It was not just a book launch but a congregation of sorts of some of the best marketing minds that have walked the corridors of Hindustan Unilever. They were there to support, cheer and also critique Executive Director, Foods and Refreshment, Hindustan Unilever Ltd., Sudhir Sitapati’s – The CEO Factory, a book about HUL that decodes how big businesses work and the success secrets of some of India’s most admired brands.
Patting Sitapati’s back and congratulating him on his debut as a writer was HUL’s Chairman himself, Sanjiv Mehta. Also in attendance was Chief Guest and former HUL Chairman, Padma Vibhushan Ashok Ganguly, who in his signature witty style shared anecdotes from his time at the company and assured Sitapati, “It is going to be a bestseller I have no doubt about it,” Further adding, “I have a free volume but I would like a signed one.”
A panel discussion, moderated by Rama Bijapurkar, Management Consultant and Professor of Management Practise, IIM Ahmedabad, was held as a sampling of the book, interspersed with management lessons and humour. It was also perhaps a classroom experience of Rama Bijapurkar’s delightful sessions at IIM A, so we were told.
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The panellists comprised of Nitin Paranjpe, COO, Unilever, Sudhanshu Vats, Group CEO and MD Viacom 18, and Sudhir Sitapati himself.
Setting the tone for the discussion, Bijapurkar congratulated Sitapati on his book and said “As your teacher and someone who has suffered and graded your class participation, I want to say that I would be deeply disappointed if you did not make your usual outrageous, adventurous and irreverent statements.”
Describing the book as ‘open, honest and charmingly candid’, she asked Sudhir what made him write the book? Sudhir replied that he was hesitant at first but he coincidentally came across a report and a book that highlighted the spectacular progress the company had made over the years which prompted him to write the book. Talking about his decision he said, “What are the companies that are there in the world, that have been at the top of the game, in a big country like India for 60 years? I couldn’t find too many. And so I said that there is certainly a story to be written about and not about the results of the company’s per se but how it has lasted at the top of the game for so long.”
Sitapati also shared that he didn’t have to jump through too many hoops to get approvals. “To give credit to Prasad Pradhan, I was never censured on the content, I was only censured on the style because it was sometimes irreverent and rude but I said that the style can be toned down as long as the content is allowed.”
Referring to how the book also talks about the hierarchy in the company and how in the old days one could tell the organization structure from the cars, the carpets and the tea trays, Bijapurkar asked Nitin Paranjpe, about the Mavericks in the system and how they exist within the hierarchy of the organization.
Paranjpe jokingly retorted, “That’s a big question especially since I’m struggling with Sudhir’s description of me as a Maverick. I have been accused of many things in my life, being a maverick hasn’t been one of them.”
“But yes, it is also true that we do have a lot of mavericks and I suspect that the only reason that mavericks survive while being unconventional and unorthodox because there’s something else that this company drives more than its hierarchy, which is when somebody comes in with evidence, data, facts, it always trumps other things,” he added.
Talking about the rigorous training practices at HUL, Bijapurkar asked Sudhanshu Vats, a former Lever employee, if he would advocate Lever style philosophy of training and tough love in the industry that he now belonged. To that he replied: “So, you have to contextualize it. I think you can’t run away from the rigor of doing things even in this industry. I think while it may seem glamorous you have to do everything. Therefore learning the brass tacks is important. And I think we’ve actually incorporated a lot of that stuff.” Reminiscing the physical rigor from when he had started, Vats said, “Do you need to keep some of the physical hardships even today or change them a bit? My answer is that you may need to change them a little bit but do you have to keep the rigor and the ability to understand the nuances? I think you do.”
The discussions around the book were not simply management lessons but also fun anecdotes from the life of those who have been part of the HUL experience.
Sitapati shared several excerpts from the book, the one about integrity read as follows: “Once my colleague Sandeep Kohli’s bag got exchanged with another person at the airport. When he reached home, he found that the bag contained a stash of cash, the owner’s name and number were in the bag too, he promptly called the owner who sounded quite relaxed. He had seen Sandeep’s visiting card in the bag, since his bag had obviously been mixed up with someone from HUL he knew he had nothing to worry about. His money would go nowhere.”
The book, which is now on shelves, is cleverly designed to resemble the iconic Surf detergent box. The publishers Juggernaut Books believe ‘The CEO factory is an MBA course in a single book.’