Saturday 25 July 2015

S. Ramachander remembers...

Marketing Loses a Star

by S. Ramachander

When Prof. Labdhi Bhandari died in the air crash at Ahmedabad on 19 October 1988, the marketing profession in India lost one of its outstanding advocates. He was only 40 years old, but had already compressed into two decades, an exceptional career as a student, researcher, manager, professor and consultant. But then he was always precocious in the best meaning of the term. He was the youngest student on record at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad in its second batch and went on to become easily the youngest senior manager at Hindustan Lever. 

A list of his attainments will show an unusual commitment to excellence: he won a top rank at IIM-A overcoming the handicap of an entirely Hindi medium undergraduate background. After a short but brilliant managerial stint, went on to an award winning doctoral dissertation at Columbia University. On his return he rose to be one of the most respected senior members of the faculty not only at the IIM but in the entire country. His consultancy assignments kept following in from the public and the private sectors. He was associated with prestigious, national policy level projects concerning the Tea Board, the Planning Commission, the Public Distribution System for Essential Commodities, and Family Planning, to mention just a few that I personally knew of. Only last year he added two more distinctions to this impressive list: a $10,000 research grant from the US and the STC Chair in Marketing. 

He remained consistently unflustered by the attention and the glamour of the multinational marketing world. Directorships of companies like EID Parry and Enfield India were to him the same as helping a friend out unobtrusively with a small scale marketing experiment which intellectually challenged him. He was very conscious of the fact that he was - and wished to be - a simple person, all of a piece. He never bothered to conceal his roots and cultural origins in semi-urban Rajasthan, to which he came back to do all his field work for his PhD thesis at Columbia University.  

His doctoral research concentrated on the adoption process of family planning by the rural population of Rajasthan and the resulting thesis emerged as the best among all those received that year in the US Universities towards a PhD in Marketing. It was later published as a book. which could serve as a model for any aspiring scholar. 

As a writer, Labdhi's style was like the man himself - spare, lean, precise and without the slightest air of pomp. Not for him the flamboyance of his friends in the ad. world nor the turgid prose of the more typical Americanised researcher. In speech, he came across with a directness and a light touch of humour which was often self deprecating and poking fun at the most irritatingly superficial ways of his own countrymen. He made no bones of the fact that the over glamorizing of the face of Marketing was a serious disservice to it both as a discipline as well as a profession.  

To his students of marketing it was nothing short of a privilege to attend his heavily over-subscribed elective courses which were a runaway success. While he was highly successful as a teacher, he was a stern disciplinarian, demanding very long hours on project work from his students. But he rewarded them with personal attention and detailed feedback often lasting 12 hours in a single day. 

I have had the privilege of knowing him for 23 years and our careers have run a strangely parallel course from Ahmedabad to Lever to the US and back to the Institute. Working closely with him, although as a visiting faculty over the last five years, I have had many a long discussion often late into the night on almost everything under the sun. He was seldom dogmatic or highly demonstrative but always had a thoughtful point to make. His somewhat shy and self effacing manner, particularly noticeable in the early stage of his career, often misled some people to thinking that he could be easily won over. But nothing was further from the truth. He was intellectually strong and had enormous courage. I should like to think that he went equally courageously - with few regrets. But when I next go to the campus, I shall miss the routine walk down the road through a smoky winter evening to his lawns where a welcome cup of tea and snacks invariably awaited me - or a message that he was out of town. 

But let me not be selfish. It has been a privilege knowing Labdhi for half his life. And for that one should be grateful. 

* This tribute to LRB was written by the Late S. Ramachander in 1988, soon after LRB's death. It was published in the IIM-A Alumnus magazine in January 1989. Mr. Ramachander, himself a pioneer of marketing, passed away in 2008. 

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