Monday 23 June 2008

Rohit Varma remembers...

Prof. Labdhi’s reputation preceded him. Marketing was the star department at IIM Ahmedabad and Labdhi arguably it’s brightest shining star, one of the then three pillars of the Indian marketing pioneer and think tank that was IIM Ahmedabad Marketing Department. These people did not just teach, or just consult. Which they did well. They pioneered new areas i.e. advanced the marketing discipline, especially for the Indian context. And in doing so served as the frame of reference in the 70s and 80s for countless organizations and their marketing departments.

Having spent a couple of decades in marketing jobs ever since I graduated from IIMA in 1983, I can safely say that the above reputation was well-deserved. Marketing grads from IIMA are on an average better trained and perform better than all other MBAs / IIM grads.

To a rookie, impressionable student such as myself, what impressed first was the demeanour. The Prof was a tall figure, as far as I remember, 6’ plus. He favoured white shirts which were well starched. He was invariably on time; one could also sense that every instant of his day was precious. Once in class, he angled his lean frame against the desk and threw out a couple of profound questions regarding the case at hand which the class then debated. Product Policy & Management was the course Prof. Labdhi was best known for and it was where a generation of IIMites learnt “product management.” All in all, an awesome figure.

That the Professor had an impressive resume added to his star mystique. His doctorate at Columbia was on family planning. The latter was an eye opener for impressionable minds. It wily nily provided proof to a student, if any were needed, that marketing was an omniscient discipline, it moved not just products, but entire societies!

I recall two interactions with him. One was during CP (class participation) when he was impressing about the need for logical thinking in attacking a case or a real life problem. I interrupted him saying “What about intuition?” Don’t remember his response, except that it stumped him just a bit. Ah, here is a chink in the professor’s mental armour, thought yours truly, gleefully.

The time I got to really know him was when I did a project with him. My summer placement project, done between the 1st and 2nd years, had - for certain personal reasons - fallen short of the minimum number of days norm .Therefore, the Institute asked me to do a six weeks make-up project with any of the professors available. I chose - among several options - to work with him. He asked me to go a product portfolio analysis for Cadila Laboratories (undoubtedly one of his many corporate clients). This resulted in a couple of evening visits to his residence to discuss the project. Here, one was suitably impressed by the number of tomes sprawled across the living room and on the dining table. It was an interesting project and I got great exposure. The Marketing Manager at Cadila treated me with just a little bit of deference! In hindsight, I realize this must have been because of the guru’s reputation.

Analytical thinking viz. the application of analysis to solve real life problems - as opposed to maths or engineering theoretical problems which is what one had spent most of one’s school and B.Tech days doing - was what I learnt best from him.

So also, though probably at a more subtle level, I imbibed (a) the value of time and (b) the belief and understanding of the widespread applicability of the marketing discipline. Not just products, but also services. Not just commercial organizations, but social ones. And so on.

A role model for all marketers, if he were here today the profession would be undoubtedly richer. Perhaps marketers from IIMA should think of an enduring initiative that bears his name. I would be happy to take this up and promote the same among fellow IIMites at our forthcoming Silver Jubilee Reunion.

*Rohit Varma was a student of LRB @ IIMA.

David Chambers remembers...

My own connection with Labdhi came through the Commonwealth Secretariat: like him, I was approached by the team there as a potential contributor to a series of conferences they put on, in different Commonwealth countries, for managers running state-owned enterprises. Labdhi and I wrote some of the introductory material for the conferences, and drafts for the follow-up reports. In total I guess we met a couple of times in London, and attended half-a-dozen short conferences together. Your father was an admirable man: open-minded, highly intelligent and articulate, energetic, kind, good-humoured: a person on whom one could always rely. As I recall, the series came to an end a year or so after his tragic death: I think that many of us felt that the idea had lost its spark in the absence of Labdhi.

The person running the relevant section of the Secretariat in London at that time was Dr. Mohan Kaul, who had - I think - been a former colleague of Labdhi's at Ahmadabad. I suspect that Mohan will have retired by now. His recollections of your father would be much more extensive and detailed than mine, and I hope that you can make contact. As for me - I formally retired from London Business School ten years ago so I've rather lost touch with the scene in which I, your father and Mohan collaborated in those earlier years.

