Wednesday 29 April 2009
I had the extraordinarily good fortune of serving as advisor for Labdhi’s Ph.D. thesis at the Graduate Business School at Columbia University. In addition to Labdhi’s high intelligence and charming personality which endeared him to his colleagues and teachers, he had insightful empirical research skills.
Labdhi’s research focused on understanding the impact of the rapidly growing Indian population. He won a large grant from the Population Division of the Ford Foundation. He was very effective in dealing with international experts in these fields. This supported roots for so-called “social marketing”, which deals with the use of aspects of marketing skills to deal with social matters, such as nutrition and demographics.
LRB after his graduation ceremony at Columbia University (date unknown)
Unlike many non-US students who claimed that they would return to home universities after completing a Ph.D. but did not do so, Labdhi became a professor at the highly regarded Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad. Over time, he became one of only a handful of recognized Indian academic marketing experts.
My role as Labdhi’s advisor led me to visits to India, which have continued over the decades. These visits led to multi-country research programs for me.
Labdhi helped arrange visits to several areas across India. He turned out to be an excellent and tireless tour guide. We went to the Taj Mahal and spent Independence Day in Delhi along with the President of Poland. We made a Northern circle which included Jaipur. A later Southern trip included Madurai and Madras.
Labdhi was, no doubt, in the vanguard of growing cadres of Indian Ph.D. students as well as Indian colleagues and collaborators in leading US business schools.
*Dr. John U. Farley was LRB's PhD supervisor at Columbia University and is now the C.V. Starr Distinguished Research Fellow of International Business at The Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth
I first came across Labdhi at IIM Ahmedabad around 1967 or so (I don’t exactly remember the year). He was a student in my first year Operations Management course. I was a very young professor – not much older than Labdhi. There were 120 students in the two sections. Even though Labdhi was one of the youngest (or probably the youngest) in that group, he stood out. He was very thoughtful, serious and put in plenty of hard work. My course was more quantitative, and he had always some difficulties with math type courses. But, he never gave up; instead he was able to master the topics to the extent that he was able to contribute well in the class discussions. But his real forte was to see through the clutter of the cases and focus on the real issues. His comments in the class were always to the point; I remember him as a student who contributed well to the discussion in class. During this time, I did not know him well. I knew him only as a very bright student.
Then came our journey to Columbia University Business School in September 1972. He had joined IIM as a faculty member. He and I were both admitted to the Ph.D. program. I got an apartment as a married student (my wife had stayed back for the first year) at Woodbridge Hall and Labdhi became my room-mate. I enjoyed his company for almost nine months till my wife and son joined me.
I got to know Labdhi a little better during this time. We shared tasks around the apartment; I would cook most of the time, and he would do the dishes etc. Both of us studied hard to get through the courses and the exams. I had a slightly easier time because of my background (engineering) but I had difficulties with some of the behavioral courses. Labdhi excelled in those while he had some difficulties with the quantitative courses. We helped each other out, though he complained much about the math-type courses we had to take. We used to kid him about his obsession with these
courses and try to get him into a good mood. But by sheer persistence and hard work, as before, he was able to master those courses and get good grades in those.
Focusing on the studies left us very little time to socialize. We had a group of Indian students in the Business School and in the Economics Department. We used to meet often for dinners at each other’s apartments. Labdhi was a very serious person most of the time, as he constantly worried and complained about his relative difficulties with some of the courses. However, he would not be so serious that he would avoid social get togethers. Vinay Pandit (he was in a university in Buffalo, NY) and Prakash Apte (Ex-Director of IIMB) were two good friends of Labdhi in our Ph.D. days at Columbia.
From the second year on (when he moved out of my apartment) he had a much easier time in the courses as he was focusing on his field – marketing. He was very good at that as well as in the behavioral courses. His experience with Hindustan Levers gave him a strong foothold in his marketing courses. My interaction with him lessened considerably after this as I had my family with me. My wife and I had him and a couple of other Indian students for dinner a few times during our stay in New York.
Labdhi was a very generous person. I remember the time when he took us all out for a nice Indian dinner in a fancy restaurant on Central Park. It cost him quite a bit, but he felt he had to celebrate his completing the course work.
