Sunday 15 February 2009

Nripen Bharali remembers...

This has brought back some of the old, sweet memories of our two years in IIMA and at the same time rekindled the feeling of loss and sadness that I personally felt when I learnt about Labdhi's untimely death.

I was in Section C of my PGP batch and was generally a happy-go-lucky guy. I felt generally lucky if I could read a case before going to the class. But for Labdhi's class I did make some special efforts, mostly because of his cutting remarks (always with good intention, now I realise) if you were caught unprepared for any particular case. I had only one opportunity to really go to the board and give my views on a particular case during the entire term and I recall with pride that the great professor did respond with the remark 'this could work'. That to me was like scoring an A.

But I had some close interactions with your dad when I had gone to the institute for a short term course on Management during my professional days. What amazed me was though so many new students join every year, he did remember most of my class mates and had very good things to say about the batch. He also took special care to introduce me as his old stident to the other participants of the class. He talked about his children over dinner one day with a lot of fatherly pride. He also promised to visit Assam (from where I come) and the North East and I had offered to invite him officially. Unfortunately that visit never materialised.

*Nripen Bharali was a student of LRB in 1980-82 and at an Executive program at IIMA. He currently works with Oil India, Assam.

PGP 1988 remembers....

Sharad Agarwal remembers...
Labdhi Bhandari is someone I remember for telling me how not sell a thing cheap if it has quality.

This is the thing which was at the back of my mind when we launched schools in Tier I cities in India where I have always told my team what Prof Bhandari had said during the class.

*Sharad Agarwal was a student of LRB

Baba Shiv remembers...
Labdhi was clearly my inspiration to get into academia in the first place. I just wanted to be like him! Who wouldn't?

My memories of the specifics in the classroom discussions with Labdhi have faded. But two things stand out. One is his amazing ability to push my thinking in ways that I find hard to replicate. It still fills me with awe about how his simple questions like "so?" tickled my brain cells.

The second was when I went to his office in our second year to get his advice on my becoming an academic. He was extremely gracious and was so different than in the class room. He gave me tons of advice, the most important being: "If you are in it for the money, forget about it. If you are in it for the sheer joy of learning, do it." He was also very gracious to offer writing a reco letter for me, but I was not so fortunate owing to the tragic end.

Labdhi will forever be etched in my memory. An inspiration to so many
including me.

*Baba Shiv was a student of LRB and is a Professor of Marketing at Stanford.

Sanjay Gupta remembers...
Labdhi Bhandari was without exception the most outstanding teacher I had the privilege to school with. Folks with outstanding memories have narrated incidents but my most vivid memories are of him casually leaning against his desk and saying "So?".

Here we would be having worked our tails off and thinking that we had the most insightful analysis and he would hear us with a deadpan face - at the end of which would come the predictable "So?". It was this series of So's through a session which pushed us to think and stretch ourselves and bring the best into those classes. That ability of his to draw us out and our best was his gift.

I also had an opportunity to intern with him post our two years. In those six months I saw the amazing diversity of Dr. Bhandari. Whether he was consulting on free trade, or sitting on the board of Cement Corporation, he was on the ball and working with the fervor of someone on a mission. His stamina was exceptional and his grip on the diversity of his engagements remarkable.

The interactions with Dr. Bhandari are cherished memories which always remind me that with persistence and continuous refinement, the shine only gets brighter.

*Sanjay Gupta was a student of LRB

Ravi Sreedharan remembers...

Anything we write/ say will not do justice to the contribution of Labdhi Bhandari to the students who graduated from IIMA - and, I believe, not just the people who went into marketing. His ideas/ teachings had a broader value than just Marketing.

