Monday 20 April 2009

R. Gopalkrishnan remembers...

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.

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