Mumbai: Harish Manwani, 62, who is set to retire as the chief operating officer (COO) of Unilever Plc. in December, has spent his entire life working for a single company.

Armed with a master’s degree in management studies from the Mumbai-based Jamnalal Bajaj Institute of Management Studies, a school that has produced several CEOs including ICICI Bank Ltd’s Chanda Kochhar, Manwani successfully worked his way up the ranks of Hindustan Lever Ltd.

He joined the company, now called Hindustan Unilever Ltd (HUL), as a trainee in 1976. He was appointed COO of parent Unilever in June 2011.

Manwani joined the company at a time when it was perhaps India’s most preferred employer. It is still a sought after company on B-school campuses, but now competes with a clutch of big name consulting firms and investment banks. That may have been one reason why he lost out the chairman’s post to his contemporary M.S. “Vindi" Banga in 2000.

He subsequently moved to Unilever’s global operations, but in 2005, when the company was looking for a chairman who could help turn its fortunes around, it turned to Manwani, nicknamed “Punter" within the organization in his younger days, because he was always looking for new ideas.

It created a new position for him, non-executive chairman—one he will retain after retiring—and along with then managing director Nitin Paranjpe, one of Manwani’s protégés who took over that post in 2008, he scripted a success story for one of India’s best-known marketing companies.

Paranjpe is now a member of the Unilever executive board and president of its home care business.

When Manwani was finally elevated to COO in 2011, it was a clear recognition of his contribution to the company’s growth in emerging markets, which now contribute to over half of Unilever’s overall revenue.

He was supported by Paul Polman, who became Unilever’s first outsider chief executive in 2009 and said two years back that he is looking at growing emerging markets such as India to account for 75% of the company’s overall revenue by 2020.

“Harish is an inspirational leader and leaves a remarkable legacy. He has been at my side in helping to drive the turnaround of Unilever, making this once again one of the most admired companies in the world. Over the last three years, especially as chief operating officer, Harish has been instrumental in the transformation of the company. Under his leadership we have seen a step-change in our go-to-market organization and there has been a relentless focus on flawless execution globally. He has role-modelled the 4G (fourth-generation) sustainable growth model—Competitive, Consistent, Profitable and Responsible—which has become such a strong focal point for the markets," Polman said in a statement.

Under Manwani, known as an hands-on operations person, HUL focused on branding, portfolio building, and also worked to improve its distribution network. In the last 10 years, HUL has seen its net profit and sales grow on average by 10.27% and 11.48%, respectively.

In a statement on Tuesday, Unilever acknowledged that Manwani as COO steered the company through a “tough market environment, with increasing volatility...(which) has allowed Unilever to become increasingly more competitive in a tougher business environment".

Manwani himself is reputed to be aggressive in his thinking.

As the economy slowed down and in the face of increasing competition, HUL has changed from being reactive to taking the competition heads-on. In the last four years, it has relaunched its entire portfolio and tripled its distribution reach.

The company has also engaged with competitors like Colgate-Palmolive (India) Ltd, RB India and Cincinnati-based Procter and Gamble Co.’s Indian subsidiaries.

“Agility and simplification are the need of the hour," Manwani had told Mint in an interview in May, adding that the company’s response speed in the market has greatly improved.

Competitors agree that Manwani “brought about an all-round growth".

“He introduced speed and agility along with a very sharp focus," said C. K. Ranganathan, chairman and managing director, CavinKare Pvt. Ltd—maker of Chik and Meera shampoos—who himself introduced shampoo sachets, creating a whole new market at the base of the pyramid as personal products became affordable.

In a statement on Tuesday, Manwani said Unilever “is in a strong position with a clear strategy and capabilities to drive long-term responsible growth. This makes it a good time for me to make this personal transition".

He added that he will work with Polman and the leadership team over the coming months to ensure a smooth transition and “to further build our growth agenda".

HUL shares fell 0.11% to end at 745.85 per share on Tuesday on the BSE, while the benchmark Sensex closed up 0.13% at 26,630.51 points. The FMCG index was up 0.66% at 7630.97 points.

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