Imanage to embarrass Samsung India’s deputy managing director, Ravinder Zutshi, with my first question. We are having lunch at Gurgaon’s Park Plaza Hotel and he sticks to vegetarian fare because it’s a Tuesday. It is then that I notice the Amitabh Bachchan-like series of gemstone rings on the 55-year-old’s fingers. “Why do you wear those?” I ask him. “It’s good to have these kind of things guarding you. In this world, you have to be a little superstitious and careful,” he laughs it off.
This superstitious side of him is a bit of a surprise. When I spoke to some of his business associates and former colleagues before our meeting, the qualities I repeatedly heard about him were “astute” and “aggressive”. I was expecting a hard-talking, forceful salesman; but Zutshi, I realize, is a blend of symbiotic contradictions. Like the kind of man who knows what he is capable of, but has no awkwardness about falling back on a sapphire stone in a “what harm can it do” kind of manner. Clearly, it is his ability to be leader and every-man that has aided his rise from a sales executive in Philips to deputy managing director at a $2.2 billion (around Rs10,274 crore) consumer durables firm.
Zutshi responded to a job advertisement for Philips just as he graduated from Delhi University in 1978. “Jobs were not easy to come by in those days. And it was even more difficult with a multinational because everyone wants to work for a company like Philips. Somehow, I got selected. I joined in their lighting division and after a couple of years moved to the audio-video division. There was no video in India then,” he says.
Cautious does it: A mix of aggression and caution took Zutshi from a humble sales executive’s job to the deputy MD’s chair at a big consumer durables firm. Jayachandran/Mint
He worked there for a decade. About that time, a small company from Maharashtra was starting up and trying to establish its brand of televisions. “That was Videocon and I was called for a meeting with Venugopal Dhoot,” he says.
Videocon was trying to establish its presence in north India. Zutshi had worked in most north Indian states and Dhoot was keen on having him spearhead Videocon’s expansion plans. They had repeated meetings, but nothing really materialized. “Dhoot kept telling me that we are a small company now but one day we will be a big name,” Zutshi says.
A year after their first meeting, Dhoot asked Zutshi again and this time he decided to take the plunge. “People who knew me told me that it was a blunder of a lifetime to leave a company like Philips and join Videocon,” he says. But Zutshi felt the challenges of selling the product of a new brand would be a better learning experience.
“This was in 1988. After the 1982 Asian Games, the TV market in India was about to explode. So I took this chance and said yes and joined as regional manager for north. I thought it would somehow work out. And Videocon just became a huge success story—bigger and better than our plans. We had to face national brands like BPL and Onida and lots of home-grown brands in each region. Videocon just pitched somewhere in between. But Dhoot had a clear plan and he himself is a very aggressive guy and he personally knew the market thoroughly,” he says.
Then came more change. The liberalization of the Indian economy began and Videocon started looking for a foreign partner. “Dhoot told me later that he was looking around for a long time. Finally, he found a brand called Samsung, which none of us had heard of. It was a small Korean company with a bad legacy,” Zutshi recalls. In 1982, some local manufacturers had got some Samsung TV kits from Korea, under the Asian Games policy scheme. But the kits didn’t work properly and Samsung’s reputation in India took a hit.
Dhoot put Zutshi in charge of taking the Korean representatives around the country. “I travelled everywhere with them, they were keen to see the market. Sony had just started its operations in 1994 and Panasonic was coming in. In 1995, Videocon finally signed the JV with Samsung. Dhoot trusted me and said I must have my man there,” Zutshi says. He resigned from Videocon and formally joined as an employee of the joint venture. In 2002, Samsung bought out Videocon’s stake and became an independent subsidiary in India. At the time, Zutshi was vice-president, sales, with the company.
Zutshi’s focus for Samsung in India has been in understanding the unique needs of the Indian customer and using technology to create new products and categories. “Technology matters, and we incorporate it into all our products—whether it is basic or premium. In washing machines, for example, we introduced a starch function. People were washing their saris in the washing machine and then starching it separately. We added a function where you can starch the sari during the wash. In refrigerators, we are the first company that looked at the customer profile. People would buy a refrigerator and then a stabilizer. We asked why should they do this? So we designed a new compressor that can take spikes in voltage. Now, this year, we are extending this to air conditioners too,” he says.
Zutshi is optimistic about India. Despite the crowds at electronic stores across the country, he feels the surface has not even been scratched when it comes to the Indian customer’s capacity to buy new gizmos. The only deterrent is the power infrastructure. “There are people in Bihar who have mobiles but don’t have electricity supply to charge their phones. So this guy comes to the city, buys huge batteries (such as the ones used in cars) and he charges Rs15 for people to charge their mobiles. So we have 3G phones now in India, but don’t have the infrastructure to charge them,” he says as he finishes his clear vegetable soup.
Our lunch is served. Zutshi had specifically asked for a thin crust pizza and is served one with a really thick base. He sends it back. The famed aggression is clearly visible. The waiter comes back and says the pizza conforms to the hotel’s standard of thin crust. Zutshi shrugs and jokes, “Well, I only have to eat half of it then.” The reports were right, he does know how to make the best of a bad situation.