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‘HUL is extremely supportive of mavericks, at the same time intolerant of rogues’

BY Srabana Lahiri

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Sudhir Sitapati, Executive Director, Foods and Refreshment, HUL, talks to Srabana Lahiri about the making of his book ‘The CEO Factory’, the many facets of HUL he discovered in the course of writing it and what he expects it to convey to readers

Q] How long did it take you to write The CEO Factory? Please take us back to the idea stage, and tell us about the kind of research and effort that went into writing it even as you held the demanding and key position of Executive Director, Foods and
Refreshment at HUL.

In a way, it took me 20 years to write the book but about four months to type it! I met my publisher Chiki Sarkar on something else and she said there’s a book waiting to be written on why HUL produces so many CEOs. I politely murmured something about being busy and forgot about it till, a few days later, I came across an old copy of HUL’s first annual report in 1958. HUL was a Top 5 private sector company in 1958, was among the Top 5 in 1986 when the Sensex was formed and it still is today. Over a 60-year period, the company had grown earnings at a rate of 15%. When I looked, there was no company in the world that had delivered so consistently for so long as HUL had. Chiki was right, there was a story waiting to be written.
I wrote the first draft of the book in a rainy week in July at my farm in Kashid, South of Alibaug. It helped that I had no access to the Internet or telephone. It was a shoddily written draft but had the bulk of the arguments. I then spent the next three months meeting people to find anecdotes that supported (or disagreed) with my arguments. When it came to editing, it helped that my immediate family has a market researcher and three authors!

Q] You mention in the preface that it was a perilous job to write about a company while still serving it in a senior capacity. Did you at any point face a dilemma on what to tell and what not?
Not really. When I requested permission to write the book from our Chairman Sanjiv Mehta, I told him that I would write about HUL ‘warts and all’ but at the same time only write about contemporary issues if they were in the public domain. So the principles I used were write freely about the past, cautiously about the present but always honestly.

Q] In the book, you talk of old-fashioned goodness, an unchanging value system and the rigorous training that ultimately churned out iconic CEOs at HUL. Do you think it still works for the younger crop of people today, especially in an ecosystem where a school dropout may well be the founder of a unicorn?
When I spoke to several generations of HUL managers, I realised that the concerns of the youth of our times is not unique at all to our times, but instead unique to youth. For instance, our former chairman Vindi Banga who joined in the 1970s told me about how he rebelled against his rural stint in Etah and our former vice chairman R. Gopalakrishnan who joined in the 1960s told me something similar. The HUL philosophy of a strong value system and rigorous training has broadly remained unchanged despite generations of moaning management trainees. It has worked in the past and I think it will work in the future as well.

Q] You have spoken of the HUL approach to advertising and that there should be a single decision-maker, the advertising leader, from brief to production. You’ve also made a case for the briefest ‘brief’ to a creative agency. As a marketer, have you always followed that? Also, could you recall some really brief ‘briefs’ given by you?
I’ve not always followed it, but I certainly try and follow it most of the time. Maybe you should ask some of our agency partners whether they agree, though! Complicated briefs rarely get good creative output and multiple decision-makers kill big ideas with a thousand cuts. The third killer of advertising is for the client to make suggestions to improve the film. Can the music be louder on the 22nd second, for instance. The job of the client is to feel the goosebumps in her skin and tell the creative, ‘This ad was to make me laugh and it doesn’t quite do that’.
If you recall the opening scenes of the Hindi film Izazzat where the divorced Rekha and Naseerudin Shah meet coincidentally in a waiting room, the awkwardness gets melted by a cup of tea. We watched several Hindi films after that and saw that tea often plays the role of melting awkwardness. So we gave a single line brief to the agency on Brooke Bond Red Label – ‘Tea melts awkwardness’ ¬– and we got this lovely film on a live-in couple whose parents suddenly barge in.

Q] Could you recount some anecdotes or interesting conversation in the course of writing The CEO Factory?
Both on the cover, which is a throwback to the old Surf packaging, and the title, we had some interesting debates. I loved the cover, since I thought it was clutter-breaking (better famous than persuasive) but there were many who felt it was tacky. We had two working titles ‘The CEO Factory’ and ‘How HUL Works’. I personally preferred the latter, but thought the former would work better since people generally like benefits and not attributes (everyone wants to be a CEO!).
But in true HUL style and unique to the publishing industry, we tested these options in a digital market research and went with the retro Surf packaging and ‘CEO Factory’. We also used the test to estimate sales volumes for this book, which unfortunately is secret for now!

Q] If you were to pick out a particular chapter as your favourite, which would
be it and why?

I think my favourite chapter in the book is probably the one on HR ‘Throwing toddlers in the deep end’. HR practices have formed the backbone of the long term success of HUL and it was a personal journey of discovery for me. The idea that HUL, which on the face of it looks like a rigorous, process-driven and somewhat staid company, had actually a culture that was extremely supportive of mavericks while at the same time intolerant of rogues, was something I hadn’t realised before.

Q] The CEO Factory has been called an ‘MBA in a book’… it has been very well received. What are your own expectations from it?
My main aim in writing ‘The CEO Factory’ is less to teach students and younger people how to become CEOs but rather to inspire them to build and nurture institutions when they do become CEOs. I think India in general builds good organisations that grab the right opportunities, but is less good at building institutions that last. HUL is one such and there is a lot to learn from it.

Q] What are your plans going ahead? What next from Sudhir Sitapati? Do you plan to write another book?
My plans going ahead involve getting off the grid, drinking gin and tonic and listening to some good music. I most certainly don’t intend to write another book. I do intend to read a few more in 2020 than I did in 2019.

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