Andreas Gellner, 41, managing director, Adidas India, claims he is not going to South Africa to watch the football World Cup. That is what he had decided for the last two World Cups too—but not only did he go, he also ended up having some perspective-altering experiences.
“I did not want to go for the 2006 World Cup even though it was being hosted by my home country. I am not too keen to be in Germany, otherwise I would live there. Germans are not known to be fun-loving people so I thought it would be quite boring,” he says. But an Australian colleague insisted (“at gunpoint”) that he accompany him. “I was amazed by what I saw. It was so different from the country I had grown up in. The people were so friendly, there were these fan fests with thousands of people in the public square, there was no aggression. It was just a huge party and I never thought this could happen in Germany,” he says.
Incubator: Adidas India offers sports sponsorships for promising tennis players. Gellner is disappointed that Indian football is not quite there yet. ‘We don’t have a promising talent in football here,’ he says. Jayachandran/Mint
Then he tells another story of having to walk to his hotel in a “very tight, like a tank-top” Japanese jersey, the result of a roadside shirt swap with some Japanese fans after watching Germany lose the finals in Tokyo in 2002. I chase away the faintly disturbing mental image of the tall, gym-toned Gellner in a tank top and ask if this pre-tournament denial is a way to preserve his World Cup mojo or an easy way to discourage the “tons” of people who are asking him for free tickets (Adidas is a sponsor). “Never say never, I am sure some twist will happen,” he winks as he settles back with a glass of Merlot. We are at the Connexions bar in Crowne Plaza hotel, where a TV on the wall is fortuitously tuned to a sports channel.
On paper, it seems a bit bizarre that a sporting goods company in India is run by a European who did not even understand cricket until about six years ago. But Gellner—young, peripatetic and adventurous—is clearly a world citizen, the kind of person who “puts his suitcase down in a new country and feels settled instantly”. In an accent that is foreign, yet of no fixed antecedence, he says his primary question when he was interviewing with Adidas in 1995 was whether the job would allow him to work abroad. “They said yes and I joined the finance department in Germany. I was lucky that a couple of years later, when a regional finance role became available in Hong Kong, I was asked whether I would like to move,” he says. He spent a couple of years in Hong Kong before coming to the conclusion that finance was not really what he wanted to do. So he asked his boss whether he could switch to a general management position.
“An opportunity came up with Adidas Malaysia. Either there was no one else who wanted to do it or my boss believed in me—which I hope was the case—and I was offered the position. It was a small subsidiary but I felt that I had arrived and that this was the kind of profile I saw myself working in for the next 40 years,” he says.
Gellner’s first introduction to India was when he was handling it as part of his regional finance role. “This was 1997. India had only a start-up company, small and loss-making. There was a request that we needed to increase the equity in the company. So we asked why. The answer was that we had to sign a major contract with the biggest sports symbol in India, his name is Sachin Tendulkar, and he is going to change the fortunes of the company. But right now, the contract is so expensive that we have to increase our equity in India,” he says. He had no idea who this player was and how anybody could be so important for any subsidiary that the equity of the company had to be raised. “After a lot of deliberation, we decided to do it. That was my first experience with cricket,” he says.
When he moved to India six years ago, his team’s first mandate was to teach him cricket. They took him to Eden Gardens in Kolkata to watch an India vs Pakistan match. “It was a fantastic venue, the experience was unbelievable: the passion, the atmosphere. I had a colleague on each side explaining the rules to me. That one match changed my perception of cricket. I also understood 70% of the rules, except Duckworth-Lewis, which I still don’t comprehend. Nobody does, I think,” he says.
Gellner’s new-found love for cricket helps him immensely in his job. After much back and forth between the headquarters and the Indian office, the company now not only produces and sells cricketing gear, it also exports it to the rest of the world. The cricket connect has also helped Adidas move to smaller Indian cities. It’s opening stores in places such as Moga in Punjab, Habsiguda in Andhra Pradesh and Shirdi in Maharashtra.
Gellner, who pursued MBA from Portland State University in the US and is a postgraduate in business administration from the University of Stuttgart, Germany, spends a lot of his time in the stores observing and trying to understand the Indian consumer. “The Indian consumer is demanding, which is a good thing; I am not saying that in a negative context. They want a significant amount of quality, but they also want the lowest price possible,” he says. So he started sourcing from India to sell in India. Today, 95% of the apparel and 60% of the shoes that are sold in Indian stores are manufactured in India.
What exasperates him about the Indian consumer, however, is the fact that quite a lot of them write to his global CEO complaining about a shoe whose sole has worn off or some such. “The amount of correspondence that goes to my global CEO is quite amazing, I haven’t seen it in any other country. I wish they would write to me first,” he says.
I ask him about the complaints regarding Jabulani, the ball Adidas has designed for this World Cup. “It has been the same thing for the last two World Cups. You can always question why someone comes up with the comment. It is a Fifa-approved ball—it is built to Fifa scale. If there are any deviations, Fifa would not have accepted it,” he says. As we leave the bar, the TV on the wall behind us is broadcasting a sports report about the same thing. “Another World Cup, same story. Get a life,” he shrugs and stalks out.
It’s early evening yet and I am certain the young and single Gellner has a rocking one to go back to.