Ask PepsiCo Inc.’s India head, Sanjeev Chadha, ?almost any question, and more likely than not he will pause and start with a count, listing at least “two or three” thoughtful reasons in ascending order, unusually methodical for a consumer products executive with an advertising background.
Ask consultant Radha Chadha a question, and it is more than likely that, after an equal pause, you will get a non-linear answer that is about emotions and inner reasoning or a higher purpose. Again, not perhaps something you would naturally expect from a math whiz from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (IIM-A).
Unusual, until you realize that after 25+ years of being married to each other, the Chadhas are clearly a couple in sync, in spoken and unspoken ways, even if they may have spent significant time away from each other amid demanding careers and multiple residences.
Global citizens: Home is no longer one country (Illustration by: Jayachandran / Mint)
Now back in India, after being away for a little more than a decade, they represent a new, emerging breed of Indian power couples—those who are global in their approach to life, making separate and distinct marks in their chosen fields but, in many ways, doing it together.
It isn’t surprising then that Radha has helped Sanjeev screen potential ad models from tapes that he brought home for Pepsi commercials (taking credit for picking Aishwarya Rai Bachchan for one commercial when “she was a nobody”), while he was the one who pushed someone more comfortable with numbers than words to eventually write what would become a well regarded book on the luxury business in Asia (“because she used to write lovely letters!”).
A 17-year veteran of Pepsi, Sanjeev is back in India heading a newly resurgent entity whose global CEO, Indra Nooyi, also happens to have India high on the agenda for personal and business reasons. His goal—“well, two big ones”, as he lists—is to triple business in five years by leveraging Pepsi (the cola giant) into PepsiCo (the cola, water and juices giant); and to push aggressively for what PepsiCo dubs “Performance with Purpose”, by which the company also does social good while trying to beat the life out of the likes of Coca-Cola Co.
For Sanjeev, coming back to India was about answering the question whether “I wanted to be a spectator or do I want to get involved in these exciting years.”
For Radha, who runs her own consulting firm and thus has a portable gig, the move is not so much about the India opportunity as “it is about my ability to see India afresh…understand that this is what defines Indians.”
The three of us are sitting in the cozy hotel guests-only clubhouse by the swimming pool in Trident Hilton, an unusually serene oasis of a hotel in the concrete mess of Gurgaon, not too far from PepsiCo’s offices. Trident has been home to Sanjeev for the early months of his new assignment as Radha stayed back in their Hong Kong home to make sure daughter Noor’s schooling was wrapped up.
The Louis Jadot 2005 Bourgogne Pinot Noir seems to be pairing well with spring rolls, peanuts and chips, though I am chagrined to find that Radha’s white shirt and blue jeans and Sanjeev’s jeans and Ralph Lauren polo casual shirt leave me and my suit sticking out in the casual clubhouse setting that we have all to ourselves.
Radha, whose parents live in Pune, has been shuttling between there and Hong Kong, while trying to spend weekends in Delhi with Sanjeev, while he uses the family’s absence to immerse himself in the Indian operations of Pepsi.
In many ways, there is a bit of a back to the beginning feel for the couple who had spent their first jobs after IIM in two corners of India—Radha with ad agency JWT in Mumbai and Sanjeev with Brooke Bond in Kolkata—often meeting in midpoint cities, such as Nagpur and Jalandhar, to try and catch up with each other.
Both had ended up at IIM-A not because they necessarily wanted to be there. Sanjeev almost became a doctor before a last minute test at the Armed Forces Medical College in Pune suggested he was borderline colour blind. Radha’s love of math meant she had little future prospects back then other than to teach, something she didn’t care for.
While Sanjeev had to show up for math remedial classes before the main MBA course began, Radha showed up ready for classes, only to trip and break her leg on the first day at the Louis Kahn designed campus. So, when time came to form class work groups, everyone, except for Sanjeev, was taken by the time Radha could hobble down the theatre-style classroom. The rest, as they say, is history, though Radha notes that out of 12 batchmates “we all found husbands, except one” from among their IIM peers.
But, those were also days when companies would post jobs at IIM and note “girls need not apply”, recalls Radha, saying that “advertising was an easy career for a woman back then”. After a few years in sales, Sanjeev would also gravitate towards advertising and JWT, eventually pitching for a new US multinational client that was coming to India—Pepsi. While JWT did win the account, it would, in 1990, lose Sanjeev to Pepsi, where he was part of the India brand launch team and recalls it being “a very, very dynamic industry with tough days in the beginning”.
The tough times lasted for a while and would resurface, especially with concerns over pesticide in the water that Pepsi used. But, these days, PepsiCo and Coca-Cola are both expanding and talking, once again, of break-even and growing profits.
And, while Sanjeev does talk about Pepsi, Gatorade and Aquafina (“Our goal is to meet every consumer beverage need, for every occasion and every time of the day”), he is equally passionate about the company’s conservation efforts, be it in water, solid waste management or focused vocational training—in some ways similar to what rivals, such as Coke or Nestle, are also doing, especially in developing economies.
“It is in our interest to raise our voices to talk about what is perception and what is reality,” he says when pressed about whether much of this is an attempt to fend off criticism of packaged beverages companies. He says PepsiCo India’s use of 2.2 litres of water for every 2 litres of beverage production—and falling—is “absolutely the global gold standard” within the company, even when a lot of business is done in glass bottles that need to be washed properly.
But, enough of PepsiCo, even if Radha is only too happy to quip about life in a Pepsi household: “I will get divorced if I drink from a Coke can.”
Like many returning Indians who chose to come back home when they didn’t have to, Sanjeev and Radha spend a lot of time comparing and contrasting, debating and discussing their former home country, China, which still feels like home, and India.
“I do feel one of the biggest differences is the ability (in China) to think much further ahead and try and look at the future and have a much larger picture,” says Sanjeev. “And we seem to love complexity. My philosophy is fewer, bigger, better.”
Radha puts on her consumer marketing lens, noting how Gurgaon is full of “little, little malls that are not the most efficient or planned. In China, the new malls are often huge, and some may be white elephants, but it reflects a mindset.”
So, is this return to India a coming back for good?
“I am more open to staying on as much as I would have been looking for a new experience outside India,” says a measured Sanjeev.
“I certainly want to keep my home in Hong Kong,” says Radha. “Home is no longer one country. I don’t know where my children (son Kabir graduated last year from Stanford) are going to settle down. The children are the future and my parents are the roots. So, India is going to be one part of home, always, just as Hong Kong will be. Maybe, there is a third leg to come.”