Sunday 12 April 2015

Shekhar Vyas remembers....

Back in the 1980s, I was a young entrepreneur and Labdhi Saab was my mentor. He was India's most sought after marketing consultant. He felt that even the best-designed research project can fail because of poor field execution. He also felt there was a strong need for a sales promotion company because none existed in the industry. So he advised me to position my company as specialist market research and sales promotion firm with excellent field strength. He was the one who named the company MRSP - Market Research and Sales Promotions.

We worked on many projects with him. Most of these projects were his consulting projects at IIM-A, but as and when required, he would use the services of outside agencies for his research or consulting work. We were one such agency. Shyam Sunder's company - Marketing and Business Associates (MBA) was another one. He also worked closely with many advertising agencies - especially Lintas, O&M, Trikya, etc.

One of the projects I worked on with him was for Enfield India, where he was on the Board of Directors. Enfield had tied up with (and later bought) a German company called Zundapp and they wanted to launch two Zundapp motorcycles in the Indian market - Silver Plus and Explorer. We worked on the sales promotion of these products. I remember he had also bought one bike - an Explorer - and he gave it to me to use for some time.

Another project where I worked closely with Labdhi Saab was a promotion with Doctors for Saffola Edible Oil for Marico (then Bombay Oil industries). Mr. Harsh Mariwala the CMD of Marico was closely associated with him. In fact, Labdhi Saab had suggested the idea for a television serial that they produced with Hema Malini, who then also endorsed their other product - Parachute Oil.

In Ahmedabad, we worked under his guidance for a project with Cadilla Pharma for the launch of a drug called Oriprim DS. The project involved doing one of India's first prescription audits. Mr. Pankaj Patel, who is now the CMD of Zydus Cadilla was in charge of the project at the time. Mr. Patel also attended a course on Product Policy and New Product Management that Labdhi Saab taught.

Then, there was the promotion of The Week magazine that was published by Malayalam Manorama, who he was advising. One Mr. Balakrishnan was involved from their side. Another unique project was the launch of Vital Soya flour for Britannia - for which we did a school promotion. Chitra Talwar, an IIM-A alumnus was involved from their side and Labdhi Saab worked closely with her. We also worked with him for Sony Corporation of Japan and Motorola of USA for their entry into Indian Market after imports were liberalized in the late 1980s by the Rajiv Gandhi government.

I had met him on his last day in Ahmedabad. It was a Sunday. He had called me in the afternoon and he told me that he had to leave for a trip to Pune to meet 'Dada' Kirloskar. Labdhi Saab was very stretched with work at the time and he did not want to make the trip, but Mr. Kirloskar had insisted - even offering to send his private plane to drop him back at Ahmedabad if he was tied up. We met at his place, then walked over to the Management Development Centre. I remember he took a peon to task that day because a portrait of Vikram Sarabhai, the founder of IIM-A had not been clean. I had asked him if he had met Dr. Sarabhai - he said he hadn't, but respected him a lot. He described him as a 'future scientist' and an institution builder rather than an atomic scientist. He asked me to ride with him to the airport so that we could continue our work in the car. Before he left for Pune he told me that he was expecting a letter offering him an appointment as Director of IIM Ahmedabad. I think his plan was to retire two years after he completed the term as Director.

The next day, he called me from Pune from the Bajaj Auto office and asked me if could meet a certain Mr. Bhargava some time in the week. Normally I never said no, but that day I requested him that we take a call after he returns to Ahmedabad. I was supposed to meet him on Tuesday evening. But, at 7 pm, his wife called me and told me that he would only return on Wednesday. It was never to be. His plane crashed the next morning.

*Shekhar Vyas was a friend and protege of LRB. 

Sampat Singhvi remembers his childhood friend....

I write this with a heavy heart since Labdhi and I were childhood friends and classmates throughout our school years from elementary through high school (Higher Secondary as it was called during those years). He was one of a few school friends that I kept in touch with on a regular basis after I graduated. While he was an Arts student and I majored in Science, this only separated us from being in the same class from grades 9 to 11. Otherwise, we used to sit in the same class from primary school to 8th grade.

We had a lot in common as we both came from a middle class family, from a small town (Sojat City with a population of 25,000 during our growing years), where education was given some importance but family guidance, support, and encouragement for studying hard and career building was lacking. So we had to build our own educational and professional careers.

During primary and middle school, either he or I would be the top student, but the recognition and rewards for being on top, from family, society, or school were simply missing. Consequently, we did not make much of being the top student in those schooling years. After High School graduation, Labdhi went to Jodhpur to do his BA, while I went to Pilani for my Pharmacy degree. During those years we probably did not see each other very much, although if were both back in Sojat in the summers, we would meet and spend time together.

My social meetings with him re-started and became more frequent after my graduation from Pilani in 1967, while I was living with my family in Mumbai for one year, before leaving for the US for graduate studies. During this year, Labdhi was working at Hindustan Lever after his graduation from IIM-A, and lived with Mr. HR Bhandari (another Sojat native) in Worli. So I would go see him and HR occasionally. Sometimes he would come to my house in Vile Parle and we would spend some time together, or meet for lunch near Churchgate close to his work place. I would consult with him about my career goals and what I should do in future. His clarity of thought and encouragement for higher education was instrumental in me applying for admission in US colleges for my graduate studies.

