Monday 23 June 2008

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

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