Thursday 19 March 2009

Harsh Mariwala remembers…

I must have met Labdhi in the late 1970s or early 80s. At the time, I was part of the Bombay Oil Industries, which was a typical family-run firm selling largely unbranded products like hair oil. I wanted to start branding our products but we had no in-house knowledge/expertise of marketing or brand building. I myself had no formal management education and since we were a small company located in the midst of Bombay’s commodity markets, it was quite hard to attract talent.

That’s how Labdhi came into the picture. By that time he already had a reputation as the top-most marketing academic in the country (not as a practitioner). We were probably introduced through an acquaintance and I asked him to fill in the gap in my training about marketing and brand building and act as our in-house marketing expert.

We must have spent about a total of 15-20 days together during that time. From our interactions it was clear that he was very bright - extremely sharp. He was also very, very hard working. I remember he used to be very busy during that period and would not have time to meet when he was in Mumbai. So, often, I would meet him at the airport, catch the flight with him to Ahmedabad and we would work all night and then I’d catch the flight back to Mumbai in the morning! That was the sort of inner drive he had to excel or succeed.

He was guiding me at a personal level through many one-on-one sessions that we had during that time and pretty much gave me my first exposure to the entire field of marketing – how to position a product, market research, segmentation, brand building, etc. In some sense, he sowed the initial seeds for Marico’s later successes. We went from what was then a 50 lakhs company to a situation where our branded business for the year 2007-08 was Rs.1907 crores.

I remember one story. In those days, television had made a big splash and unlike today, there was only one channel – Doordarshan. Also, unlike today, where the channel produces programmes and then sells advertising time around it, in those days, the advertisers would be identified first and they would actually sponsor and produce the programmes on a theme around their product. Labdhi had given us a suggestion at the time which, to our regret, we didn’t take up. He had advised us to sponsor an epic serial from Indian mythology like Ramayana or Mahabharat. We didn’t take it up then and a few years later someone else picked it up and it was a huge, runaway success. We did use another of his ideas to advertise for our hair oils though – a programme concept on the traditional women of India, which we implemented as a TV series called ‘Tera Panne’ starring Hema Malini and directed by Vikas Desai.

Labdhi was on one hand very professional, demanding and ambitious and on the other hand very humble and easy to get along. He was not at all financially minded. He was driven by building something, by his interest in helping people and making an impact. And he certainly did make an impact.

* Harsh Mariwala knew LRB in the 1980s. He is the Chairman and Managing Director of Marico, a leading FMCG player in India.

Dr. V. Raghunathan remembers...

It is a privilege to be able to say that yes, I did know Prof. Labdhi Bhandari and knew him well.

Unfortunately, I can’t say I was a close friend, for the simple reason that when I first came to know him in early 1982 when I joined as a rookie Assistant professor in IIMA as a 26 year old, Labdhi (that’s how we all called him fondly) was already a celebrity Professor. Besides I was in finance while he was in Marketing. But yes, we were as close as a celebrity Professor and a rookie Assistant Professor coming from different disciplines could be professionally.

That he was fond of me was evident from the readiness with which he agreed to teach the entire marketing module when I was to coordinate my first MEP (Management Education Programme – a five month programme those days) in 1985. And, as the coordinator of the programme, I recall sitting through many of his classes and emerging with the experience that he was one who could teach ‘marketing like mathematics’! I have made that comment to many since then!

By that what I mean is, when Labdhi handled a case and proved why this distribution channel rather than that distribution channel was more appropriate for a certain product, it all sounded so logical as if it was Boolean algebra. And that’s not the feeling one gets when lesser experts treat the same subject. A hundred doubts come to mind as to why the distribution cannot be done differently and so on. Until I met Labdhi, to me marketing was largely a jargon-oriented mumbo-jumbo, where whatever you said could be defended! But not after those sessions I sat through! In short, his clarity, and approach was so elegant, simple and logical, that one felt one was truly studying something scientific – a tribute to the term management science.

I recall October 19, 1989 with profound sadness. I was returning from Chennai and when I landed at the A’bad Airport, the scene was completely chaotic as the crash had happened barely 60 minutes ago. Everybody was rushing out of the airport towards the accident site. I came across an old student who was the first one to tell me that Dr. Bhandari was on board, because he had seen the driver who had come to pick him up with his name placard. Those days were not the days of cell phones. I rushed to the campus, hoping against hope that Dr. Bhandari was not on that flight. But when I reached the campus, the unfortunate news turned out to be true, as the news had reached the campus by then.

I recall feeling a complete numbness; a complete sense of emptiness. That has, in some ways, been a vacuum difficult to fill. In some ways the vacuum still remains. He was the kind of person who would make anyone feel that he was his best friend! No wonder even I felt that way. He was a ‘management professor’ in its highest tradition.