If I reflect on my days at IIM A and think of the people who made the biggest difference to me - they were: first and foremost - the students. Most of what I learnt from IIMA was not really in the class rooms - it was in discussions/ arguments (of the 'argumentative Indian' kind) with batchmates. Even in the class room, it was in case discussions with class mates.
After the class mates, it was a few fabulous professors like Labdhi (and, Labdhi stands tall among these few too). Having decided very early at IIMA to pursue a career in Marketing, the few classes I attended were all concentrated in Marketing. I believe that our batch produced some great marketing minds because we had the great fortune of Labdhi taking us through first and second year. I have no doubt when I say that most of what I have learnt/retained from IIM A are attributable to Labdhi.

On the last class of labdhi in PGP 1, we had an open house with him and we were giving him feedback. One of the students said to him "why are you so nasty with us in case discussions. You sometimes make us feel so foolish?".. and his reply was "I would rather you look foolish in this class room than when you are out there in the actual market place"! .... And that he was outside the classroom an absolutely warm person is etched in my mind with the Holi day hug that Santy has described below.

He always left an indelible nugget/ idea of marketing in our minds:

1. Discussing the MKT strategy for a business to business marketing case: one of the students leapfrogged into how the company should have a lot of sales men and focus on below the line marketing, etc, etc. and, Labdhi wanted us to first try and understand what the market characteristics were and why (if at all) would it be attractive to the company being discussed. In his unmatched way he said "Mr X, you are discussing how you can do well and score good grades in IIMA, whereas, the rest of the class is trying to understand whether you should be here in the first place. Can’t tell you how that has remained with me to date - first try and understand the opportunity clearly before jumping into strategies.

2. Discussing Gujarat Tourism, Labdhi must have repeated at least 10 or 15 times - "what are they selling? what are they selling?? " .... and all of us went "Gujarat" (which recd some witty comments from Labdhi), some said "The Natural Beauty of Gujarat" some said "Tourism" etc etc. ........ I can't tell you how foolish and enlightened I felt when he said "They are selling Hotel Rooms Goddamit!" .... this combined with what he taught us in MKT 1 about Fulfilling Needs are enough to make most students better marketers than the average MKT MGRs in today's world.

3. I can't remember the case study - it was about pricing some tablets. The case study was on Pricing - and, there were several groups who had to work overnight and come back with their price recommendations for the tablet. Every group was asked next morning a simple question "What Price would you charge". Some Groups had done a lot of work on the costs, the competitive prices, etc etc. .... this was a real case and the real company had charged (if I am not mistaken) 3 times the highest price that was proposed. The point that Labdhi wanted us to learn was that Pricing has to be based on Customers' expectations/ value association/ price-quality correlations, etc etc and not just based on your own metrics like cost, margin or for that matter what competition charges.

You will love the two times this has worked for me - my cousin in Chennai (not from IIMA) had been trying to sell his old scooter for Rs 500 and was struggling to get rid of it for a long time. I suggested he price it at Rs 3,000 and it was sold within a few days! (Pricing also creates a 'quality' perception.... you can imagine why he has not stopped telling his friends about the Marketing Geniuses that IIMA Produces). In my second year at work, I was developing a strategy for Reynolds Pens. One of the key parts of the strategy was to price it above any other ball-pen in the market. (this was combined with the way we re-positioned Reynolds Pens and the category itself, etc) ... their sales went from INR 400,000 p.a to INR 40,00,00,000 in 2 years time.



*Ravi Sreedharan was a student of LRB

Vijay Santhanam remembers...
It is my honor to share memories of Labdhi Bhandari. Without the faintest shadow of doubt, in my life, Labdhi is:

1. The best teacher I have experienced;

2. The best marketing brain I know, and I don't say that lightly for I worked in P&G, the best and biggest consumer products company and I have met three P&G CEOs;

3. The person from whom I learnt the most from IIM-A and have used the most in my working experience of twenty years.

It was our huge fortune that he took four courses (Marketing I, Marketing II, PPM and International Marketing) in the last batch he taught. His tragic death in the air crash caused an massive loss not only to his family and friends but generations of potential marketing heads of companies. Most of my batch mates and even my closest friends thought (and perhaps think so even now) that I was wasting my timing in IIM-A and that I didn't learn much - nothing can be farther than truth. It is true that I bunked many of the classes in IIM-A, but I attended most of the Maths and Marketing classes. And, importantly, even if I had a hang-over I never missed a class of Labdhi's. I have no physical notes or papers of what I learnt from him. I do not need papers - it is all there in my mind. Every single time I think of a marketing issue, my first internal question is, "What would Labdhi has thought?2 Allow me to elaborate with a few examples.