*David Chambers was formerly at the London Business School

Khokan Mukerji remembers...

I had the pleasure to meet Labdhi in the 80s. My first encounter with him was when I was with ITC and he was on one of his early visits in 1985 as an Advisor to the Tea Board. As I recall, the Tea Board was fortunate to harness the brilliance and experiential wealth of your late father along with the Late Prof. Subroto Sengupta, Prof. Sudhash Roy of IIM, Calcutta and Mr V Nagireddy. I was privy to a discussion he was having with his group following a tour to the Gulf countries including Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Though I was a bystander in the informal discussion, I was amazed to witness the rapt attention with which his views were being heard, internalised by his own working group and the deep respect he commanded amongst other participants and listeners.

In our generation, he was one of those rare species that had straddled both academia and industry, leaving lasting impressions of his depth of knowledge and wisdom on both HLL and IIMA

If I was to select a true Marketing Guru he would be my unarguable first choice. Though marketing was an evolving discipline in the 80s,he brought to bear insights and hypotheses which went to enrich the discipline and emphasise his standing as a professional and an academic par excellence. He had that unique gift of factoring in a true business approach into the theory and practice of marketing. I experienced this first hand in June 1987, when he took two sessions on marketing at the All India Management Association's Senior Management Programme at Srinagar. Like others, I took full advantage of interfaces with him and never ceased to be amazed at the depth of his learning and the strength of his convictions.

In June, at Srinagar, I had the pleasure of meeting your mother, your brother and yourself when you were accompanying your late father during his AIMA Session at the Centaur on Dal Lake. I still remember the weekend when participants along with faculty and your family went to Gulmarg. On that trip, I remember him fondly picking cherries from a small orchard for his beloved family with the same care and concern he displayed in the classroom.

Later, towards the end of 1987, I made it a point to meet up with him at ITC's Moghul Sheraton where he was taking a special session for the Tobacco Division's Senior Marketing Faculty. Though I was then heading Agri-Businesses marketing I gatecrashed for two sessions. Here he was addressing an FMCG company's marketing elite, akin to the breed he had been part of at HLL. His presence, authoritative approach to the given subject and his ability to virtually captivate his listeners was, again, all too evident.

Knowing that he was to leave post lunch the next day, me and my colleague, Subroto Chattopadhyay, sought time from him to get some advice and inputs for the Agri Business marketing plan that we were initiating for a business which was new to us.

What was to be a quick session transpired to be an intense three-and-a-half hour interaction with both of us soaking in his counsel and viewpoints which were to prove invaluable for our first marketing plan.

We had to remind him about his lunch and before we bid a hasty goodbye I volunteered, with trepidation, to send him "a bill' . I still remember his startled expression - what bill ? It was a pleasure. For you, any time!

There wasn't a next time. Through the first three quarters of 1988 me and my team were busy round-the-clock launching our first brand of edible oils - Sundrop- which was to become an instant winner, so I didn't have time to reconnect except for two phonecalls in August and September when I excitedly shared the news that Sundrop had exceeded our wildest expectations.

I remember it was October 19, 1988. I had just finished taking the morning sessions of the first course we were holding for our marketing supervisors at a bungalow called 'Studio' in Hyderabad. We had just finished lunch and were watching the afternoon news. I was devastated to see the screen flash the news of the Bombay-Ahmedabad plane crash and then all the names of those who were on board that fateful flight was scrolled down. Suffice to say that I could not contain my grief and indeed continue with my day. I wrote to your mother and remember receiving a prompt reply.

I have had the good fortune of coming across many outstanding individuals but few, very few, could compare with Labdhi, as a teacher, a marketing pro and a fantastic human being. My association was confined to less than a decade, but he remains engraved in my memory as an exceptional person who had etched his name in indelible letters in the realm of academics and marketing.

*Khokan Mukerji was formerly at ITC