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Home / Mint-lounge / Mint-on-sunday /  Vasant G. Rajadhyaksha: an HUL chairman who launched consumer icons

He was the second Indian chairman of Hindustan Unilever Ltd (HUL), between 1968 and 1973, when the company was called Hindustan Lever Ltd (HLL). But often the stature of Vasant G. Rajadhyaksha gets dwarfed by two other chairmen—P.L. Tandon, who preceded him, and T. Thomas, who succeeded him.

Tandon was a high-profile chairman and had many achievements. He was the first Indian manager taken on board by HLL and its first Indian chairman. He was also the first acting chairman of the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Ahmedabad and has been the chairman of many public enterprises, including State Trading Corp. of India Ltd and Punjab National Bank. Thomas will always be remembered for his successful efforts to retain the majority control with the parent Anglo-Dutch company Unilever Plc at a time when companies such as Coca-Cola and IBM left India.

Though relatively less known, Rajadhyaksha too had an equally illustrious career. A chemical engineer from the University of Michigan, he joined Unilever as a management trainee on the technical side in the UK and went on to become the first general manager of the principal factory of Lever Brothers at Sewree in Mumbai and subsequently to head the company. He left after he completed his term as chairman to join the Planning Commission at the request of then prime minister Indira Gandhi.

Rajadhyaksha’s father was justice G.S. Rajadhyaksha, a judge of the Bombay high court, who issued many important judgements and led commissions. His colleagues describe him as low-key, soft-spoken, well-read and a thorough gentleman.

A technical person who came up the ranks, overseeing factories and operations, Rajadhyakshya was equally at ease while dealing with the chairman or a sepoy. “He had an easy-going nature," says K.S. Phansalkar, who retired as general sales manager in 1981 after serving 28 years in the company. “He was prepared to listen to all sides of the question."

Rajadhyaksha headed HLL at a time of price controls, rampant inflation and import restrictions due to the high current account deficit. He was appointed director of the company in 1965 and went on to become the vice-chairman in 1968 before taking over as chairman from Tandon in 1968.

In his first address as chairman to the shareholders in 1969, he spoke of the importance of the rural markets and the huge potential they held as an “immediate opportunity" to the company. Some of his other speeches as chairman touched on subjects such as self-reliance, inflation and consumer rights and aspirations.

To be sure, HLL had started reaching out to the rural markets in the 1950s. However, for the farmer, buying vanaspati (a kind of hydrogenated vegetable oil which was then sold by the company), soaps and other packaged goods came at the end of their shopping list much after buying food, fertilizers and farming inputs.

Moreover, for the company, cost of sales and advertising was higher in rural India than urban. Rajadhyaksha had to choose between further extending the HLL network into the interiors or trying to increase sales from the existing network of 300,000 stores.

As the reach of television, newspapers and radio was limited in the interiors, one of the key decisions he took was to communicate with children through schools as they could influence the older generations, a marketing tactic used even today.

He launched the Rin detergent bar, Bru coffee and Clinic shampoo, brands that were co-opted by the Indian middle class. He also commissioned a fine chemicals unit in Andheri and did a lot of work on import substitution to reduce the company’s import bills and indigenize its products.

“He was an outstanding manager who could delegate tremendously and remain in the background," says Shashi Kathpalia, who had joined the company in the late 1960s as head of the exports division and had worked closely with Rajadhyakshya.

Rajadhyaksha enjoyed sports such as golf, tennis and badminton. He also had a sense of humour, and during a training programme at the company’s Worli centre in 1962, even participated in a sketch at the end that was a spoof of the programme, recalls Gerson da Cunha, former head of advertising agency Lowe Lintas + Partners India, who shared a room with Rajadhyaksha during the training programme.

In fact, Rajadhyaksha had the unpleasant task of moving Lintas out of the HLL corporate office in 1971. “A task he handled well," says da Cunha, while recalling that the advertising agency had just moved into the HLL corporate office a few years earlier at the insistence of then chairman Tandon. Rajadhyaksha helped the agency find its new office and relocate to the Express Towers, which to date is the company’s address.

Rajadhyaksha left HLL at the end of his term as chairman, when he was called by then prime minister Indira Gandhi to join the Planning Commission. He was brought in first as a consultant and then made a member of the plan panel. “He was a good national without being a firebrand or a table-thumping zealot... qualities which would have appealed to Indira Gandhi who called on him," says da Cunha.

While his work at the Planning Commission required him to be in Delhi, his family continued to stay in Mumbai and Rajadhyaksha shuttled between the two cities. “He was committed to the responsibility given... He didn’t crave for any honours or national recognition," says novelist Shobhaa De, second cousin to Rajadhyaksha.

Rajadhyaksha was with the plan panel at a time when it was rare to see governments induct technocrats from the private sector. He is credited with playing an important role in ushering in industrial reforms in the mid-1970s that laid the foundation for further reforms in the early 1980s.

“Rajadhyaksha was part of the team that worked on the first round of industrial reforms in mid-’70s, which included delicensing of 27 industries and automatic capacity sanctions. These industrial reforms were not for multinationals or monopoly companies but for the rest of the economy," says Y.K. Alagh, a noted economist and former Union minister, who worked with Rajadhyaksha at the Planning Commission as a member during this period.

Project monitoring funds, which became a key information tool for allocation of funds, are believed to be his legacy. Alagh recalls that Rajadhyaksha did a lot of work on setting up the monitoring divisions to oversee large projects and submit reports. These divisions existed until the Planning Commission was abolished and replaced by NITI Aayog under the current National Democratic Alliance government on 1 January.

“We could monitor what progress was made on these projects and how much funds should be allocated to them on a yearly basis. This proved very useful. Even for the expenditure committee in the finance ministry, it became an important decision-making tool for arriving at sanctions and allocation of funds," says Alagh.

Rajadhyaksha was held in high esteem, he says. “He was a respected figure with great private sector and global markets experience. He had a friendly style of working and was a very fair man open to arguments. He worked in the true Planning Commission style—information-savvy and fact-centric. He played an important role in policymaking at a critical time for India’s economy."

Economist Vijay Kelkar, who also worked with him at the Planning Commission, remembers him as an accessible person. “He was not hierarchy-conscious. He could relate to the younger people and was open to their ideas," says Kelkar.

Rajadhyaksha was the first chairman of the Public Enterprises Selection Board, which was set up to evolve sound managerial policy for central public sector enterprises as a part of their reform process.

“Rajadhyaksha played an important role in the reform process of public sector enterprises. He was also on the boards of several high-level committees and PSUs (public sector units)," says Kelkar. He also chaired a committee on power, under the ministry of energy and coal, which recommended that the investment on transmission and distribution should not be less than the investment on power generation in 1980.

Rajadhyaksha passed away in 12 August 2006 due to a cardiac arrest. He is survived by his wife, two daughters and a son.

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