He was a very good friend. Once during our stay together I was going through a very difficult time. Labdhi helped me get over that. He was there like a true friend when I needed him. He never judged me or my actions, but gave me his full support and understanding. I will always remember that.
I completed my Ph.D. earlier (in three years) and I moved away to Boston for my job. I stayed back in the USA, and did not return to IIMA. My contacts with Labdhi became less and less. There was no email in those days. I knew he went back to IIM and got married. When I visited Ahmedabad in the early 80s I did visit him in his house on the campus, when I met the family.
Being in the US, I learnt about the airline accident in the newspapers, and I also saw that Labdhi was one of the passengers. It broke my heart. I felt that a bright light had been snubbed. I heard that he was a great teacher and sought after by many companies for his advice. I can only speculate what heights he would have reached and what he would have accomplished.
It has been a long time, and I often wondered how his young wife coped with the tragedy. I had no contact. It appears that she has done a fine job raising the children.
*R. Balachandra taught LRB at IIMA in the late 1960s and was later a fellow PhD student at Columbia University. He is now a Professor at Northeastern University.
I had known Labdhi in late 60’s and early 70’s when we were colleagues at Hindustan Lever. I joined the firm in 1968 as a management trainee, a year after he joined. Around 1970, I was involved in a pioneering effort at HLL, to use continuous consumer panels for evaluating test markets for new products and studying brand loyalty. As a manager in the operations research department during that period, I developed the required analytics for consumer panel data analysis. Apart from developing the analytics, I had to sell this new approach the marketing team and help institutionalize it. It being the first time continuous consumer panels and the new analytics were being used in India there was considerable skepticism and it took quite a bit of effort on my part and some strong support from a few colleagues in the Marketing group, to sell this new approach as a relevant tool/aid to decisions relating to test markets, consumer promotions, brand loyalty etc. Labdhi was one of the colleagues who strongly supported our effort and helped in the adoption of this new approach to analysis.
About a year or so later Labdhi moved from Product manager’s role to lead the market research team. While he was the deputy to an Expatriate Market Research Specialist, who headed the department, Labdhi de facto managed the team and client relations. He effectively leveraged his sharp intellect and experience/credibility as a product manager to transform the market research team from a group of technique-focused researchers to providers of relevant consumer and customer insight. During that short stint in the Market research department, he played a significant role in improving its credibility and acceptability. I also had the opportunity to work very closely with Labdhi, in late 1971 / early ’72, when I handed over my pet project of this consumer panel data analysis to his market research team.
During my long stint in HUL, spanning over three decades, I noticed that some young managers stand out from the rest quite early in their career and are seen as destined for fast growth to the top. Ladhi, in my view, was definitely one such young manager. He demonstrated a sharp intellect, questioning and determined mind and empathy in dealing with people around him. Even though he was handling responsible roles and seemed destined to grow fast, he was clear that he would want a wider canvass, across multiple industries to work with. He acted on his belief and quit HUL to join IIM where he could combine his academic interests and the opportunity work on consulting assignments across multiple industries.
Soon after that I moved out of marketing/marketing services into the commercial function. We lost touch for a while, and touched based again in mid 80’s when I was the General Manager – Corporate Development in HLL. By then he had attained considerable fame both as one of the outstanding professors at IIM Ahmedabad as well as a strategy consultant associated with a wide range of industries.
The 'thin, lean, young executive with a strong mind'
LRB (far left) at a Hindustan Lever Ltd. gathering, probably in the early 1970s
I will always remember Labdhi as I knew him in early 70’s, the thin lean young executive (I think he was the youngest among his peer group) with a strong mind who made a great impact on every assignment he handled during those early years in HLL.
* K.S.Srinivasa Murty was a colleague of LRB at Hindustan Lever Ltd. in the late 1960s and early 70s. He retired as a VP AT HUL in 2002.
Monday 20 April 2009
On 3rd July 1967, six wannabe managers walked into Hindustan Lever House at Backbay Reclamation at about 9 am simultaneously. All of them had been recruited under the company’s prestigious management trainee scheme. All of them had hopes in their hearts and stars in their eyes.
