Tuesday, May 24, 2022
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"If life throws you a curveball, face it"

Secret Diary Of Varun Berry Part-1

“Get inspired, but be the person you are” Photograph by Soumik Kar

personal information of Varun BerryIt’s a myth that the youngest sibling in a family is the most pampered and handled with kid gloves. My two older sisters never gave me that feeling as I was the one who would get beaten up all the time! It was fun, though, growing up in Chandigarh, and studying at the all-boys St John’s High School meant the fun quotient was always high. Hanging around and cycling down with a group of friends had become a daily ritual. Studies were never my forte. I was a very casual kid with no drive in particular. My dad, who was a chief engineer with the Haryana government, kept telling me, “The way you are going, I can see myself buying a shop for you to sell vegetables.” And, in all honesty, the sarcasm never hit me. I genuinely thought it was a good way to make a living.

Childhood photo of Varun BerryWhile my stint at school was memorable, one incident that will forever stay etched in my memory involves Brother Meredith, who taught us Geography. Me and my classmate, Manoj, who was nothing less than a rowdy, were the last ones to leave the school ground after wrapping up a game of hockey. I don’t know what got into Manoj’s head as he suddenly picked up a stone and flung it at the huge glass façade of the school. Even before we could take to our heels, Brother Meredith, who had seen the whole act, walked over to us. The standard procedure at most schools would have meant either some disciplinary action or rustication, but what had happened next really stunned us. “Manoj, do you think you did the right thing?” was all Meredith asked in a gentle tone before walking away. That remark hit my friend harder than any disciplinary action would have. There was a distinct change in Manoj’s behaviour from that day onwards as he slowly turned over a new leaf. While other teachers would slap and admonish us, Brother Meredith would always talk to us like an adult and treat students with a lot of respect. He was the first person who made an early impression on me.

college photo of Varun BerryThough I pursued engineering at the Punjab Engineering College, I was still the average Joe. But I enjoyed the opportunity it gave — I ended up having friends on both sides of the class — the toppers and the notorious. I preferred to hang out with this cool set of friends who had bikes, had girlfriends and loved travelling longer distances as far as Shimla. I, too, had a Yezdi, which my dad bought for me after I pestered him a lot. Incidentally, it was at college that my biggest life lesson came about – under tragic circumstances. One day me and my friends decided to drive down to a place called Rajpura. We were all cruising along the road when a speeding truck came from behind and knocked me over. I skidded along with the bike off the road into the gravel and mud. My entire flesh on the right leg had come off. Though my bones weren’t broken, the nature of my injury was grave and any delay in taking me to the hospital would have proved to be fatal. Luckily, I made it to the hospital in the nick of time. 

Varun Berry old photoIt was winter in my hometown, and in that biting cold as I lay on the hospital bed, the staff kept pouring buckets of saline water and using wired brushes, kept cleaning away the gravel and muck which had got meshed into the flesh. It was the most excruciating pain I had ever felt in my life. I was confined to the bed for 10 months as the doctors had to reconstruct my entire leg muscles by grafting skin from my arms and right leg. While my family played a supportive role in my recovery, I had to fight away my own blues. At 18, I did not expect life to throw such a nasty surprise and it made me wonder, “why me”. Those bed-ridden months got me thinking about life as an adult. I began internalising this thought that once I am on my feet whatever I do in life I have got to do it well because you don’t know how long you are going to be in this world. That was a big change within — I was no longer casual, I had found a drive. The incident also made me realise who my real friends were. Those I thought were my types, the cool dudes, were too busy with their own priorities, while the other set of friends who I felt I did not really belong to, were the ones who stood by me. When I had just started walking, they would come and pick me up and take me to college. I began to see what kind of behaviour, what kind of friendship to expect from people. I became increasingly discerning about relationships. If life throws you a curveball — face it. It’s a lesson that helped stand me in good stead all through my career.

The sense of purpose I had nurtured saw me opt for a sales assignment in 1986 with Brooke Bond, prior to its merger with Hindustan Unilever.

