Soon, Switzerland may get to witness some strange customs. Like the sight of a Frenchman breaking a coconut perfectly down the middle after a puja in a factory. “I have become an expert at it and this will be a nice thing to introduce there,” says Martial Rolland, chairman and managing director of Nestle India. He has spent about 14 years in the subcontinent and now that his five-year tenure as CMD has ended, he is looking for ways to keep a little bit of the subcontinental warmth in the icy mountain air of Switzerland.
Looking back: Rolland regrets that he didn’t learn any Indian language and that he still can’t understand cricket. Jayachandran / Mint
I meet Rolland on a hot August afternoon, after an unexpectedly stressful drive through mid-afternoon traffic. The sail-shaped Nestle office in Gurgaon is at the periphery of a jumble of glass-and-chrome buildings.
Rolland is cheerful, relaxed, with the sleeves of his shirt rolled to the elbow, and his voice fills the large sixth floor office. He offers me Nestle’s “very, very good green tea” and orders a cup of coffee for himself.
He is trying hard to be optimistic about his new assignment as vice-president, Nestle SA, where he will be in charge of Africa, West Asia, Turkey and Pakistan. He joined Nestle in 1988, a year after he completed his MBA from Indiana University in Bloomington, US. His first assignment was as area sales manager in Karnataka.
Rolland’s replacement is Brazilian Antonio Helio Waszyk, who moves from Switzerland where he was the head of the food strategic business unit.
Despite the comfort of having worked in two out of his four new territories, Rolland constantly comes back to how much he is going to miss India. His office overlooks the new national highway, which splices the suburb into Bharat and India. “All this,” he says, pointing to shiny, glittering Gurgaon, “came up between my first and second stints in India. I remember driving down this highway. This was a sleepy town on the way to Jaipur, the Maruti factory was the only landmark. When I came back, I couldn’t recognize the place. I was shocked at seeing all these shopping malls. So I have seen the place grow up and it is very hard to leave it,” he says.
Rolland has also been a keen observer of the evolution of the Indian consumer. “In the 1980s, the Indian consumer was very conservative, especially when it came to food habits. It was fairly difficult to break in with new concepts and new products. Since then the consumer has changed radically. These new coffee bars are a great example of how people are willing to experiment. They are not only open to the cuisine of a different state but are well informed and eager to experiment with cuisines from all over the world,” he says.
What makes selling to the Indian consumer difficult, he says, is the fact that the “Indianization” of Bharat did not diminish our value consciousness. Now not only do we want a great new concept, we also want it at a good price.
Creating that is something Nestle seems to have done right. Even with the slowdown and sluggish demand in the last year, the company has reported strong growth in the last four years, under Rolland’s stewardship. Nestle India, he says, is only reaping the benefits of its vision of creating shared value. “We have been here for a very long time, we have invested here and have a strong connect with the people here,” he says.
He illustrates with the example of the dairy farmers of Punjab. In the 1980s, when the state was seized by insurgency, Nestle had a problem on its hands. The company collects milk from a large community of farmers in Punjab. If milk collection is hampered for a day or two, the farmer can find something to do with the milk, such as make khoya (reduced milk), but after that he would have a huge problem. So, despite the security risks, Nestle kept its promise and managed to maintain business as usual with the dairy farmers. The bond that was built then between the company and the farmer community is still very strong.
Nestle has contributed significantly to the prosperity of villages such as Monga, near Ludhiana. Since it’s a business relationship and not a philanthropic one, it has sustained. “In a financial crisis like this, the first thing that dries up is charity. But if you have an approach of creating value through business, then it won’t go, because it is a win-win situation, you are not doling out anything,” Rolland adds.
He has only two minor regrets about his India stint. One, he hasn’t learnt any Indian languages (“I follow Hindi or Kannada well enough to understand whether sales are good and to understand if the sales guy is asking the shopkeeper to tell me something I want to hear”) and two, despite 14 years of living in India and Pakistan, he hasn’t been able to understand cricket (“I always wonder about the productivity of the fielder, if the ball does not come to you, what do you do?”). He tried hard to get the senior management of Nestle to play football, but with mixed results. “There were a lot of injuries, some of the guys were very rusty and really, I think, they don’t have the passion for it as much as they do (for) cricket.”
Rolland’s nine-year-old son Max is a cricket enthusiast as well. He has so far managed to stave off the nagging about the lack of cricket in Switzerland with the promise that there would be a lot of skiing there. “The children are also sad to go,” he says, “and my son knows that in Switzerland they speak this very strange language called French and he is worried he’ll be forced to learn it. I was shocked that he does not even know the word for egg in French,” he complains. One of his biggest regrets, he says, is the fact that Max and his daughter Chiara don’t speak French. But, he concedes, he is so busy with his work that he is not around much to teach them his language. He is hoping that will be one of the perks of his next assignment.
Speaking of languages, Rolland narrates an incident from a training programme a few years ago. His future boss at the time wanted to meet him and asked people around how he would be able to recognize him. Don’t worry, the boss was told, Rolland is the only Frenchman who speaks English with an Indian accent. And that’s another strange thing Switzerland will soon be witness to.