The rise of marketing leaders into the ranks of CEOs continues, it seems, as an impressive list of marketing chiefs turned chief executives could see a new addition. FMCG juggernaut Unilever’s global chief marketing officer for beauty and wellbeing businesses and brands, Priya Nair is in the running for the top position at Hindustan Unilever.
As per an Economic Times report, Hindustan Unilever has shortlisted possible chief executive candidates to take over from incumbent Sanjiv Mehta when he steps down from the role he took on in 2013. He was last reappointed for five years, until October 2023.
Earlier this year, Nair was moved into a new global role as chief marketing officer - Beauty & Wellbeing, at Unilever. She was previously Hindustan Unilever’s executive director and executive vice president of the South Asia region for the beauty and personal care category. Nair, who has 27 years of experience, started her career with the consumer goods company as a consumer insights manager. She rose through the ranks to become brand manager and general manager handling brands like Dove, Rin and Comfort.
Nair holds a degree in Bachelor of Commerce from Sydenham College of Commerce and Economics, and is a post graduate in MBA in Marketing from Symbiosis Institute of Business Management.
In March, Nair shared with Storyboard18 the lessons that have helped her in a steady and stunning career: “I have learnt that in corporate life if you are fortunate enough to discover your purpose, which I have in my work, you will have the strength to manage all volatility and uncertainty.”
She added, “I have learnt that it is the power of the inner compass that gives you conviction, energy, and optimism. The second lesson I have learnt is to keep learning. This learning agility is critical in management, as we see the world change at an increasing speed. Constant learning, not just on the job but also learning from peers and industry, is critical for sharpening your skills and for personal development.”
Nair also mentioned how her mother inspired her to get back to studying after 25 years of work experience. She took on a Harvard Executive Leadership Program and went back to school.
The other candidate according to the ET report is Rohit Jawa who is currently the chief of transformation for Unilever. Jawa joined HUL in 1988 and has held leadership positions at Unilever in markets such as China, Philippines, Vietnam and Singapore. He was also the executive VP - Global Marketing Operations for Unilever. Like Nair, Jawa completed an advanced leadership program at Harvard.
From CMO to CEO
For decades, legacy companies, especially in the FMCG space, have been tapping and grooming marketing and sales talent for C-suite positions. C-level business leaders at legacy companies who have held marketing and sales-oriented roles and/or transitioned from CMO/marketing chiefs to CEO include-
Saugata Gupta, MD & CEO, Marico
Bharat Puri, MD, Pidilite
Prabha Narasimhan, MD, Colgate-Palmolive India
Mukul Deoras, President, APAC Division, Colgate Palmolive Company
Ram Raghavan, President - Enterprise Oral Care, Colgate Palmolive Company
Nitin Paranjpe, Non-exec Chairman, Hindustan Unilever, and chief transformation officer, Unilever
Sudhir Sitapati, CEO, Godrej Consumer Products
Suresh Narayanan, Chairman & MD, Nestlé India
Sameer Satpathy, CEO - personal care division, ITC LTD
Veejay Nakra, CEO, Mahindra & Mahindra, Automotive Sector
Sangeeta Pendurkar, CEO, Aditya Birla Fashion and Retail
Puneet Das, President - Packaged Beverages, India & South Asia, Tata Consumer Products
Sameer Suneja, Global CEO, Perfetti Van Melle
Earlier this year, Santosh Iyer, vice president - sales & marketing, Mercedes-Benz India, was elevated to the position of managing director of the German auto major in India. The first Indian in that position.
In October 2022, Mondelez International promoted Anil Viswanathan, a senior marketing executive to lead the firm as managing director for Vietnam, South East Asia.
These appointments affirm a strong trend where an increasing number of companies – both multinationals and startups – are relying on marketing and sales talent to lead their operations.
Nair’s possible ascendance to managing director and chief executive of Hindustan Unilever would be another inspirational journey of a marketer to the highest echelons of corporate leadership.
If Nair does become the top boss, she would also make history as HUL's first-ever female chief executive.