In losing Labdhi, not only did all of us lose an outstanding colleague, but IIMA lost out on a potentially outstanding Director and the Indian Industry an outstanding marketing professional.

* Dr. V. Raghunathan was a colleague of LRB at IIMA and is now Chief Executive of the GMR Varalkshmi Foundation.

Wednesday 18 March 2009

Shyam Sunder Suri remembers...

I first met Labdhi through Nitin Patel, who was a faculty at IIMA. Labdhi was looking for market research services for his consulting activities and I was running a market research company - Marketing and Business Associates (MBA) - along with three others from the IIMA 1972 batch. So we teamed up with Labdhi. In any consulting operation, Labdhi would do the problem identification and strategy determination, while we would do the market research based on the problem and to feed into the strategy. In some sense, he would be the brains of the operation while we would be the eyes and ears collecting, collating and analyzing the data.

Labdhi was very parsimonious in speech, but whatever he said was completely sense ridden. I always thought that he had a natural Marwari business sense combined with the sophistication of a Western educated person. And that was very unique to him. He would be able to get to the nub of any business problem within the first half hour of any meeting.

An example I remember of this is the case of Parachute Oil. They were considering a price reduction and Labdhi grasped very quickly that there was no need for a price reduction and, if anything, they should increase the price and he gave his reasoning for this. The market research we did later confirmed this to be the case.

With Labdhi, we also ran a set of product policy training programmes, typically in Goa. Labdhi would usually take most sessions while we would take a few on market research, and someone from the advertising agencies would take another couple. We would advertise these programmes and write to companies and they would send people from their Marketing departments for the training.

Another such training programme was being planned in November, 1988. So, when Labdhi was in Mumbai on 18th,October I asked to meet him to discuss some of the logistics of the programme. Labdhi had initially planned to take the evening flight back to Ahmedabad but wasn't sure. The flight in those days would be fairly early in the evening and he wasn't sure if his meeting would finish by then. As far as I remember, he was meeting someone at Cadbury that day. We spoke 2-3 times during the day and Labdhi finally called me in the afternoon and said that he was staying over that night as the meeting had not finished on time. And he said we could meet at the Centaur for dinner.

We met in his room and then went for dinner. Labdhi's favourite food was Chinese - especially his all-time favourite golden fried prawns. He had those, fried rice, some noodles and brandy with hot water - which he preferred because of his chronic throat /sinus/ cold problems.

We discussed the logistics of the upcoming product policy training programme - how many people were expected, etc. He was also discussing whether the whole family would accompany him or just his wife.

Then later he mentioned that he had been spoken to at IIMA regarding whether he would be interested in taking up the Director's position and he was ruminating over whether he should. I told him that he should give it a go and IIMA needed leaders like him. That evening, Labdhi described to me what he would be interested in doing if he took it up - he said he would want to take IIMA more international and get foreign faculty, etc.

We were together till around midnight. Next morning, I got a call from Rama Bijapurkar saying that the flight to Ahmedabad has crashed.

*Shyam Sunder was a colleague and friend of LRB and is currently Director at Magus Customer Dialog.

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.

Wednesday 11 March 2009

Sunil Gulati remembers...

Unlike most of the bloggers here, Marketing was not my forte and I tried to minimize the number of Marketing courses I did. Probably the only reason I regret this is that I would have got to know Labdhi a lot better than I did as the memory of him as a Prof is one of the better etched memories that have survived the quarter century since. What really struck me about Labdhi was that he had an uncanny ability to cut through the 'crap' and have an insight into the 1 or 2 issues that really mattered in any case or other discussion. In the marketing arena in particular this was unique given the inherent fuzziness of most topics. This was completely refreshing and pushed the entire class into their 'stretch' or sometimes 'panic' zones as the class knew that they had to develop similar insights to be appreciated by Labdhi and that mere CP would get them into trouble!

A specific case that I remember is about a ball bearing manufacturer. The problem was to devise segmentation strategies for the company. There was an infinite amount of discussion in the class along segmenting the market by all the obvious variables - size, end use industry, type of distribution channel etc. I guess all these are relevant variables but Labdhi really kept pushing the class by saying "does it really matter" or the more laconic "so?". Towards the end, he asked the class as to why we were doing segmentation and what was the end goal. Again he provided the simple answer - to ensure that sales could go up by the minimum amount of effort. In keeping with this line of thinking he provided an insight into segmentation in this case by asking the question as to what is the variable that really determines who are users of ball bearings? Though the class has a lot of engineers, nobody had thought about the fact that ball bearings need to be replaced in a bearing at fixed intervals every time they are serviced, and hence the most useful way of segmenting the market would be by time elapsed since the manufacture date/ last service date. This was like "Eureka"....simple, yet so powerful a concept and entirely practical and executable....which, as I have learnt over the years, has to be the touch point of any strategic thought process.