1. What is the key issue in the case "Gujarat Tourism?" Empty rooms in Choward. Gujarat Tourism thought that it was a great idea to make a package - Gir, Somnath and Choward. Why did that fail? Consumers are very smart; they think about the weakest link in the package. When I was the Marketing Director of China P&G, my team wanted to have a promotion of a strong sku with a weak one. I told this lesson from Labdhi but asked them to try so they can learn in real world. The results were ok. We did a second promotion - with two strong skus and the success was incredible.

2. What is the key issue in the case "EPC vs. MPC" an one page case? A competitor was playing with lower price and our company lost some volume. What is the solution? All of us in the class wanted the price to be reduced to help contain the volume loss. Labdhi said, "If your competitor was to play price differentiation, offer it you him in a platter by raising your prices! You will lose some volume but you will maintain or even grow your value share and profits. And he left the class room, as typically he used to. I have used this lesson many times, very profitably, the last time in 2006-7.

3. What is the key lesson from the case "Gujarat Strapping?" You need to seed fruit trees that will give you returns in the long-term but you need to seed flowers too that will return your investment within a year -remember, you need the cashflow. I have used this lesson many times.

He was not just a brilliant marketer and teacher but a great human being. On Holi, as few of us met him in the morning. I still remember the white kurta he was wearing. He opened his arms widely and hugged us in a warm embrace. That from "The Tiger in the class" this was beyond surprising. Labdhi was a great man. You should be immensely proud of him.

Vijay Santhanam was a student of LRB

Rajnish Agarwal remembers...
To echo some of the sentiments expressed, Labdhi for me was the best professor I have ever known. His insights, clarity of thought and expression and precision of his language were just peerless. It was a joy to listen to him and learn from his experience. We were truly privileged to have him teach us.

Labdhi carried a deep sense of responsibility in our development and he was very conscientious of his role and impact to that effect. He was great at setting the tone and direction of the conversation and i am reminded of an anecdotal moment in his very first class.

Labdhi walked in and we barely said good-morning. We just sat huddled together, partly in fear of his reputation and partly in awe!, overwhelmed I think with his presence and his serious demeanor. After a few pregnant minutes of uneasy silence, Labdhi said, 'So, who is going to discuss the case?' .. We all looked at each other for the 'sacrificial one'. He then repeated, 'Has anyone read the case?' ... to which a brave one amongst us, sat right at the very back of the class sat up and said ' Sir, would it not be better if you introduced yourself to us first?' .... Labdhi, composure personified, looked at him and said 'Would that help solve the case?' That set us up for the rest of his class and the term, I think! He was a great mind, took a lot of pride in what he did and a truly wonderful person.

*Rajnish Agarwal was a student of LRB

Rohini Chowdhury remembers...
I too, have very clear memories of Prof Labdhi Bhandari. Unlike Ravi and Santy and most of the PGP '88 batch, I do not have very fond memories of our two years on campus. There are only a few memories that stand out, and Labdhi Bhandari and his classes stand out even among those.

I had decided to take Marketing because I found very early on that I enjoyed its people-orientation. I was absolutely overjoyed to hear that Prof Labdhi Bhandari would be one of my teachers. Stories of his brilliance as a teacher were legion, and I couldn't wait to attend his classes. I was not disappointed. Of all the lectures I have attended at IIM-A, his were the ones I enjoyed most. I adored him, and, like many others in our batch and before, I was also terrified of him! Impeccably and elegantly dressed, quiet, almost bored in his manner, he would effeortlessly take our carefully prepared cases apart. And we would leave his class, wondering at his genius, haven taken away with us another piece of marketing knowledge almost without realising that we had done so.

