The bar manager at the Polo Lounge, Hyatt Regency, New Delhi, seemed bemused when Pradeep Gidwani, managing director, South Asia Breweries (part of the Carlsberg Group), orders three different kinds of beer at one go. When told that Gidwani, 44, had not switched loyalties but had come in for a blind tasting beer session, the manager whipped out three differently shaped glasses, one for each type of beer. He poured a fourth of a bottle into each and then waited on the sidelines to see if Gidwani could figure out his Carlsberg from the others. A few rigorous swirls, deep sniffs, short sips and corn chips later, Gidwani was bang on. He identified Carlsberg first, then Kingfisher and Tiger, and promptly asked for a bottle of Carlsberg to celebrate his accurate assessment.
“I was about 99% sure that I could pick Carlsberg from the others, but there was always that 1% chance that could have turned the tables,” he says in his trademark twang. I am convinced it is “Austraaaalian”, but Gidwani says he has no clue where he picked up this accent. “It is confused, and a hangover of dealing with people from the world over.”
The previous day, Gidwani and I had met for lunch at hotel Crowne Plaza’s G-Café in Gurgaon. Dressed in jeans—“the regular work gear at Carlsberg” —with an untucked pale-coloured linen shirt, he suggested that we go with Carlsberg to accompany our salads. I asked for the beer in a glass, while he preferred to take his swigs straight from the bottle, saying, “There is no better way to showcase my brand than having the bottle on the table.”
A case for beer: Gidwani says beer, unlike wine, is a no-fuss, relaxing drink. Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
For someone like Gidwani, who had his first sip of beer at the age of 3 (“family lore”), being in the drinks industry is a dream job. “If I was selling toothpaste and told someone that at a party, the conversation would not go any further. But when I tell strangers that I work in a company that sells beers, they always have an anecdote to share. People are obsessive about their spirits,” he says. Perhaps just as Gidwani is passionate about everything to do with the business of selling beer. A collector of books on alcohol (he has more than 35 in his library at home), Gidwani likes to put his extensive knowledge about alcohol to good use.
Four years ago, for his 40th birthday bash, Gidwani treated his friends to spirits from all over the world. He got friends in far-flung places to organize spirits such as Brazilian Cachaca, Japanese Sake and Greek Ouzo especially for that evening, and it goes without saying “that almost everyone who attended the party had to sleep over”.
Gidwani, who has been marketing beverages (Brooke Bond and Red Bull) and alcohol (whiskies, wine and beer) for almost 21 years now, and has been a part of five start-up ventures in India, knew from his student days that marketing was the field for him. Picked up by Hindustan Unilever after his MBA, he started out as a management trainee with the Brooke Bond brand and was stationed at Kolkata, Allahabad and Jalgaon over a period of two years. He reminisces: “Lever’s processes and systems are the best. I learnt everything—loading trucks, interacting with local sales teams, visiting the factories—needed to become a good sales rep here.”
But in those days, the system also required staff to spend at least five to six years in a sales position before a move to the marketing side was facilitated. That waiting period, however, was not pencilled into Gidwani’s career plan: “I saw advertising as the next logical step towards my ultimate goal.”
And so, in 1988, he wrote to the top five advertising agencies, seeking a position in client servicing, and was picked up by Everest Advertising—the fourth largest in terms of billing in the late 1980s.
This is where Gidwani’s first brush with the business of selling spirits happened, when he was given the erstwhile Herbertsons account (makers of Bagpiper whisky and now a part of the United Breweries Group) to handle. Also, it was here that he met his wife Rubita—who, until a year ago, was the creative director of Publicis Groupe, a French multinational advertising and communications company, in Dubai. “It helped that I was dating a creative person in the agency. That is why all my work was done much in advance,” he says with a grin.
