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Photo: Jayachandran/Mint
Photo: Jayachandran/Mint

Abanti Sankaranarayanan: In the right spirit

The chief strategy and corporate affairs officer of Diageo India talks to Mint about breaking stereotypes, multitasking, and being a member of an international society that recognises individuals for outstanding service to the Scotch whisky industry

During a meeting years ago with a senior politician who was not holding public office at the time, Abanti Sankaranarayanan could sense that he was holding something back. After 20 minutes or so, the question finally popped out in Hindi: “Aap kaise is industry mein aa gayi (How did you get into this industry)?" It’s the type of stereotype Sankaranarayanan has to deal with often. In fact, when the chief strategy and corporate affairs officer of Diageo India moved from her last job, her then supervisor was surprised. “A liquor company?" he asked. In another instance, a few years ago, a trade magazine representative asked Sankaranarayanan: “Madam, do you drink?" “He must be thinking that it’s bad enough that she works in the industry. I don’t think he would have asked the same question of a man," she says, smiling.

Sankaranarayanan is certainly drinking this afternoon, sipping on coconut water because summer has struck early in Mumbai. Bombay Gymkhana’s air-conditioned bar is shut for the afternoon but relief comes with a slight breeze from across Azad Maidan on the first-floor veranda. There is constant ambient noise, if not from the children playing cricket on the Gymkhana’s historic grounds or the chatter from the neighbouring table, then from a house phone right behind Sankaranarayanan. But she focuses completely on the conversation, her mobile phone charging silently at a distance.

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To bracket Sankaranarayanan as the employee of a company that produces Johnnie Walker, Royal Challenge and Black Dog whisky and Smirnoff and Ciroc vodka among many other brands is severely limiting. She says she is “many things rolled into one", including being on CII’s National FMCG Committee, on boards of the Advertising Standards Council of India, Arvind Fashions Ltd, UK India Business Council in India and the International Spirits & Wines Association of India.

The 50-year-old grew up in Patna and Delhi; her father was in the Indian civil services, giving her a taste of both a small and big town. If she felt a sense of power because of the aura the civil services enjoy in Bihar, Delhi brought her back to earth.

“We were so close to power, it makes you less intimidated or awed by it," she says. “My dad would bear his stature simply. What I took away from it is humility, being conscious about status but not wearing it like a badge of honour or using it inappropriately," says Sankaranarayanan, dressed in a sea green handwoven Khadi cotton sari—she has been wearing saris to work for the last 25 years because she loves wearing and collecting them.

She studied economics at Delhi’s St Stephen’s College, that institution which had a café while other Delhi University campuses had canteens. The Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad was a natural progression, though for some time she did consider financial journalism as a career. Campus recruitment took her to the Tata Administrative Services in 1992, where she spent 17 years—and met her future husband, Govind Sankaranarayanan—before being asked by her supervisor why she a chose a liquor company to work for.

She is a bit of an anomaly, or “retrograde", as she calls it, having worked in only two companies. She moved to Diageo in 2010 as marketing and innovation director—before progressing to managing director—only because she wanted the experience of working for a multinational. Diageo was going through an upheaval at the time—including charges of bribery—and underperforming in India, which gave her an opportunity to shape the future of the business poised at a critical point. In 2012, Diageo Plc stuck a $2 billion (around 14,600 crore now) deal to buy a majority stake in United Spirits Ltd, which later brought them in conflict with the company’s chairman, Vijay Mallya, his subsequent refusal to step down, and the related court settlements.

Sankaranarayanan believes a lot of the baggage the liquor industry carried, including the hangover of legal battles with Mallya, has been washed away with compliance and conforming to best practices, heralding important changes. For one, the industry has been able to attract the best of management talent and increase the number of women on the rolls—up from 7.5% seven years ago to 18.5% now. The Diageo India executive committee of eight has three women, including her. Of the top 50 leaders of the company, 32% are women—this “normalizes" alcohol as well, she says.

“A large part of the industry now operates cleanly. In a large industry, if such a significant player is proudly running a compliant business, that’s a tectonic shift," she says, preferring to call this a lifestyle rather than a liquor business.