For a few years while I was studying in the US, we did not have close contact until 1971 when I returned to India for a summer break and to getting married. LRB was able to come to my wedding in Pune in the of summer of 1971; he was the only schoolmate from Sojat that attended my wedding, partly because I had lost touch with others during the five years that I was in Pilani and also because my wedding date was fixed in a hurry. I missed Labdhi’s wedding as I was still studying in the US towards my Ph.D.

The next time we saw each other was when I was working in New Jersey and he came to NY for his Ph.D. program at Columbia University. We met frequently - mostly in NY, but also occasionally in NJ. Later he would be joined by his lovely wife, Santosh. Following his Ph.D. and return to India to take up a faculty position at IIM-A, we were only able to meet whenever I would visit India during my social visits. We remained in touch one way or the other. Then one day I heard about the tragic event that took his life and it was just unbelievably sad; I got all the details about how this happened from my family and our common friends. What a tragic loss to his family, close friends, society in general, and importantly to the whole country. As we all know, he was a great asset to the academic and industrial arena in the marketing field. His intellect, sharpness, and wit were just superb. He was simply an extraordinary man with a great potential to make immeasurable contribution to society and the country. What was amazing about him is that he chose to make his career in academia although he could have done much better in industry from a financial perspective. It was a choice he made to go into academia and he was proud of that decision without any hesitation or after thought.

For me personally, it was just as big a shock as I lost a very close friend that I had grown up with, a person who was so similar to me in many ways, and somebody who I could relate with in many different ways. My family liked to see him all the time and likewise, I also enjoyed seeing ‘Baiji’ and Labdhi’s brothers whenever I saw them. His older brother, Dr. B.S. Bhandari (Lalasa, as we called him, who is a great physicist), also stayed in US for a few years. My wife and I would visit him and his wife whenever we had an opportunity. For a while they were the source of getting information about Labdhi and his family.

LRB came from a small town, and a family with limited means, but made a name for himself by his superb accomplishments in business arena and his legacy will last forever.

*Dr. Sampat Singhvi was LRB's childhood friend. He recently retired after a long career in the pharmaceutical industry in the United States and now lives in Princeton, NJ. 

Saturday 11 April 2015

LRB resigns from Hindustan Lever

LRB's resignation letter from HLL
On November 30, 1971, after 4 and a half years at Hindustan Lever Ltd., LRB finally submitted his resignation. He addressed the letter to David Webb, the Vice Chairman of HLL and requested that he be relieved by the end of the year. Tte decision to leave had been a difficult one that he had mulled over for a long time (and one that would write about in the future). LRB was leaving to join the faculty of IIM Ahmedabad as a young (he was 23) Assistant Professor to build a career in academics. In a few months, he would move to New York to join the Doctoral programme at Columbia Business School. 

It appears that LRB put a lot of time into composing this short resignation letter. Despite its brevity, the letter's tone, tenor and language has been carefully crafted. He takes pains to convey his reasons for moving on, emphasizing his firm belief that academics is his true calling. Like he would say in an interview years later, he "didn't leave to leave Levers". HLL had made a big contribution to LRB's personal growth and professional development. He had also tasted great success there. It seems clear that he felt a connection with the company and did not want to snap ties or leave his colleagues with an unpleasant feeling. Indeed, the letter acknowledges his deep gratitude and fond regard for the company and talks about staying in touch. The language is of a protege saying goodbye to his mentor. 

Hindustan Lever was sad to see LRB leave. It is very likely that LRB had been identified as a 'lister' - one of a few individuals identified by the company for potential fast-track advancement to top management. Prof. SK Bhattacharya, one of his mentors at IIM-A, once told a colleague that Levers rated LRB very highly, and that "if Labdhi had not left Hindustan Lever, he would have joined the company's Board of Directors in a few years."

On the cusp of his transition from HLL to IIM Ahmedabad, on the 30th of December, 1971, LRB would hear the sad news of the unexpected passing of Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, the visionary founding father of IIM-A. LRB would join the institute on the 3rd of January 1972. 3 days later, on the 6th of January, he would be joined by another young turk - CK Prahalad. That very month, on the the 25th of January 1972, Ravi J. Mathai, the celebrated Director of IIM Ahmedabad, and the man who had done the most to attract LRB and CKP to the institute, would drop a bombshell in the first faculty meeting of the year - he would be voluntarily stepping down from his position. The IIM-A torch was gently being passed to a new generation. 

Transcript of letter

November 30, 1971

Mr. D. F. Webb
Vice Chairman
Hindustan Lever Ltd. 

Through: R. A. Tofts

Dear Mr. Webb, 

It is with deep regret that I request you to accept my resignation from the Company in order to work towards a doctoral degree in the field of management studies in U.S.A. 

It is no secret that I have always been drawn towards academic pursuits and indeed the years with Hindustan Lever have been a highly educative and rewarding experience for me. However, it is only at the University, I believe, that I can find my true vocation - at least for the immediate future. A specific opportunity has now come my way as a result of which I now propose to join the faculty of the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad, preparatory to my doctoral studies. Towards this end, I request that I be released from the services of the Company by 31st December, 1971. 

I would like to take this opportunity to record my gratitude to the company for all that has been done for my professional training and development. May I add that it is my appreciation of what I owe the Company that makes it difficult for me to consider serving the firm with anything less than total commitment.

I contemplate a career in management education and I hope to be in touch regularly. Should I ever be in a position to be of service to Hindustan Lever, I would consider it a privilege to render such help. 

With kind regards, 

Yours sincerely 

Labdhi Bhandari