Home >Mint-lounge >Business-of-life >Avani Davda : The ‘blended’ retailer

This edition of Head Office takes me to a rather compact corner office, in a landmark office block in Mumbai’s post-industrial Parel district. Despite its small size, the office manages to accommodate a large desk, a full-length cabinet with personal and official memorabilia, and more informal lounge-style seating. But for the first time in the Head Office series, it’s not the workplace design that leaves an impression, but the beverages on offer—I’ve been asked to taste at least three different types of teas and coffee, including a rather enticing spicy black tea.

This can only be, of course, the office of Avani Davda, the 37-year-old chief executive officer (CEO) of Tata Starbucks Pvt. Ltd, a 50:50 joint venture between Starbucks Coffee Co. and Tata Global Beverages Ltd. As one of the youngest CEOs in the Tata group, and in the corporate Indian landscape in general, her leadership style is interesting. And since Starbucks is known globally for its ubiquitous coffee houses, with a unique ambience, it is also interesting to note if, and how, these brand values have filtered into Davda’s office.

Davda’s compact office has informal, lounge-style seating
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Davda’s compact office has informal, lounge-style seating

Brand values on offer

While the desk and cabinet are quite corporate, the armchair and coffee tables look like in-store furniture. “This is the leftover furniture from one of our stores when we started creating it," admits Davda.

A green apron with multiple pockets, hanging on a wall across Davda’s desk, best captures the brand values. “At each store, each team has one of these in the back-of-house. We give each other ‘value’ cards that are related to how we treat our people. There are five types of cards, which are given for demonstrating different types of behaviours, such as being genuine, considerate, welcoming, knowledgeable and involved. The team leader collects these value cards for themselves and their teams. In the head office, this apron is for me and my leadership team. Other members of the leadership team will have one for them and their team members," she explains.

The five ‘value cards’
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The five ‘value cards’

Many CEOs speak about how they implement their core values in business, but the green Starbucks apron with its value cards strikes one as an earnest attempt to institutionalize corporate values across a large organization.

Where two cultures meet

The other notable object in Davda’s office is a brass container filled with coffee beans, given to R. K. Krishna Kumar, former vice-chairman of Tata Global Beverages, by Howard Schultz, the founder of Starbucks, to “commemorate the joint venture between Starbucks Coffee and Tata Global Beverages in January 2002".

A brass container gifted by Howard Schultz
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A brass container gifted by Howard Schultz

Having joined the Tata Administrative Service in 2002, Davda worked in Kumar’s office for five years, starting 2008, before moving into the Starbucks role; an opportunity that, she says, enabled her to imbibe group values as much as corporate strategy. “I think one of the cornerstones of what Tata stands for is really community, it is at the heart of what we do. That’s what J.N. Tata, the founder of the group, believed in. I think as I grew in the Tata group, obviously all of those values got imprinted.

“And if you look at what Howard is trying to do ever since he started the business, is really to put the partner (as employees are referred to at Starbucks) at the heart of it, and for him that is most important. So I think those values are very common and they almost mirror each other because he is very clear that even though it’s an American corporation, if he has to build a sustainable, global, ethically strong company, then it starts with community."

Balancing head and hand

One of the key aspects of running an employee-oriented business is that one needs to develop a “barometer for balancing head and hand", says Davda. With 78 stores in six cities in India in three years of operations, Starbucks’ growth has been steady and planned, rather than impulsive or scattered. “For us, an important metric is that most of the stores have to be profitable as independent entities, and we’ve achieved that," says Davda. As a company, Tata Starbucks is yet to make profits—it’s investing in new stores.

“We believe the consumer has a certain space and a certain picture of Starbucks in their mind, and every time we open a store, we don’t take that love or that response from the consumer for granted, we have to earn it every single day with every cup of coffee that is served. So I think we are very ambitious, we want to grow carefully, we want to grow in a focused manner and we have to balance it with how we treat our people. Most importantly, the success of the markets is really dependent on how you engage with your partner," she emphasizes.

Davda’s cup
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Davda’s cup

Recipe for success

Finally, when it comes to authority and leadership, the soft-spoken Davda is as “blended" as the beverages she serves—she is able to lead her leadership team of six as well as manage an organization of 1,500 employees, yet she is also respectful of authority and willing to learn, as one of her former bosses testifies.

“Frankly I am still trying to find my leadership style, because I am very young. The common feedback I get is that I am fearless, determined, very passionate and lead from the front; at the same time, I think I never shy away from my softer side, whether I am able to humbly say that I need help, or that I need to put my team together," says Davda. A sure recipe for success, regardless of age and experience.

Aparna Piramal Raje meets heads of organizations every month to investigate the connections between their workspace design and working styles. She is the author of Working Out Of The Box: 40 Stories Of Leading CEOs, a compilation of Head Office columns, published as part of the Mint Business Series.

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