When it was feedback time, he walked into our classroom, and asked us - So tell me, what can I do to improve these lectures? (I don't remember his exact words, but this was the sense of the question he asked). Of course, he was met with dead silence as we froze in our seats. He looked inquiringly round the class. A full five minutes must have passed before one brave soul spoke up. He said, 'Sir, if you could, like, smile every five minutes or so, it would help.' 'Very well,' agreed Prof Bhandari. And, believe it or not, for the next one hour he DID smile - every five minutes by the clock!!! Of course, his smiles reduced us to nervous wrecks so that at the end of the class we begged him to stop smiling! We NEVER asked him to smile again - we were grateful for him, the way he was! Today, looking back, I am in hysterics! What a marvellous way to put us in our place!

When the grades came, I found that Labdhi had given me an A. That A matters to me more than any other A I have ever received in any other course of study that I have undertaken. Praise from Labdhi meant something, and was meant to be treasured.

Like Ravi, I remember the news of the plane crash. I was at work, and a colleague told me about it, and about Labdhi's death. I couldn't believe it. And when it sank in, my reaction was one of irreparable loss - we had lost a brilliant teacher, the world had lost a brilliant mind.

*Rohini Chowdhury was a student of LRB

Prof. Sudas Roy remembers...

I think it was sometime around 1983, when the Indian Tea Board decided to engage IIM Calcutta to advise them on planning a country-of-origin promotion campaign to promote value-added packet teas to selected international markets. A team of experts was constituted and we invited Prof.Labdhi Bhandari from IIM Ahmedabad to join the team. He promptly accepted the invitation and for next few years, till his untimely death, became a friend, counsel, guide and idea generator for me and our team members.

My friendship with Labdhi was essentially based on this particular interface and hence I cannot claim to know him well enough in a multi-layered sense that a long and deep friendship brings to explain many nuances of one’s personality.
However, through professional meetings, composing drafts of reports or while visiting abroad to study the markets, we had enough opportunities to interact professionally and come closer to each other as friends.

By the time Labdhi joined our team, he was already a hotshot Marketing expert and a rising star in the firmament of Indian academia. He was becoming quite legendary within the IIMA community as a great teacher and administrator. Indian industry opened its door to him to seek his valuable advice on many of their problems. In short, he carried an aura about him and scored high on the academic glamour quotient.

My first impression about him confirmed all that I heard about him. In the initial meetings with the Ministry of Commerce and the Tea Board officials, he came across as a quietly confident person who knew what he was saying and commanded an unspoken respect from his audience. What struck me as remarkable was his quick ability to think laterally and come up with an out-of-box idea to untangle a knotty intellectual question. Given his relatively young age, his ability to see the “big picture” was a little awe-inspiring. If I have to describe my initial reaction to him, I would put it as “intellectual respect” which he commanded with an effortless ease.

Labdhi was a thorough professional who helped our team to remain on course for the main deliverables and provided creative options on how to achieve those.
In my interactions with him, I also found him to be a person who could express the most complex ideas and concepts through an economy of expressions. This spoke very highly about his superior communication skills and an ability to grasp an idea. In short, Labdhi was a person with high clarity of mind and ability to share his ideas.

We visited Gulf countries, Egypt and Jordan a couple of times in connection with this project. During these visits, we came closer and I started discovering other facets of his personality. He had this capacity to make friends without much fuss and overt sentimentality. If he once accepted some one as his peer then he could be very easy going, witty and wise friend-cum-counsel.