Of the six, two are no more: Charanjit Singh, who died in a car accident overseas, and Labdhi Bhandari, who died in a tragic plane accident on 19thOctober, 1988. Of the four who are around, Dilip Katdare, Bhagwan Advani and I are in contact. Nandurdikar is not in contact, at least with me.
This piece is a tribute to Labdhi by me, an erstwhile colleague from his trainee batch.
Fresh out of IIT Kharagpur and a hostel-experienced, starving young man, I was 50 kg (125 lbs) in weight with a near 6 foot frame. I had competition from Labdhi who had similar statistics, but was from IIMA! Compared to other trainees, I was very young, just over 21 years of age. Here too I had competition because Labdhi, if I recall right, was yet to hit 19!
I joined the computer department as an analyst, Labdhi joined the marketing department. In due course, he became the assistant brand manager for washing products. Whichever odd hour my company could get a booking at the IBM 1401 computer centre, I laboured to keep the punched card decks in order and the magnetic tapes spinning, testing whether my auto-coder codes were acceptable to the monster machine.
However Saturday was a day for catching-up and gossip. Trainees like us who were not yet in the throes of the fabled, busy life of a full-fledged manager, would have lunch together at SAMOVAR or the MLA hostel nearby.
It was clear to all of us that Labdhi was exceptionally bright. We never said so or admitted it because we were all convinced that we too were exceptionally bright. Many of us were operational by temperament, but Labdhi was cerebral. To all of us, it was self-evident that “a bunch of dodos was running Hindustan Lever”.
The top folks, it seemed to us, were not skilled at identifying the burning issues and then deal with them with the speed and efficiency we credited ourselves with. Such was the sweet innocence of freshly minted MBAs and engineers.
Three years later, around the end of 1970, Labdhi was the first from our batch to be promoted to “Grade 2.” Labdhi got a cabin to himself, as Head of Market Research in the Management Services Group, while we had to share a cabin with a colleague. Labdhi would get invited to certain meetings where we would be requested to “be available.”
All these ‘huge’ reasons were enough to cause tension and jealousy, but in a collegial and human way. It was the first milestone in our career; the results would determine to some extent who would stay on and who would leave in an intensely competitive system. It all sounds so silly in retrospect, but such setbacks, petty jealousies and foibles were instrumental in our personal development in those early days.
To Labdhi’s credit, I must add that not once did he ever wear his new found status on his sleeves. It was merely an event, just the luck of the draw. But something unexpected began to emerge in his murmurs soon after. Who wants to spend a lifetime selling soaps and toiletry products, he would ask. Surely we were destined to do better things? Like what? Like teaching and research!! It was a thunderbolt, completely out of the blue!
The thought certainly passed my mind that this guy could be afflicted with pretensions of being intellectually superior, or else why would he think of chucking up a terrific job in a premier company? And that too to teach? Or could it be that he had an inverse snobbery?
To our great surprise, he did quit to take up a teaching job back at his alma mater. It showed us that he was a person of serious thinking as well as action. He had figured out something that would make him happy and he was determined to pursue that single-mindedly. He was the first to tell me something like, “We must enjoy what we do and do what we enjoy.” That became my favourite phrase in later years and it would come back to me many times in the future.
Between 1973 and 1988, when he died, we met periodically. On one occasion, he requested me to deliver a lecture at IIM. On another occasion, he sat in on a Lever brainstorm on how Dalda could be revived. I got married and he came home for dinner. Years after that, he got married and I visited his home for dinner. Labdhi had a fiercely active mind, which was blast-furnace hot, always curious and always energizing.
In the ripeness of time in 1987, I was appointed to the board of Hindustan Lever. He was delighted and came home to say congratulations. The old petty jealousies of youth were absent. He was happy that his friend had become a director of the company that we had all grown to love. Now, I was proud that Labdhi, my friend, had become a celebrated authority on marketing and was widely respected. He was enjoying what he did, and I was enjoying what I did. We had a great evening together.
And then, suddenly on 19th October, 1988, an early morning Bombay-Ahmedabad plane crashed. With that, India lost a light, I lost a friend and many in the world mourned.
13th April, 2009
*R. Gopalkrishnan is Director, Tata Sons and was a colleague or LRB at Hindustan Lever.