As a management trainee, I wanted to do something that nobody had ever done before. After stints in Jalandhar and Calcutta, my first independent assignment as an area sales manager (ASM) was in Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh. It was a fairly successful market headed by a 55-year-old ASM. I joined as deputy ASM before taking over from him. Though the market was anyway doing well, I took on the challenge of selling Brooke Bond’s instant coffee offering called Rich Cafe which was launched to counter Nescafe. UP was a tea consuming market, but I believed there was a market for coffee as well. While we stocked up at every tea shop in the hills how it got consumed was altogether a different story. Rich Café was sprinkled over a cup of tea and served to customers! People liked it and it created a new opportunity for coffee consumption and also fetched me the national coffee sales award.

PranabLater on when I was posted in Aurangabad, I got to interact with Pranab Barua, now with the Aditya Birla group, who was my super boss then. As an ASM, I would report to the regional sales manager, who would then report to the head of sales, who, in turn, reported to the vice president sales - Pranab. Once on a visit to the city, Pranab came over home for dinner. I had recently got married and as a couple we thought it was a lovely house where we were staying. Barua was appalled when he saw the typical Indian loo! He very politely said that he wanted us to live well and felt the house in its current state was not suited for us. He knew me well and thought that I was driven since I’d managed to revive the brand in Aurangabad, a territory which had been on a decline. Barua felt I would do a better job at the head office in a marketing role.

An out and out sales guy, I was all at sea in the new role and it’s here that I encountered Mukesh (Micky) Pant, a suave marketing guy. Micky, who was seven years older, had undergone a lot of grounding in marketing before me in Levers. Brooke Bond was an operating and execution kind of a company, while Levers was a conceptual strategic thinking company. He came as the head of marketing and I was this young bloke who didn’t know the ABC of marketing. At the start, he was appalled that somebody like me had no idea of concepts and ended up putting a lot of pressure on me. He would ask me to work on marketing concepts that I had no clue about. I was trying to learn the ropes but he was far from impressed. I knew that Micky and Pranab had a conversation, and Micky had suggested sending me back to sales because I was not cut for marketing. He was a young and brash 35-year-old who was not interested in mentoring but was seeking instant gratification. But Pranab insisted that we work together and finally Micky and I became very good friends.

micky pantMicky was excellent at analysis. One day he called a meeting where the marketing team and the managing director were present. He just showed a few slides. He had analysed market share data for the past six years and had plotted a simple graph which showed that the brand had been continuously losing market share for several years in a row. It was a simple piece of statistic but very hard hitting. He would just pick out the right things and bring them out so well. I spent three years with him in Brooke Bond and in 1992, I moved to Dubai which was a stupid move – the lure of petro dollars! I called up Micky, who had by then joined PepsiCo. He told me Ravi Dhariwal, who was also with Pepsi, would be travelling to Dubai and I could meet him for an interview. But more than an interview we had a casual chat and I went shopping with him later! As things turned out I joined PepsiCo and stayed on close to 19 years. If it was Brother Meredith and my parents were my early inspiration, it was Micky, Ravi and Suman Sinha who were the next biggest influencers in my life. 

Varun Berry eith pepsico team hawaiiWhen I joined PepsiCo, Suman had just taken over. A very regimented kind of guy from Levers, Suman was initially uncomfortable with the open house culture of PepsiCo which had stalwarts like Micky, Ravi, Ram Sundar, Vibha, Sanjeev…all accomplished individuals who were going about doing their own business. But as time went by, he realised what we brought to the table. Suman is one of the sweetest guys I have ever known. He would just speak his mind out, but what I really learnt from him was his sheer passion at work. He could work 26 hours at a stretch…and ran himself into the ground in terms of work-life balance. An aggressive guy, Suman doesn’t ponder over what people will speak about him. He will do what he has got to do. Once we went to a distributor in Kerala who was trying to tell him about the challenges in his territory. Generally, a CEO is all ears to a distributor. But Suman wasn’t that type. He was clearly not interested in the spiel that the distributor was giving and instead asked him why one of the doors to a room was locked. The distributor said there was some material inside. But Suman sensed something amiss. He asked him to open the door, but the distributor mumbled that he couldn’t find the keys. That was enough for Suman who told him to break open the door. As expected, the distributor suddenly “found” the key. As he swung the door open, Suman lost it when he saw a huge cache of point-of-sale material from PepsiCo lying inside. He blasted the distributor: “We are putting in so much money into promotion, and you are not even putting it up for sales.” That was quintessential Suman for you — driven, passionate and one who would get to the bottom of things. 

turning the heat on in gods own countryMy biggest challenge and achievement at PepsiCo happened in the most dramatic circumstances. It all began with an aggressive Suman buying out Coca-Cola’s bottler, Pinakin Shah, in Gujarat. Shah was tired of Coke and wanted to get out of the business. We bought out the bottler but didn’t seal the loose ends through a strong due diligence. Coke reigned supreme in Gujarat where Thumbs Up enjoyed 98% market share, while Pepsi was less than 1%. Suman, who had anticipated that PepsiCo would get market share on a platter, was deliberating on who would the right person to handle the business. I was desperate to take on the assignment but Suman insisted that I stick on to the north territory, where we were already going strong. 

