Jagdish Narain Sapru embodied grace and calmness. He succeeded Ajit Haksar as chairman of ITC.
Sapru was evaluating fresh diversification opportunities. The board chose oilseeds since it was the second largest industry, after hydrocarbons, which offered scale play. ITC’s experience in tobacco cultivation meant it had embedded knowledge in agronomy and in working with farmers. Oilseeds also offered an interesting seed-to-kitchen scope for business. Seed quality improvement could lead to higher oil content and yields per hectare.
By then, the emotional stamina needed to germinate businesses over a long haul had become a part of the company’s DNA. Secunderabad, close to oilseed growing districts, was selected as the headquarters for the new section.
I was at the time posted in Calcutta (it was still known as that) and was preparing to move to a brand management position. On a sultry June morning, I was told: “Misra sahab ne salaam bheja hai.” Translated, it meant Chandu Misra, member marketing, wanted me in his office instantly.
Misra quickly got through with the pleasantries and said I was being considered as a marketing and sales resource for the oilseeds section. He said the selected team had the chairman’s nod and I needed to meet J. Nari Narain, head of business. But the final decision would be mine.
Naturally, the thought of being shunted to a non-existent agri business that was still at a drafting stage and hadn’t got formal board approval was worrisome in the least. But Misra had been my mentor (in time my tormentor); he was a great boss, and I trusted him. After a few glasses of water and a couple of cigarettes that helped me recover, I went to meet Narain.
The head of business had a great marketing instinct; he was brilliant and mercurial, erudite and witty, interested and interesting. When I went to see him he was, as he sometimes did during work, playing a video game on his desktop.
Diversification was painful, Narain said. ITC had grown not through acquisition but by painful organic growth. It took a lot out of the teams; the work-life balance went haywire; alcoholism, smoking, an occasional heart attack and divorce could be attributed to the stress of chasing this goose. An appetite for risk and an ability to bear pain were pre-requisites in this business. So stand warned of the pitfalls.
But he also encouraged. The joy of building something from the ground up, he said, had to be experienced to be believed. I was being given a job beyond my seniority and age (perhaps my competence too?). If I chickened out, or the business did not catch my passion, or I wished to come back to the cozy world of cigarettes, I would only need to make one phone call to him.
Narain prophesized that after the assignment, I would find that the “normal” was boring. That a whole new world would open up. Could I come back to him the following Monday so that they could finalize the assignment?
I got into a huddle with Kurush Grant, my friend and touch point through my corkscrew of a career. At 28, one obvious worry was that I was being eased out. Grant said that was unlikely—they would not have offered me the marketing position.
If I am being shafted, better take this and make it work, I thought. And if it is the future then jump on to it, else go back to Guwahati selling fags.
That evening there was a book waiting for me: Philosophy and Truth, a collection of writings by Friedrich Nietzsche, and translated by Daniel Breazeale. “If it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger.” Signed Nari Narain.
Next morning I walked into Chandu Misra’s room and agreed to take up the job.
D. Narain, the finance resource for the new business, met me at Hyderabad’s Begumpet airport, from where we went on to Secunderabad. The following week, the two of us, “Mutt and Jeff”, were firmly ensconced in a small room in an office complex that we rented. The telephone connection was drawn from the sales office of the hotels division. Between us, we were the clerks, scribes and peons.
This was the most significant, painful decision in my career, and I was scared. I missed the cadence of a settled business, the perks, the sexy advertising and the glamorous sales promotions. I hated the initial discomfort, a business environment where all you had were white sheets of paper, tomes of research, and the brute market shares of competitors such as Hindustan Unilever, National Dairy Development Board, Marico and some local brands. We had no products, no brands, no supply chain and no distribution—just small budgets and dreams, and a slow, slippery slope to climb.
The company did not understand foods, so there were a myriad unanswered questions, unspoken skepticism, and somewhat irrelevant parallels to the business we knew. But we muddled on and eventually built a business that we liked.
For all of us, it was the road less travelled. Perhaps that takes a lot. My friend Vibha Rishi knew the feeling—she had walked many miles in a Pepsi start-up against an 800-pound gorilla called Coca Cola. She said as only she can: “The trick is, never be scared of failing.” True.
Subroto Chattopadhyay incubates new businesses as chairman of The Peninsula Foundation, and also advises companies and development agencies.
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