Three years later, he moved to his first real marketing job as group product manager, Herbertsons. This was also where he got his first opportunity to be a part of start-up when the UB group and United Distillers PLC formed the now defunct joint venture company, United Distillers Pvt Ltd. “Starting a company from scratch is exciting,” says Gidwani. And he lists the Foster’s India launch as amongst his toughest challenges. Now, he hopes history will repeat itself with Carlsberg, which entered India in late 2007.
“The Indian spirits market is complex. See, it even gave me a grey head,” he says, pointing to his snowy white hair. “You are not operating within one framework but have to juggle every state and its laws separately. The only way to be successful in India is to have a series of breweries and all of them located in different states.” This is now a key part of Carlsberg’s strategy.
This year, the growth rate for the beer segment in India is pegged at 12-13%, according to Gidwani, and with new players—both international brands and even local microbreweries—coming in, he says the market will only expand. “At present, India’s annual per capita consumption of beer is 1 litre whereas in countries like China, it is 25 litres,” Gidwani says.
He observes that beer goes well with hot and spicy Indian cuisine. Also boosting beer sales is a huge crop of new young consumers willing to experiment. Another driving factor, Gidwani points out, is changing retail rules and better buying experience in new stores.
Much is changing in the business of selling beer and Gidwani, who has been there and done that already, says interesting times are ahead. “The segmentation in beer, which earlier was only on the basis of strong and mild beer, will now get divided into premium, mild, light, wheat beers, etc., and the older hands will have to rethink their strategies,” he says.
In response to what will happen to older and established players like Kingfisher, which have better distribution networks and more breweries, he uses his favourite analogy of the car market. “After years of only Fiat and Ambassador, when Maruti 800 hit the market, everyone thought this was it. But a few years down the line, other car makers came in with more varieties, and Maruti 800 become a car for the masses. People who could afford it and wanted more value moved on to other makers. That’s how the beer category will play out. Besides, in the last 40 years, have any of the old, established players launched any new successful beer brand? Being an old player in the market is not the key, being innovative is,” says Gidwani.
An innovation in alcohol that Gidwani does not enjoy, however, is cocktails. “I can spin some mean cocktails courtesy my book collection and thanks to the fact that I have attended workshops with international bartenders, but I dislike drinking them.” A self-confessed workaholic who says he is on the job “48 hours a day”, Gidwani likes visiting bars and finding out how his brand is faring. Quick checks for him always include how Carlsberg is listed on the menu, what the manufacturing date on the bottle is and what the serving staff of the bar says about the brand.
A tip for beer drinkers: “Beer is best if consumed within three months of the date of manufacture though, if stored well, it can last up to six months.”
As I walk out of the Polo Lounge, Gidwani strolls across to the bar with his Carlsberg in hand, looking to chat with the bar staff. Perhaps he will ask them why Carlsberg is mentioned in the same line as Kingfisher on the menu. On my next visit, I won’t be surprised if the menu has at least one change in it.
Born: 18 June 1964
Education: BSc Math honours, Nowrosjee Wadia College, Pune; MBA, Symbiosis Institute of Business Management, Pune
Current Designation: Managing director, South Asia Breweries (part of Carlsberg Group)
Work Profile: Started as a management trainee with Hindustan Unilever in 1986; moved to Everest Advertising as account executive in 1988; joined Herbertsons (UB Group) as group product manager in 1991; moved to Foster’s India as vice-president, sales and marketing, in 1997; left Foster’s India to become country head of Moet Hennessy in 1999; moved back to Foster’s India as managing director in 2000; moved to Red Bull Asia, based in Dubai, as managing director in 2006; joined South Asia Breweries as managing director in end 2007
Collects: Bottles of wine and single-malt whiskies from the world over and books on alcohol
Fave Bars: Blue Frog, Olive and Toto’s Garage in Mumbai; Barrique in Gurgaon; Buzz in New Delhi; and Cosmo Village in Bangalore
Alternative Career: Gidwani says he would have pursued cricket. “I was an off-spinner and a damn good one.”