatesha.b@livemint.com
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First Published: Thu, Jul 16 2009. 09 14 PM IST