Saturday, April 18, 2009

Shunu Sen, HLL and Road Number 3 HO.... ADIOS...

Soon, Levers will move lock stock and barrel to its new offices in the Mumbai suburbs.

And that will be the end of an era.

Back in 1985, we - 65 of us - began our Masters in Management Studies at Jamnalal Bajaj, situated on 'Road Number 3'. This address is so nameless. Situated in Backbay Reclamation, it sounded (still sounds) like some forgotten postscript of the city of Bombay. Like a garrison. Or a prison to house the goons of the city or something. (It does house the MLA hostel).

But then, we Bajajites had HLL directly opposite us on the other side of the road. We basked in the penumbra of its quiet glow. A steady stream of the most impeccable visiting faculty was assured. And made up for the fact that we were not IIM A, B or C... the three IIMs that existed, and the only other 'ranked' institutes.

We spent two years less than a stone's throw away, and yet rarely got to see the stalwarts that made up the top brass. In a city of 8 to 10 million (those days) it was easier to catch a sight of top film stars rather than the 'big guys' of Levers.

Later, during campus placement, two of our brightest batchies got into the company. And the image of the company shot up in campus. For one of the truths of MBA life is that batchies everywhere form impressions of a company basis its ability to recognize talent we KNOW in house.
And Nitin Paranjpe and Srila Chatterjee were our stars for sure.

Other companies were busy shooting themselves in the foot and committing both Type 1 and Type 2 blunders/ errors. Some real good guys of the batch did not get taken. Some duds of the batch did. So many companies have forever since, been scorned by the rest of us.

I had already opted to accept the job offer made to me by Lintas during summers, and this was to be the beginning of a career where my work has been intertwined with that of... well.... what do I call the company now... HUL? Sounds like some truncated Bhangra rap word. When i first heard it a couple of years ago at an MBA campus, for a moment I imagined an oil company, drilling in the sea, raking in the petrodollars.

It is not HLL any longer, the moniker treated with awe across generations of MBA students at the best institutes, as THE place to work in.
It was our Day-One company, in an era when placement began with the 'first' day and had not yet regressed to the newfangled policy of 'Day Zero' at the institutes.
(Typically Day Zero companies recently have been the I-Banks. Lehmann, Merrill Lynch, Deutsche Bank...Apt name, no?
Day 'ZERO' --- Shoonya. Nothing. Nought... )

Most of us prefer to (continue to ) call it Levers. And that thrill of walking into its conference rooms exists as ripples of feelings of a long while ago rookie entering its portals. Recently, I was at its HO for a workshop and had this out of body experience. For a moment, I was in my early 20s again, and the month was December, 1988.
Shunu Sen and my boss at Lintas, Pranesh Misra had sent me into the boondocks - go find out whatever you can about rural India. A brief made all the more formidable for its sheer laconic nature. Boldly go forth where no corporate (wo)man had gone before - and figure out the future...

And I came back with 'P: RuMark'.
Rural Markets.
A key finding : villagers everywhere purchased goods in 'chhataaks'... to suit their weekly purchase cycle, and the shopkeepers opened up the large sealed packs to sell it loose / piecemeal in these chhataaks.

Chhataak : A word from pre Independence times to mean a smaller quantity. Usually and loosely worked out to invariably cost one rupee. And packed in a piece of grubby newspaper. Detergent, daal, sugar, salt, tea, aur to aur, even soaps were cut up and sold in chhataaks.

Shunu, sitting at the head of the table loved it. He began to envision the future of many Lever brands as pouch packs. In one rupee formats. Chhataak packs.

Sachets was not yet a word in our FMCG dictionary. Back then...

And rarely have I felt so GOOD in my 22 years career, as at his words of praise...

Shunu had a back problem (he was not yet on his wheelchair) and back then he would talk to folks sitting both sides of the long conference table without eye contact with them, looking only straight ahead. As the presenter, I was at the other end of the long table, and over the next few years got used to the unnerving experience of Shunu speaking to other individuals via eye contact with me alone.

What sheer joy to listen to him talk of the future of various brands, to his core lietenants of those days. Sharp, holistic, marketing knowledge of the highest order.. all 'spoken' as if to me :-).

And that was another amazing quality about him. His hands on, always keen on participating in consumer findings, frame of mind. As far back as I can recall, he ALWAYS made it a point to attend quali research presentations. Research results across Lifebuoy, Surf, Pears, Fair & Lovely, Paras Fertilisers, Sunlight detergent, Close Up... it was his way of staying in touch with his core target, his ear to the ground. Perhaps, those were simpler times. Fewer brands.

But hey, there was far more of an aura. And the adrenalin rush of being in the presence of a person who I saw as the Ultimate Brains. One who others have called Guru, and who could ask the most unexpected of questions. Catching the presenter off-guard.

Today I see young capable managers rushing around in Levers. Brands are the same. The semiotics have changed. And like on this day recently, I seek that distant twinkling alive presence. So essential to the essence of HLL.

HLL to HUL. Road Number 3 HO will soon morph into the new HO off distant WE Highway.

Nitin Paranjpe, classmate, today is the youngest CEO this company HUL/ HLL has seen in its 75 year history.

Srila Chatterjee, who quit HLL ages ago, is one of the finest, most respected film producers that the advertising world - and Indian film world too - has seen. Her creative instincts are for all to see in Blue Frog as well, that amazing live music watering hole, recently rated at par with Madison Square Garden, by The Independent, London.

Shunu Sen passed away in 2003.

Forever leaving a vacuum.

And I regret this. That I never did tell Shunu. How much gyan seeped in, into the akkal in his presence, what this has meant to me.

Perhaps that is how it was to be. For sure, he would have had a cutting yet kind retort. Something unexpected. And funny. ('Don't call me a Guru. Gurus don't have sex')
In a world suffering from SOHF - Sense of Humour Failure, Shunu Sen's day to day life was the stuff that today's corporate legends are made of.

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