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Veterans Unpacked | Sunil Alagh on advice he received from Dhirubhai Ambani, importance of sense of humour and more

If you’re a manager in an owner-driven company, then learn to run the business well and leave managing the business to the owner, says former managing director and chief executive of Britannia Industries Sunil Alagh.

March 29, 2021 / 04:04 PM IST
When you wake up on a Monday morning and have nothing to do, that's the day your journey is over, says Sunil Alagh.

When you wake up on a Monday morning and have nothing to do, that's the day your journey is over, says Sunil Alagh.


Note to readers: How ​do corporate leaders surf life after hanging up their boots? What do they do next? What are the lessons they learned in their eventful journeys? What advice do they have for the current crop of leaders? Veterans Unpacked is a new series of interviews aimed to offer readers lessons from retired bosses on life outside the corner office.

As the former managing director and chief executive of Britannia Industries where he worked for almost three decades and held senior positions that led up to becoming the top boss, Sunil Alagh developed and incubated top biscuit brands like Britannia Tiger, and also pushed the company's growth into categories that included dairy through branded cheese and milk.

Under his leadership, in 1999, 2000 and 2002, Britannia was listed on the Forbes List of 300 Best Companies in the world as well as the most trusted food brand in the nation. He grew the company's revenues from Rs 250 crore to Rs 1,500 crore at the time of his exit. A board member of United Breweries and Indofil Industries, he is also a senior adviser to Axa France, the Government of India, and held other senior positions with both academic as well as industry organisations. Alagh, who graduated from IIM- Calcutta, also runs his own corporate advisory and consultancy firm.  

Here Alagh speaks on his advice to today’s corporate leaders, what he has been up to since retirement and what he would tell his younger self.

Edited excerpts:

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

I never really hung them up. I will likely die with them on. When I left Britannia in 2003, it affected me for around three months. Of course, when I Ieft Britannia, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was 57 then, and some suggested consulting but most companies saw consultants as an unnecessary evil and my take was to build a model on deliverables related to my specialty and my background. I guess I learned how to find a gap that I could learn to service.  When you wake up on a Monday morning and have nothing to do, that's the day your journey is over.

What keeps you busy now?

I am very fond of films and whenever I get a chance, I go see a movie in the halls. I love watching movies on OTT. That's because movies capture the pulse of the market. If it fails on day one they can't turn it around. A movie-maker has to capture the mood and you should see every successful one and every failed one and decipher what worked and what didn’t work. No movie-maker ever thinks he is going to make something that will flop and there’s huge learning there. There's also travel. In the last one year, I haven’t travelled but I love doing that, for both work and fun and I spent time travelling mostly across the world. France, England and Greece are my favourites. I don’t go to the gym and I don’t believe In faddish diets. I  eat less and walk for around half an hour daily.  I also just finished a book by Noel Harari - the new book called  21 Lessons for the 21st  Century.  John Le Carre is a favourite I like to read and re-read. I also love my wine and food and had some incredible experiences over the years.

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

I decided I won’t go into business with my father in the motor parts trade as an owner's son right after college, but went into IIM in Bengal. I was 11th on the waiting list for admission. Then for some reason, some candidates dropped out and some never made it in and I was granted admission. I went from not getting into IIM to placing 6th in class which showed me that application and hard work could make for success and that it was not a trait you had to be born with. The enduring lesson was you cannot judge people too quickly.

The second was when my college friend Aveek Sarkar of ABP had gone abroad and brought back some accessories for me -- designer cologne, belts, wallets and stuff -- which were then not easily available in India. My mother told me to return them all. I questioned why, and she asked can you return in the same coin? The next day I returned them all and Aveek turned around and said, “Look, if I spend X and you spend X/10, in my mind, it’s the same effort and sacrifice and intent, so it's fair.” Of course, I took the gifts back on his insistence. That was an interesting incident that stayed with me. The third was when I joined Britannia in 1974. One Mr Singh was in charge of marketing and took me on as 'group manager' which sounded great but in reality, I had no one reporting to me. I was taken aback but realised I had to go ahead and create my own team which basically became distributors and sales guys in small towns and I had to learn to hang on with the locals and connect with them. Later my 'team' and partners become ad agencies and creative guys. The takeaway was that your team is who you chose even if it is out of your immediate organisational structure.

What do you miss most about the C-Suite?

What I miss most is perhaps the power that it brings to you. It, however, never went to my head. What I missed is when you say something and it is done. I used to have a little black book and took notes on what not to do if I reached the top and so when I did finally become an MD at Britannia I still had that book. Power also brings about access and I thought I would miss it but I realised I didn't. In three months all that mattered and who ever mattered to me and my life came back.

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

I never planned to become MD at age 40 and it all happened at the right time so in a way destiny is something that does take charge of your life so one shouldn’t think one has full control at all times. Working hard and playing hard is what you can control. I would do nothing different except evaluate the factor of assuming that the inevitable in the corporate arena will not impact or cannot happen to you. Never have the philosophy of treating it like your own company too far, because it never really is unless you’re the promoter.

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

What I see is that a lot of young leaders want instant gratification, only in terms of money and that’s the benchmark and it goes to building more luxury that they can afford; earlier it was more about growth and achievement. How I see it is that sacrifice and value don't matter anymore. Now it's about getting a unicorn status or terrific valuation or massive market cap. On the positive side, I see many more women in the boardroom and in the C-suite which is refreshing. There's more room for growth of course today; in my time you had to look for the rainbow and find the pot of gold whereas the difference now is that you can grab the rainbow at both ends and take ownership of it.

Which business leader in the current crop impresses you?

Anand Mahindra, if you ask me. I've known him as a youngster and what he does is give rope to his leaders to perform which many don't do. He doesn’t interfere but knows exactly what’s happening in his company. F. Ross Johnson of RJR Nabisco is another and from him, I learned it's key to be a great people person. KK Modi of Godfrey Phillips who died recently was great because he shared the pie. Ratan Tata is in many ways an obvious numero uno in the leadership scheme of things. He's dignified and senior now but if you wish to attack him, God help you because he knows how to fight back.

How did you plan for life after retirement?

As I said there was no full retirement for me. It was not a full nine hours of work, maybe it was four or two hours. But you wake up knowing that there’s stuff to be done. I have decided I enjoy films. I also give advice to people who want it. I also get out of the house as well. Make sure you stay out of the wife's way for sure. I'm planning for a class that I can teach in the near future.

Veterans UnpackedIs there anything you would tell your younger self?

That you have to have testicular fortitude and optimism and be disruptive. Don't be ungrateful and remember that you have to share. Don’t only think about what is there for you. I would have told myself to plan my retirement better and always have a little  'tell- the-world-to-go-to-hell-money" so you can inform a boss that you can’t get on with, that you will be hitting the highway.

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

I ran into business legend Dhirubhai Ambani sometime in the early eighties at the Oberoi hotel on Marine Drive. Then he didn’t know who I was and I admired him then like everyone else and saw a window, I asked for him one piece of advice. I was in my thirties and he said to me, “Always share.” I would give that same advice to corporate leaders today. If you’re a manager in an owner-driven company then learn to run the business well and leave managing the business to the owner. I'd also say make sure to have a sense of humour, remember that it will help you overcome all your troubles with a smile. The size of the problem is constant and you're always the variable. Remember that.
Pavan Lall is a senior journalist based in Mumbai.
first published: Mar 29, 2021 04:04 pm

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