Home / Companies / News /  Spotlight on Indian talent with Unilever’s new hires

NEW DELHI : Last week, Unilever Plc named Nitin Paranjpe as chief operating officer, reaffirming its trust in the vast talent ecosystem the Anglo-Dutch consumer goods giant has cultivated and nourished in India over decades.

Paranjpe, a former head of Unilever’s India unit Hindustan Unilever Ltd (HUL) and till now the global head of its foods and refreshments business, is among the growing league of Indians who have worked at HUL and have later played a larger role at the parent.

Currently, 200 employees of HUL are working on global assignments within Unilever, making India one of the largest contributors of top talent among all emerging markets for the company.

Some of them are Rohit Jawa, currently executive vice-president (EVP), North Asia; Hemant Bakshi, EVP Unilever Indonesia; J.V. Raman, EVP, Russia, Ukraine and Belarus; Kedar Lele, chief executive officer (CEO) and managing director (MD), Unilever Bangladesh; and Sanjiv Kakkar, EVP Middle East North Africa, Turkey, Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, among others.

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That apart, over the years, 400 HUL executives have moved on to become CEOs across the world and across industries. These include Sudhanshu Vats, group CEO, Viacom18 Media; Mohit Anand, Kellogg’s MD for South Asia; Vineet Taneja, currently MD, Dyson India; Gopal Vittal, MD and CEO (India and South Asia) of Bharti Airtel, among others. HUL is rightfully known as a leadership factory, “exporting talent to Unilever and to the industry at large", a company spokesperson said over email.

Additionally, three Indians are now part of Unilever Leadership Executive (ULE)—an 11-member body that includes Unilever’s C-Suite executives across key functions—after it elevated Sanjiv Mehta, current chairman and MD of HUL to the ULE. Leena Nair, a former HUL hand, and now Unilever’s chief human resources officer, is also part of the ULE.

India, where HUL dominates the fast moving consumer goods market, continues to be an exporter of talent, starting with T. Thomas, Ashok Ganguly and Keki Dadiseth, all former chairmen of HUL who went on to play larger roles within Unilever back in the 1990s and early 2000s, to more recent appointments such as Paranjpe, Mehta and Nair.

The company’s practice of making employees work across functions and navigate the volatile sales channel that relies heavily on local mom-pop stores has helped create global leaders, B.P. Biddappa, executive director, human resources, HUL, said in a phone interview.

Additionally, since India has gained ground as an important market for Unilever—in 2018, India’s contribution was 9% of Unilever’s global turnover—talent from India has become visible within the global parent as well. HUL, which reported sales of 34,619 crore in fiscal year (FY) 2018, is India’s largest consumer goods firm. Since FY10, its sales have nearly doubled.

“The fact that we give early big jobs from HUL—they work in operations, and in factories; sales and in the field, and we have people who do careers across functions... so, a human resources person will do both corporate and factory HR. They are given very strong, big jobs early on and that builds a strong sense of leadership and a good general management perspective," said Biddappa.

“HUL has always been a magnet for good talent, starting right from the campus recruits that join the company. The initial training at HUL is fantastic as it grounds you into the reality of the business. Gives you very good exposure to all the functions and to hinterland India. It truly is unrivalled in the industry," said Sandeep Kataria, current CEO of Bata India, who worked both at HUL, and then Unilever till 2010. Also, given India’s complexity as a market, it gives you that exposure to handle other markets, he added.

It also helps that over the last decade, more Indians have become open to overseas postings, quite early in their career.

“What’s happening is that increasingly, people are looking for international experiences even earlier on. Twenty years ago, people might have gone out a little later in their careers; now they are happy to go out in the first eight to 10 years and that shapes a very different perspective and skill set," Biddappa added.

Globally, he added, there has also been a recognition that Indian talent is strong and travels well.

India’s consumer market is pegged at 110 trillion and is expected to reach 335 trillion by 2028, according to estimates from the Boston Consulting Group.

In 2017, Unilever’s then CEO Paul Polman had indicated that India could one day become the company’s biggest market.

Sandip Ghose, former managing director at Nepal Lever, a unit of Hindustan Unilever said the trend of moving local talent picked up in the mid-2000s as markets like India started performing well for companies such as Unilever. “Because these markets became important—and couldn’t be ignored, so you had to recognize local talent."

“Globally, many top FMCG organisations have long recognised that some their best managers emerge from the training grounds in India. It is one the largest consumer markets globally and hence a fertile ground for global CEO," said Anurag Malik, partner and leader, workforce advisory, EY India. Additionally, the large cultural diversity, complex and varied markets, and the scale at which the Indian market operates, makes it unique, Malik added.

Moreover, working in a complex market like India that has a large unorganised retail trade and an under-penetrated rural market has its benefits. “Working in a market like India also gives employees a great deal of rigour and adds to one’s ability to deal with ambiguity and uncertainty," Ghose added.

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