I think this incident illustrates the man that Prof. Bhandari was - simple, brilliant but without pretensions but at the same time confident in his own brilliance, and wanting to see the best come out in others!

*Sunil Gulati was a student of LRB and is currently Group President and Head - Risk Management and Corporate Development at YES Bank.

Monday 2 March 2009

Vijaylakshmi Rao remembers...

I hardly knew Labdhi as a person while at the Institute. To all of us whose interests in Marketing and Product Management were kindled by his lectures and case studies, he was a learned, bright, not-so-friendly and at times sarcastic, but much-worshipped Guru; not someone you could crack jokes and discuss South Indian cooking with. But that's just what I did many years after leaving the Institute.

It was in March 1988 while I was working as Executive Asst to V.Krishnamurthy, Chairman, SAIL, that I got the opportunity to interact closely with Labdhi. Along with Prof Mohan Kaul, he was the Roundtable Coordinator for a conference on Public Enterprise Management: Strategies for Success, jointly organised by The Management Development Programme of the Commonwealth Secretariat, London and IIMA and held on March 6-11, 1988 at New Delhi. When he came to Delhi, Labdhi 'claimed' to know very little about the public sector and wanted help with 'preparation'. As EA to V.Krishnamurthy, who was then also the Chairman of IIMA Board, I was assigned the task of providing Labdhi all the background material, facilitating his meetings with senior managers in the public sector, etc. It was absolutely amazing to see him absorb what everyone spoke - he hardly took any notes, asked what seemed to me a few 'crazy' questions and just listened. In the few hours that I spent with him discussing and debating what everyone had said, I learnt hands-on how to aggregate information from different sources of varying credibility and relevance, synthesize it, build logic into inferences, think laterally for solutions and finally present it in an extremely structured and convincing manner.

Needless to mention, he spoke exceptionally well at the Conference. I attended the Conference mainly because I had been entrusted the task of taking notes for future reference (V. Krishnamurthy later headed a Committee that brought out the first White Paper on the Public Sector). What I found most amusing (and flattering as well!) was that Labdhi often chose to sit next to me in the back bench, whispering comments about speakers he did not agree with or found boring! He also complimented me openly for having helped him out and gave me credit for some of his analysis which I sincerely believe I did not deserve. He insisted that I come along for the valedictory dinner saying he would otherwise get bored talking only to the 'serious types'!! He was no more a Professor to me - he had become a good friend like so many of my batchmates at IIMA! I told him that my friends would probably be very surprised to know that he was just like one of us. To which he said "Don't tell them, that will spoil my image."

Believe me, I have not mentioned about this to anyone. I did not bring it up even at our 25 year reunion, though I was tempted to do so. But now, I would like to reach out to Apoorva and Anupam just to convey to them that their father was not just a Marketing Legend but a warm, friendly, modest, fun loving person with a great sense of humour. I still preserve one of the several chits he passed on to me during the conference besides cherishing very happy memories of my brief interaction with him.

* Vijayalakshmi Rao was a student of LRB in 1980-82 and worked with him briefly in 1988. She is currently the COO and Director of Scope e-Knowledge Centre at Chennai.

Madhukar Sabnavis remembers...

I was a student of Prof. Bhandari at IIM in 1984-85. I never got to know him personally (and i was just one more person in a large crowd for him) but have very fond memories of him as a teacher.

When I joined IIM in 1983, he was an icon - we heard so many good things about him from our seniors and he had been voted among the top 5 Professors of the previous year by our seniors. At that cynical age, one waited eagerly to see such a man in action and declare opinions passed down about him as hyperboles. But Prof. Bhandari surprised us. From the first class he more than lived up to his reputation- he was mersmeric!

Its amazing to see classrooms filled post lunch at 2 pm (thats when he took most of his sessions) even when he didnt insist on attendance. We attended only to listen to him and his case analysis. His case studies were often only two three pages (very different from many of the other cases which we got that were reams and reams of data) but the analysis he juiced out of them was loads and insightful.

I remember him as a soft spoken, kind professor; never rejecting any class participation as superficial or stupid; always encouraging students to voice their opinion; and one thing I learnt from him was that its not wrong to be silent - to pause and think before giving a response. I noticed this - he practised this in class - he didnt shy away from remaining silent for a few minutes before giving a response - and I found that interesting especially in our society where we think intelligence means immediate, spontaneous responses.

It was a sad day when I heard about his death in an air crash, I think in 1988...I had joined Ogilvy and Cadbury was a client of ours (though I wasnt working on it). It seemed so close home as on that last visit he had met people at Cadbury I think and yes, it was a professor who taught me and who all, including me, admired.

By the way, even my batch voted him among the top 5 professors of the year our year! A tribute to his brilliance and his consistency.

*Madhukar Sabnavis was a student of LRB in 1983-85 and is currently Country Head, Discovery and Planning at Ogilvy and Mather, India.