Friday 13 November 2009

SL Rao remembers...

I joined Hindustan Lever as a management trainee in 1957 and left in December 1968. Those were the days of all kinds of restrictions. Unilever wanted me to get some experience working in the U.K, and gave it to me by sending me to work in Lever Brothers in exchange for one of their managers coming to India. I returned in 1963.

Some of us, who had been management trainees, started a discussion group that other managers joined (many directors wanted to come but were not invited!). In one discussion in 1967, we asked the head of personnel (a wonderful man called Dr Ranjan Banerjee) why Levers was so largely exclusive in recruiting only young, English-speaking people, mainly from the higher socio-economic classes. He proudly responded by saying that they had just selected as management trainee, a young man who had studied in Hindi medium and made the only exception till then by selecting him though he was 19, that is, below the 21 that was the rule. That was the first time that I heard of Labdhi Bhandari.

Tall, slim, with a beautiful baritone voice, deliberate in speech, he was a pleasure to meet and talk to. In the 18 months I was in the company after he joined, I met him often, and he made a deep impression upon me.

I left to head the marketing of Warner Hindustan. We were a pharmaceutical and chemicals company with ambitions of launching consumer products and I invited him in late 1971 to come in as Marketing Controller for this division. He was interested but on consideration said that Lever had asked him to go on a posting overseas and he had decided that, rather than mislead them he was resigning to pursue his academic interests. He left Lever in early 1972, joined Columbia where he took a much-acclaimed Ph.D. in 1975.

When I met Philip Kotler, the textbook guru of all students of marketing some years later, he talked very appreciatively of Labdhi who he had selected for a prestigious prize at a major conference.

I would meet him occasionally when I went to lecture at IIMA, where he had a meteoric career. I am certain that if he had been a little older he would have become Director of the institute by the mid-1980s. He was a much-loved teacher, both for his consideration and the quality of his teaching. He continued to write and publish and was involved increasingly in national policy issues.

In his sudden death in the Indian Airlines air crash at Ahmedabad in 1988 I lost a friend and the nation lost a valuable intellectual.

*SL Rao was a senior colleague of LRB at Hindustan Lever in the late 1960s and a friend. He is now Chairman, Institute for Social and Economic Change, Bangalore.