Sunday 15 February 2009

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

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