Due to passage of time, and my poor habit of not maintaining a diary, many anecdotes involving Labdhi are lost for ever from my memory. However, what typically stood out was his composure and a sense of not losing control even in times of problems. I recall the day when we two were ensconced in the IIMC city office for a meeting to prepare a draft report when the news about Mrs.Indira Gandhi’s assassination reached us. I was watching Labdhi closely and didn’t notice any sign of anxiety about his own plans and programs or his personal security. Chaos was already reigning outside but he was cool as a cucumber.

I was spending some part of my summer break at Ranchi in my sister’s house. I was lazily watching some T.V. Program and then suddenly the news was interrupted and the telecaster announced a plane crash in Ahmedabad. Like a worst nightmare turning true, Labdhi`s name featured in the list of fatalities.

His departure was so sudden, inexplicable and untimely that we were left stunned.

Today, Labdhi is no more but his legacy endures. With his sharp intellect, insight and maturity, he put Indian marketing academics on the global scholarly map and did an immense service to his alma mater, IIM Ahmedabad, in terms of building its “Brand Equity”. I personally remain greatly touched and enriched by our short association which was so cruelly cut short.

*Prof. Sudas Roy worked with LRB as advisor to the Tea Board in the 1980s. He is a Professor of Marketing at IIM, Kolkata

Friday 13 February 2009

Trilochan Sastry remembers...

I was also Labdhi's PGP student. He took only two classes for us, but it is still in my mind. Mainly, I got a few things from it: that he had a very high quality mind, very incisive and insightful, and conveyed that marketing required a lot of skill and intellectual content. He was, of course, a very good teacher.

But, it is one long conversation I had with him as part of a student project that I still remember. We had a course called "WAC – written analysis and communication". My friend, Raju Vir, and I went to interview your father at your home. He laid out a plan of action for alleviating rural poverty through marketing. I could not understand him and came away thinking that he was biased because he was from the marketing field. How could marketing solve rural poverty problems?

Today, I run an NGO that helps about 3000 farmers in tribal and drought prone areas. And we use marketing as the central point of our intervention. Today I also believe what your father told me back in 1981. He had, therefore, a much wider vision of the world and his own profession than people understood. He was able to see things and opportunities that most of us miss. And perhaps he had a wider concern than the corporate sector, where as you know, he was highly respected.

*Trilochan Sastry was a student of LRB in 1981-83 and is currently Professor of Quantitative Methods and Information Systems and Dean(Academic) at IIM, Bangalore.

Wednesday 11 February 2009

Anup Sahay remembers...

Prof Bhandari was very soft spoken. And there used to be pin-drop silence in his classes, as no one wanted to miss out on what he was saying. There was always a sense of participating in a great and deep discovery, so insightful were his comments on the case studies and the related discussions. He rarely bothered with discussing the basics, or going thru the theory; he was always probing the next level, thinking of the next ‘why’, and presenting different perspectives. I remember a case study in which we were discussing the results of a statistical analysis called multi dimensional scaling when applied to consumer preference data. The technique gives a perceptual map of consumer behaviour; the data is seen on certain axes. The results seemed straightforward and without any new insights or twists, and who were we to question a sophisticated statistical tool……… After some discussion, Prof Bhandari said what if we turn the axes by 90deg (or maybe 180deg I am not very sure), and when he did that there were new insights on the problem. It was like eureka! I remember this incident probably because I am not sure that mathematical rules allow such ‘manipulation’, but Prof Bhandari could step outside the world-space of received knowledge and discover a lever that worked, that took our understanding to another dimension.

And sometimes, he would do this with humour as well. I remember a case discussion on shaving blades. At one point the discussion was probably around how to influence demand, and one student mentioned that people with lower incomes cannot buy blades. Prof Bhandari quipped, “So all men below the poverty line have long beards!”

He was predominantly a serious person, but could slip-in a humourous remark with equal seriousness that often caught us unaware. There was a discussion around an advertisement in which a bare-backed woman was sitting at a table. Prof Bhandari asked a question, everyone thought there must be a profound answer, but we were not willing to risk an answer, and stared at the ad looking for some clues. After a while, Prof Bhandari said, “However hard you look, she is not going to turn around!”

