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Veterans Unpacked | Length of experience is less valuable than the ability to learn today: Ranjit Shahani

Ranjit Shahani was the country head of Swiss pharmaceutical major Novartis India for close to two decades. He speaks to Moneycontrol on various aspects of his career.

February 28, 2021 / 09:42 AM IST

As Ranjit Shahani was the country head of Swiss pharmaceutical major Novartis India for close to two decades, he led its direction for a diverse portfolio that included eye care, generics, vaccines, diagnostics, OTC and animal health. Prior to that, he worked for Roche Products Indiaas CEO & President and earlier in his career for ICI India and ICI UK.

Shahani who has also taken charge as the president of the Swiss Chamber of Commerce, the Bombay Chamber of Commerce, and the Organization of Pharmaceutical Producers of India graduated with a bachelors in mechanical engineering from Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, followed by an MBA from the Jamnalal Bajaj Institute of Management Studies, Mumbai, India, Master of Business Administration . Edited excerpts:

What have you been up to since hanging up your boots?

Clearly for me, bidding adieu to the corporate grind was not about hanging up my boots or going for another traditional second innings - even though there were some very very tempting options. Neither was it going to be about golf and gardening,

Also, with a partner who is equally busy professionally, we were certainly not going to be on long cruises to exotic far away locations. For me it was the time to do what I wanted to do, when I wanted to do it, where I wanted to do it and how I wanted to do it. I wanted to do a diversity of things which my formal job as Vice Chairman and Managing Director of Novartis precluded me from doing.


Retirement had to be a new way of life defined, as I wanted it to be. Even as I was immersed in what should be my focused commitment, I was invited to be on the Boards of a diverse set of companies. Finally, after due consideration I joined three listed companies as Director on the Board of two and Chairman of one. This continued with my interest in Public Health and I am on the Advisory Council of the Harvard School of Public Health, India Research Centre.

I am also a trustee on three NGOs in the area of Health and Education. In addition I support Private Equity Firms as Advisor. Finally along with three partners we are also raising a Global Fund for $500 Million for investments in biotech research and companies working in the area of longevity with good health - one of the last frontiers to be conquered. I am also closely involved with education and remain on the Board of a chain of colleges in Mumbai.

What keeps you busy now?

Apart from the professional activities mentioned I now devote more time to my love of Sufi music and art and do some serious reading. That includes books such as the Bhagavad Gita as well as Lifespan by David St. Claire which I'm reading right now. .

But the most enjoyable part is to spend fun time with my 4 year old granddaughter Saisha who has inherited her grandfather’s love for music and art. She is already displaying some bold 'Van Gogh' strokes in her paintings of flowers, rainbows and stars.

Looking back, can you tell us about three interesting events or anything that has stayed with you since?

It is very tricky to nail three interesting things that have stayed with me, given the long innings that I have been through but let me attempt.

The first is the satisfaction that I have nurtured and created a strong leadership bench, throughout my work innings and at the last count I could name 20 of my team members over the years who are running large corporations as CEOs and Managing Directors. Examples are Amit Jain who runs l'oreal India, Anil Matai MD of Zydus Cadila and Amal Kelshikar regional head for Abbott Nutrition.

Veterans UnpackedThe second was when I was posted to the UK while with ICI and our son was born there, three months just after our arrival in North Yorkshire. We very quickly picked up the nuances of living in a village with just two dozen houses and surrounded by farms with hundreds of sheep. "Sheep, lots of sheep" my son would say often.

While work itself was interesting the fact that I was overseeing what was called by the British ROW - Rest of the World - stretching from all of Asia to the South Americas gave me a jolting tutorial in the cultural quotient of dealing with denizens of highly diverse countries. It sure was a lifetime learning.

The third was at Novartis where access to medicine is a big theme and I had created Project Arogya ( Arogya is Sanskrit for good health ) where we provided access to very low cost pharmaceuticals to over 80 million people in villages who had never received modern medicine in their lifetime. Based on success in India this was transposed to other countries in Asia and Africa.

It was an idea which Prof C K Prahlad had originally propounded in his book the Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid. Followed by the GIPAP program which provided free Glivec, a cancer medicine, which made chronic myeloid leukemia a chronic livable proposition for patients who were not insured or had no reimbursement, which was over 95 percent patients and we have given away cumulatively over $2 billion worth of Glivec free.

What do you miss most about the C-Suite?

I do not miss anything about the C Suite - a bit of nostalgia yes - but the idea of tight schedules, deadlines, meetings, a chockablock calendar and commuting in the rush hour traffic are certainly not what one misses. Yes, the wonderful colleagues I worked with, many of whom remain in close touch, are unquestionably missed. When it comes to the spotlight, I have been there and done that - and at the time enjoyed the adrenaline rush of the deadlines and targets but it's a different feeling now being lord and master of my own time.

If you had to relive your corporate career again, what would you do differently?

I would not change anything, because all my experiences have helped me to grow both as a human being and professionally. when young visibility was as important as ability- I did not do it as much so did not benefit. What I would have done earlier is found a mentor for myself in addition to a sponsor. The two are different. I advise all young executives to do the same.

What are the changes in the corporate world that you see now that are vastly different from your time?

When I started off at work - the Corporate strategic philosophy was 'Stick to the knitting' which was basically stay the course in your area of expertise. Today companies develop new-growth businesses outside their traditional core, which becomes a significant share of their overall business.The second is a very clearly defined purpose for the organisation, one that guides strategic decisions and gives clarity to everyday tasks.

These changes have propelled many of these companies to transformational success. While, earlier, it was the command and control culture that drove corporations, Now more than ever as the saying goes culture eats strategy for breakfast lunch dinner and more. The right culture with a strong purpose makes the organization successful. Many write lengthy purpose statements, the one we had at Novartis was simply 'reimagine medicine' and that said it all.

Which business leader in the current crop impresses you?

Globally it has to be Elon Musk for his entrepreneurial spirit, passion for innovation, positive energy and influence.

In India it is Azim Premji for being a 'Tech Titan', his sheer hard-work and perseverance which made Wipro from a small vegetable oil company and above all his basic honesty and selfless philanthropy.

How did you plan for life after retirement?

I had not planned to retire in the traditional sense - so in many ways it was business not as usual but business in a different way - so it was quite easy. Of course we all go through the four phases in our careers. In the early years is the learning phase, in the thirties and forties it is the earning phase, followed by the enjoying phase, and now I am in my giving phase.

I would say one must plan even though the change of pace is quick, as to what you will do with your time and accumulated knowledge. It is all about earning, learning, and giving at the end of the day.

Is there anything you would tell your younger self?

I would have looked for joy in everything I did and spend less time on self reflection but that realisation came much later. Joy is defined by bliss that is both internal and external. If I hadn't become an engineer I would have become an artist so while I went to IIT Kanpur - I believe that it is important to have a balance of left and right brain because life is mostly shades of gray.

What is your advice for the next cadre of corporate leaders?

The next breed of incoming leaders is very smart and a get up and go generation and so there is very little advice I can give them except to say "be open to all possibilities." Today, the length of experience is less valuable than the ability to learn and be able to connect different ideas which is most important.

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Pavan Lall is a senior journalist based in Mumbai.
first published: Feb 28, 2021 07:46 am
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