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Tuesday, 17 March 2009

N. Ramanathan remembers...

Passing out of IIM Ahmedabad in 1969 and fresh into the first job at Bombay, I heard of our ‘senior’ Labdhi Bhandari. He was already a marketing man of some substance in Hindustan Lever. Some of us were looking to making some contributions outside our own companies. A few IIMA faculty members were helping us put some practical ideas together, and one of it was helping hospitals with inventory management. Labdhi’s name kept coming up in these discussions, and before long, we were in a meeting with him to discuss our projects.

He was soon off for his PhD in Columbia University.

My next meeting with him was in 1983, at IIMA, where he was teaching marketing, and his reputation had by then become quite formidable. Labdhi was involved considerably with industry. One such involvement was as a director in Enfield India, which was planning to launch a slew of Zundapp two wheelers, and needed a marketing head. It was a two-hour long interview, which led to many an interaction with him for the next three years, as Labdhi devoted a great deal of time advising Enfield on its marketing strategy.

Meetings with Labdhi were never short. The sessions would go late into the evenings. He had the habit of paying total attention to what was in hand and giving it what it took. Over long sessions, the positioning of the vehicles got clearer. The legendary Bullet was of course locked into the space of a man’s bike. Silver Plus the 50 cc moped was the middle class commute. Explorer, the 50 cc bike, was trickier – it was romanticized as the 18 year-old’s safe first bike. Backed by his thoughts, a 35 cc Mofa, a cycle-substitute with an integral design, was developed.

Looking back, it must seem strange that Labdhi associated himself with Enfield. It was an underdog at a time when Suzuki, Yamaha, Kawasaki and Honda simultaneously arrived in India, which was quite unused to ‘foreign’ products at that time. But he had great faith in pulling it off – he saw that the Enfield products could be positioned in spaces left vacant by others.

In 1985, he asked me to present these product launches in his Product Management course. The professionalism he brought to marketing strategy, advertising and intensive market research seemed to transform the management of Enfield in every other domain as well. This was the view of one of the participants!

For a variety of reasons, the products did not quite succeed in the market. I moved on. Labdhi kept his faith until he was snatched away prematurely from us.

*N. Ramanathan worked with LRB while at Enfield.

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