In Philipe Haydon’s own words, there aren’t many people who start at the lowest rung in an organization, want to be rock guitarists, and end up heading the company.
Haydon, 50, is chief executive at the Ayurvedic medicine and cosmetics maker, The Himalaya Drug Co., the Indian arm of the Rs.1,200-crore (annual sales) Himalaya group. An Indian with British lineage(his father’s mother was British), he has been with the company since 1979, when he was just 18 and his sole dream was to play the guitar in a rock band. He was persuaded to join Himalaya by his stepfather’s boss, but didn’t give up on his dream.
“My dad bought me my first guitar. He met this guy in Goa who he thought was strange-looking, and the guy offered to sell him a guitar for $10 (around Rs.55 now). My dad said, ‘Rs.10.’ He agreed. So I got my first guitar, a classical German guitar, for Rs.10. I’m assuming he bought it off a stoned junkie,” Haydon says.
Along with his job as a sales representative (just like his stepfather), Haydon—then based in Ahmedabad—started playing in a band. They travelled to Mumbai nearly every weekend in the early 1980s, playing regularly at Rang Bhavan, the legendary south Mumbai venue of India’s rock music scene. The band got an offer from a record label to make an album and, ironically, that is when Haydon decided he would keep music and money separate. “My dad said, ‘You will starve.’ So I declined the deal. I said I will continue to play the music that I love without having to earn my living from it,” he says.
We meet at The Oberoi hotel in Bangalore, where he declines my offer of a drink—it is late afternoon, after all—and settles on Darjeeling chai (tea). A bit surprised (he’s a rocker), I abandon my plans to have a drink and order masala chai.
In August, Haydon was promoted to head the India business, which contributes 60% to Himalaya’s sales. Since 2001, he had been the head of Himalaya’s pharmaceuticals units, which reported 25% CAGR (compounded annual growth rate) over the past four years. Himalaya, the maker of Liv.52 tablets and Neem face wash, competes with much bigger companies such as Hindustan Unilever Ltd and Johnson & Johnson.
To compete better with such rivals, Haydon reorganized the pharmaceuticals business in 2007. He broke up the single division into nine bits and ramped up hiring of salespeople to reach out to doctors who could then prescribe Himalaya products. The company now covers 450,000 doctors from just 100,000 in 2008. “A doctor who meets 25 medical reps (representatives) on a day switches off after the second or the third. So if you want to sell 50 brands to the doctor, there’s no way he’s listening. To build credibility, you need verticals (divisions). After years, we’re finally being viewed by the medical community as a company with specific products and not a general Ayurveda company,” Haydon says.
He knows the importance of having a strong sales team—he spent more than 21 years in sales, finally heading the function, before he moved to the pharmaceuticals division in 2001. During his stint in sales, Haydon worked across India (except for eastern India) and over the past decade, he’s done stints in 10 countries, including Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam.
"IN PARENTHESIS:Haydon says his company has always known he’s a guitar player. “My chairman buys me a guitar every year. So I have a fantastic range of very expensive guitars,” he says. “He sends me a one-liner: Isn’t it that time of the year yet? It’s not about the money, it’s the gesture that counts.” Haydon estimates he owns about 17 guitars priced from Rs.1-2.5 lakh each. “Most of them are top-of-the-line or signature model guitars—Gibsons... Fenders. My favourite guitar is the first one he bought me—Gibson Les Paul gold top.”"
All this while, he has pursued his passion for rock music. First, with a band called Hammersmith, which was only the second Asian act on MTV in 1992. These days, he performs live with the Bangalore-based Ministry of Blues at least once a month.
How does he reconcile working in the corporate world with playing music that is instinctively anti-establishment and linked with a defiance of authority? “There’s one thing that performing live gives you—it strips you of your ego. You are as good as the next college kid after you; it doesn’t matter if you’re a CEO. No one gives a bloody damn. You lug your own guitar, you set up your own stuff, and after the show when you’re dying, you pack everything up yourself, you carry it down. It takes away your ego and makes you fiercely competitive. That’s the spill-off into my business life. It makes you very aggressive. Over the years you build a sense that if you’re not good enough, get out of the way. That’s a question I keep asking myself at work,” Haydon says.
Through the hour-long meeting, the executive-cum-guitarist, dressed in a white shirt and black blazer, makes expansive hand gestures and jerks his head this way and that to drive home a point. Especially when he talks about his unshakable belief in Ayurvedic medicine.
“The shift towards embracing alternative forms of medicine is possibly more powerful than it ever has been before. Modern doctors are also realizing that there are limitations in allopathy. They do work fast, but they do have side effects as well. There are some cases where herbal medicines are way better,” he says.
Haydon cites liver disorders as one of these instances. Liv.52, Himalaya’s pill for liver disorders, is one of the best-selling drugs in India, raking in over Rs.165 crore in sales last year. The around six-decade-old drug was once used mainly for treating infectious hepatitis. That disease is no longer so rampant, so Himalaya has come up with variations. The drug is now used for a wide range of treatments, mainly by patients who wish to limit the damage to their liver from drugs used to treat chronic diseases—diabetes patients, people suffering from non-alcoholic steatohepatitis, people who use statins to lower cholesterol and tuberculosis patients. It is popular among alcoholics as well.
Last week, the Delhi high court ruled that SBL Ltd’s Liv-T drug infringed Liv.52’s trademark, ending a 15-year-old legal battle.
However, it is not a big profit generator for Himalaya. “Our chairman says, ‘We can make our money on cosmetics, I don’t want to make money on life-saving products.’ So we don’t have much of a profit margin on Liv.52,” Haydon says.
More than half an hour into our chat, just as Haydon reaches for his tea, I interrupt him with a question. I apologize and ask him to go ahead but he brushes it off politely and we continue, his cup untouched and mine drained.
It is a natural question: What has kept him at Himalaya for so long? “I am promoting the Indian system of medicine. I’m going to allopathic guys who have not studied the Indian system of medicine. Then I am taking my products to other parts of the world. There’s a bit of a high you get in doing that successfully. We have to generate money, we have to plough it back into R&D (research and development) and keep doing that (without raising funds). That’s very challenging,” he says.
Surely, there would’ve been offers, I press. “Yes. People actually believe it’s that simple, that you put herbs in a capsule, put it into a dabba (bottle), get 10 salesmen, and you will make money. I hope never to leave Himalaya and never to work for any other organization. If I leave, I will be a rock ‘n roll man. Then I will just go and shave my head like Joe Satriani, get into a black T-shirt and play my guitar.”