His classrooms were always full. He was one of the few professors whose classes were never missed. His reputation extended to other IIMs. The annual inter-IIM festival was held at Ahmedabad during my time there. Prof Bhandari’s classes were the only ones that were attended by students visiting from other IIMs. The word was out beforehand, and those of us who knew, went early to class, as seats were limited. And I remember that many students sat on the stairs and even attended standing for want of a seat. There are a very few teachers, in school or college, of whom students will say that they are ‘god’. – Labdhi Bhandari is one of them.

*Anup Sahay was a student of LRB

Sunday 1 February 2009

S. Ramantahan remembers...

Instances quoted by many of Labdhi's students would made one feel that he was known for his one-line witticisms. That, in my opinion, was not the characteristic of Labdhi that made him unique. He used his sarcastic comments occasionally to restrain the thought process of the students going astray. Otherwise, by and large his interactions were "therefore" (meaning "you are in the right direction, go ahead; can you stretch your brain a little more?") or "I see" (meaning "you are lost somewhere; do you see") and he consistently maintained an unfriendly wooden face with these monosyllables uttered in a mechanical manner, while his hand was busy scribbling something with a chalk on the table. These were religiously wiped off the table at the end of the class. Some students used to claim that on a rare occasion when he left it unerased, they deciphered it to be the BS term.

That was Labdhi with a strong aversion for mediocrity. Like Ashtavakra, who was said to have squirmed in the womb with every wrong Vedic chant, every illogical statement brought forth pain in his face. His acutely economic expressions were sufficient to punch holes in the collective verbiage churned out by the class and Labdhi intervened at the right time to sum up the case, leaving Dr. Watsons wondering why they could not think in those lines. The next class we were better equipped or so we thought and Labdhi took the logical combat to a higher level and the story repeated. Does it look like that he derived sadistic pleasure in proving his unequal opponents inadequate? Some of us thought so. What we did not realize was that in each of these sessions , our minds were being chiseled into better and better logical moulds without our realizing it. That was the biggest reward of having been a Labdhi student. Was this the best pedagogic method? I doubt. I have always felt that with a little more user-friendliness, Labdhi would have encouraged much higher level of participation. But it worked with Labdhi.

I distinctly remember two instances of Labdhi outside class room: one was in a conference on Advertising: Labdhi asked pointedly whether we see dominance of one community in the advertising industry, which affected the type of images projected in Indian advertisements. The reference was perhaps to the Goan Christian community and the ads in the early seventies were totally alien to pan Indian culture. Labdhi handled the sensitive issue with the same level of clarity as his case analysis without any rancour, but with absolute candour.

The second incident was when Labdhi was in the receiving end: In the final farewell, one of our batch mates severely criticized professors who do not have time for students. The reference was obviously to Labdhi, who was preoccupied with many consulting engagements at that time and so requested students to take appointment with him before meeting him. This was an instance when it looked like the unassailable has been questioned. Towards the end Labdhi took up the podium. He did not directly respond to the issue raised, but started saying that as the proceedings were on, he started shedding tears – I am not sure for what. He subsequently talked about declining student values over the period, which must have upset him. But having had an image of unemotional robot-like Labdhi, many of us were not willing to buy that he could shed tears. Viji has done a great service by bringing out the hitherto unknown human face of Labdhi.

On the whole, do we affectionately remember Labdhi? I doubt we had such emotional involvement. Some of us, who have been victims of his ruthless massacre hated to love him. Whatever may be our emotional reactions to him, if anybody says that he had interactions with Labdhi, but was not intellectually influenced by him, then he should be the dumbest person on earth (such beings are asphyxiated in the unpolluted atmosphere of IIMs) or the most intelligent man ever produced.

S. Ramanathan was a student of LRB in 1980-82