Jan 31, 2009

Business - In Conversation with Marico's Saugata Gupta

Rachana Nakra

Saugata Gupta rushes into the Otters Club lobby looking every bit the man in a hurry. For a moment, I wonder if he has to get back to some urgent work. But, as I find out in the course of our conversation, that’s the way he is.
“I’m very impatient. I don’t like foreplay even in presentations. People make those 45-slide presentations and I’m thinking ‘Bugger come to the point,’” the chief executive officer, consumer products, Marico Ltd, says. So even as we settle down into plastic chairs under an umbrella by the club’s poolside, small talk has been made and the interview is under way

Dressed in a checked, short-sleeved shirt and trousers, Gupta is a small, smiling man. He thinks fast and talks faster, constantly digressing but making interesting points—a journalist’s dream—and helping me fill my notebook with ease. Even the Murgh Kali Mirch comes in his way when he tries to make a point. He impatiently gestures, swallows quickly and then speaks.
Forty-year-old Gupta’s stint at the consumer goods major, where he has household names such as Parachute and Saffola under his watch, began in 2004, when he moved from ICICI Prudential. He was the head of marketing there and remembers it as a great learning experience. “I took time to adjust because it was a start-up. I honed my skills of managing ambiguity, uncertainty, and working in an unstructured environment. First you struggle, and then learn.”
But when Gupta realized his start-up work was done and boredom could follow, he moved to Marico, looking for new challenges. “When I joined Marico, I realized it was a ‘brahmanical’ outfit, and my challenge was to infuse ‘kshatriya’ values without disturbing the fabric of it.”
So, Gupta pulled out his bag of marketing tricks. First, he tried to make oil healthy with Saffola and then, oiling cool with Parachute. The ubiquitous blue bottle of hair oil got a makeover and came with an electric bottle warmer. The brand ambassador was no longer a simple housewife with long, dark hair but a supermodel. Deepika Padukone asked with her dimpled smile, “One hour champi kiya?” (Did you have an hour-long head massage?) Gupta also launched Parachute Advansed Night Repair, Advansed Hot Oil and a new range of hair products for children called Advansed Starz.
As we continue our conversation—with kebabs and Diet Coke on the table, and swimmers splashing by in the pool—Gupta tells me that he is a Bandra resident and a regular at Otters Club on Saturdays. While he takes Sundays off, Saturdays are for both work and family—Gupta holds meetings and conducts appraisals by the poolside while his 10-year-old daughter takes a swim. His wife is a “busy banker” and committing time for their daughter is a top priority for the couple.

Gupta is just back from an extended four-day break, which he spent at home recuperating. “After a year like this, I needed the break,” he says, shaking his head with a sardonic smile. And that pretty much sets the tone for the rest of our conversation: the year gone by, what he learnt, and what he’ll do with those lessons in the near future. He lists them down for me.
First, Gupta says, it taught him the “resilience and tenacity” to handle any kind of stress. Secondly, it showed that “any plan can go wrong” and they always needed to have a Plan B. “Three, this kind of volatility stretches individuals. Now you stress-test all your systems and people. After this turnaround, whatever happens, both individuals and corporates will emerge far healthier,” he says.

His immediate plan, however, is to control the greed to regain margins. “Volumes could be under pressure because this year a lot of our value growth happened because of inflation.” According to Gupta, regaining volume growth is tougher than regaining margin growth: “Margin growth always happens in cost cycles, while volume growth lapses when consumers leave you.”
The catch, according to him, will be to pass on value to the consumer. Otherwise customers will reduce purchases or shift loyalties: “Those who’ll get this right will do well.”
Besides, Gupta is also sure that the consumer goods sector will emerge far stronger as people realize that it has been efficiently managed for a while. “There is pressure to cut flab, but the flab in FMCG is far less. We will continue to spend on innovation and brand building, and the next year will be very good for FMCG companies as far as the bottom line is concerned. We’ll also recover talent that left us in the boom period,” he says hopefully.
Gupta tells me later that he intends to write a book some day, “about corporate life and how to succeed”. The revelation does not surprise me. Our 2-hour conversation, in fact, could make a small, successful book in itself. Gupta’s stories are optimistic and peppered with analogies from daily life—“While jogging on Carter Road, when I see people going ahead of me, I go faster. It’s the same with people you work with. They inspire you to move ahead”; “In a queue you look at people ahead of you and get stressed. So it’s better to look at the queue behind you and feel grateful.”
Gupta also discloses a personal work ethic that sounds perfect for a business tome. He says he makes choices following the “concept of an obituary”: “Live your life the way you would want your obituary written. When someone writes your obituary, they’re not going to write ‘He did the numbers every quarter’ or that ‘He made so much money.’”
My next question is obvious and a little morbid: So what should his obituary say?
Gupta on Gupta: “Wherever he worked, he left a legacy or made a change or created something different. He was able to balance all his roles, as a professional, a husband and a father, and did a fair job of all.”
Curriculum Vitae | Saugata Gupta
Born: 10 August 1968
Education: BTech in chemical engineering, IIT Kharagpur; MBA, IIM Bangalore
Current designation: CEO, consumer products, Marico Ltd

Work profile: He started his career at Cadbury’s in 1991. From his first assignment in the North-East, he moved on to being brand manager and worked on Cadbury’s popular ‘Kuch khaas hai zindagi mein’ campaign. He then worked at ICICI Prudential as the marketing head for four years before moving to Marico in 2004
Stress busters: Relaxing on a beach with a glass of wine and a book, and spending time with his daughter. At work, he destresses by walking in to an empty office in the morning before everyone else comes in
Stay-sane strategy: A personal coach, without vested interests, who helps him resolve dilemmas and plan his career
Retirement plan: Gupta wants to open a spa