But things went awry when Coke filed a case against PepsiCo for poaching its bottler. The court issued an order that barred us from using both the bottling assets and the staff for three years. It was a big blow and now Suman wanted me to take on the assignment. It was now my chance to get back and I told Suman I wasn’t interested now. But he persisted.

Thums upSo, here I was now handling a business where I could neither use the plants, one each in Ahmedabad and Rajkot, nor the people. Incidentally, PepsiCo had sold off its old bottling plant at Naroda to a gentleman Abbas Hajoori who owns the beverage brand Sosyo. Getting the plant back was my only chance to get back into business. I tracked down Abbas to Surat and pleaded with him to hand over the plant back to us. He was completely surprised that after having just sealed the deal, PepsiCo was keen to have it back. I explained to him what the situation was. Though we struck a very good rapport, it took me over four weeks and countless Sosyo drinks — which I didn’t really fancy drinking — to finally convince him to sell the plant back to us for a small premium.

Abbas hajooriBut there was a hitch – the plant was steeped in bird shit, one-and-a-half feet to be precise. Suman, who till now had not outlined any strategy, was now suddenly pushing me to get the plant started. His diktat was clear I don’t care but you have to get the plant going, even if it meant hiring new people. That was the kind of empowerment he gave, that too in a fairly thin organisation. I did manage to recruit some really fabulous guys, whom I admired the most. One was Sharad Saxena, who is now the head of operations and HR at HT Media, and the other was an outstanding guy, Ajeet Singh Karan, whom I had recruited as head of sales. We worked non-stop 24 hours and on occasions didn’t sleep for three-four days at a stretch. We were not feeling tired, and it was Suman’s sheer madness that was reflecting in everything that we were doing.

Sharad and ajeet

But some Coke loyalists at the plant we had acquired did not like the fact that the bottler had put them in a situation which was not of their making. They had their sympathies with Coke and our every move was being divulged. Whatever I did was no longer a secret. So, I had to change tack. I publicly announced in the organisation that we will launch on 3rd June, but internally only three people knew that we will launch on the 30th of May. While others worked through the day, just the four of us would work through the dead of night towards the actual launch date.

when competition set the bar really lowI had to surprise the competitor as they were also getting ready by bringing stocks from other states to counter our blitzkrieg. While they were expecting 3rd June, on the morning of 30th we went ahead and launched our product. It took our competitor by surprise and made them very aggressive. I hadn’t kept even Suman in the loop and, in fact, a launch meeting was scheduled on the evening of 30th at the head office. As it turned out, some distributors of Coke put up a case against one of my salesmen, and got him arrested. Incidentally, Dinesh Sutariya, who was CEO of the Coke bottling unit, which was now under our fold, obviously wanted to be the head of operations. But since the company had sent me, I was handling him with kid gloves. Dinesh was considered a big daddy given his clout in the market but in reality that was not the case — he was quite timid. So, when I went and told him about the salesman in the police custody, his response was: “Leave it and let’s go for the launch meeting”. I put my foot down and said if my sales guy was in police custody, my first objective was to get him out. With no help coming from Dinesh, I made it on my own to the police station which was now teeming with Coke distributors. The case they made out was that my salesman had picked up Coke bottles. While I said it would have been a case of some mix-up, they insisted that he was stealing the bottles. After a lot of persuasion, I finally managed to get him out.

Even as the drama was playing out, Suman and team were waiting for me at the meeting which was  already delayed by two hours and I had expected some fireworks. Instead, Suman was all praise and said he would have done exactly the same thing. The rest is history. Our launch turned out to be successful and from 1% market share, PepsiCo went on to corner 45% share. That success at Gujarat proved to be my launchpad for similar assignments overseas.

This is the first of a two-part series. You can read part two here.