“Duality and contradictions are at the heart of the environment in which the alcohol industry lives and operates," she says. “We have a significant economic contribution, direct and indirect, employment, backward linkage to agriculture and forward linkages to hospitality and tourism. The fact is, alcohol is culturally mainstream.

“But there is an almost grudging acceptance of its existence because the industry historically has had a tainted image. Alcohol misuse through harmful or excessive drinking is a genuine problem in society."

The other transformation booze business has undergone is “premiumization", consumers have moved to premium brands—single-malt whisky, for instance—instead of buying more.

I ask how she manages to find the time to sit on so many boards and committees, while raising 21-year-old twins—a boy and a girl—and balancing a professional career. She has been able to inhabit multiple worlds at the same time, she says, smiling, because for her it’s not so much about balancing, which she finds “utopian, almost academic" but just getting things done. This might be ensuring there is non-vegetarian dinner when the children are home or answering a call from the cook while she is in the middle of an intense boardroom discussion.

There are also concerns about larger shifts in the world—whether global warming, politics or changes in policy—which she keeps herself apprised of.

That she has bucked the trend can be seen through a simple statistic. India remains one of the countries that defies a global trend of increasing number of women in the workforce: Here, female participation in the labour force has dropped with GDP growth, from about 35% to 25% in 15 years. That’s because the broader view still is women should work only if they need to and if the family needs the “extra" income. “There are few women who continue with a demanding career for its own sake," says Sankarnarayanan.

If she is one of the few who stayed on the career trajectory, it was not easy. There were times when she questioned her choices, like one Wednesday afternoon at a business lunch at the Taj Palace in Delhi, having taken a 7am flight from Mumbai and about to take a 9pm flight back. She saw a group of six perfectly groomed women who had turned up for lunch with friends. “It’s a stereotypical example but a real one. It’s not like anyone was giving me an award that day for having taken a red-eye flight (for work)," she says. “They looked as happy as me, if not happier. They don’t envy me but I might be envying them. It’s times like that…."

There would be other occasions, like exam time when the children were in high school. The maid wouldn’t turn up, but she would still have to dash to office, leaving an important conversation halfway. Her daughter, Kamya, used to roll her eyes and tell her about the many moms who had the time to come for their children’s tennis practice. “Who knows, maybe if I was there, the coach may have taken more interest…" she wonders.

“Those doubts do arise but equally, there is so much else that tells you the path was the right one. The family will not give you a certificate for sacrificing your career. Genuinely, it’s the fulfilment, the intellectual adrenalin, the rewards and recognition of professional success—the enduring satisfaction that comes from knowing I tried my best to live up to my full potential."

The twins feel proud of their mom today because they have a better understanding now that they are older. Her son, Vinayak, did an internship at a law firm recently. “And with his eyes all big, he said ‘now I realize when I see the women in the law firm that you must be like this in the office’. My stature elevated in his eyes, otherwise I was just the mom who went to work and did something," she says.

Sankaranarayanan underscores the importance of support from family and her husband Govind Sankaranarayanan, a former chief operating officer of Tata Capital and currently vice-chairman of ECube Investment Advisors Pvt. Ltd.

“My husband is an absolute pillar because of many reasons. The husband, generally, has to be prepared for a wife who is exactly like him, has meetings, similar roles and phone calls and travel, the cook not appearing and all those little things. A lot of things go into making a marriage between two working people strong. If you make the right choice with the spouse, you can support each other. I got married when I was 25, he was 26, we grew into our careers together and learnt from each other." She can make an entire Malayali sadhya meal of over a dozen vegetarian items usually served on a plantain leaf—the effect of a 25-year marriage to a man from Kerala—though not much of her native Bengali cuisine.

Her father-in-law too was in the civil services and her mother-in-law has a “nice bar" at home. “My dad-in-law is so sweetly proud of me. He keeps three-four business cards of mine in his pocket, and gives it to people he meets. ‘You don’t have to give Abanti’s card to everyone,’ my mom-in-law often tells him," she says, laughing.

“I have been lucky. It’s a truism of life—I don’t take any relationships for granted. You have to invest in them. It’s earned, not an entitlement."

Arun Janardhan is a Mumbai-based journalist who covers sports, business leaders and lifestyle.

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