Suresh Narayanan is the Chairman and MD of Nestle India Limited (which recently crossed INR 10,000 Crores for the first time after about a century of operating in India). Suresh is often dubbed as a turnaround leader given what he has accomplished in various markets - Handling the operations in Singapore during the 2008 financial crisis, Leadership in Egypt, Libya and Sudan during the Arab Spring around 2011, turning around Maggi in 2015 when the company had taken a significant hit on the P&L and the Balance Sheet.
In our conversation, Suresh spoke about how his childhood years, especially the years at Rishi Valley School have given him the foundation and the attitudes that have helped him through the journey. He spoke about how he made some of his early career choices including the decision to join Hindustan Unilever Limited, while he was actually preparing himself for the IAS. He also discussed how he has transitioned effectively from one context to another and his perspectives on what it takes to settle in well in a new environment. He spent time discussing how he specifically turned around the fortunes at Nestle when he took charge in 2015 and breaks down the notion of building resilience as an individual and in the team. Finally, he also talks about how Marketing as a function is evolving with the emergence of Digital.
Published in Feb 2018.
Nuggets from the
Early formative years
Suresh talks about the importance of values that he derived from his childhood. He talks about the emphasis on Goddess Saraswathi (education) than Goddess Lakshmi (Wealth) in his family. He also discusses the important of Rishi Valley school and Jiddu Krishnamurthy in shaping his attitudes and beliefs and how that has helped him through his journey.
Career - getting off to a good start
Suresh talks about how serendipity got him to Hindustan Lever Limited (HLL). He speaks about initially appearing for the interview as practice for the IAS entrance but provides context on why he joined HLL eventually. He provides an interesting insight on how he thought about the trade-offs and risks at that point in time. He also speaks about how one should think about navigating their career through a large corporation during the early years where it is easy to get lost in the maze.
Transitioning effectively to a new context
Suresh talks about his experiences in transitioning across companies and roles. He moved from HUL to Nestle and within Nestle, he moved across markets such as Egypt, Singapore, Thailand, Philippines and India. He talks about how he thinks about settling into a new context and also what it takes to build systems and processes so that even when you transition out, the organization continues to run effectively.
Maggi crisis and decoding resilience
Suresh talks about how he took charge when he came back to India during the Maggi crisis. He talks about how he prioritized the various elements of the business and how he spent time for the first 6-9 months. He also shares his views on where he got his strength and what it takes to build resilience in the organization while dealing with a shock.
Building good business judgment
Suresh talks about the trade-off between long-term considerations like consumer trust and the short-term cash flow pressures. He specifically talks about the considerations that went into them proactively destroying about 35000 tonnes of food (that was arguably of good quality). He also breaks down what it takes create a climate where the people under the take the right decisions even when under duress.
Suresh talks about the journey of rebuilding trust using the example of what happened with Maggi in India. He provides an insight into what it takes to rebuild trust by talking about the various elements that go into it – not compromising on the pillars on which trust is built and navigating the path with dignity, respect and transparency (something recently demonstrated by Dara Khosrowshahi – CEO of Uber – in the context of the litigation with Waymo).
Suresh speaks about how he used the crisis as an opportunity to ensure that people in the company spent time on the right things. He speaks about how he went on a war-footing to cut down meeting times in the company and got people to be more productive during office hours. He discusses his perspectives around the trade-off between efficiency and effectiveness.
Suresh talks about how Marketing has a function has evolved given the Digital age we are living in. He says that instead of Digital Marketing, he believes in marketing to the Digitally Enabled that is often the entire consumer base. He also speaks about how he leveraged Digital to resurrect the brand Maggi when Nestle re-introduced the brand.
In Summary - Playing to Potential
Suresh shares his wisdom around Where to go (building navigational principles as one moves along in a career) and How to grow (how one scales up their leadership capability over time)