Both Starbucks and Tata Global have a strong heritage in coffee. So it’s a marriage of like-minded companies.
Life has changed for Harish Bhat. And how! The MD & CEO of Tata Global Beverages (TGB), who took over his new assignment a few months ago, is travelling all the time: in Bangalore for the weekends, where his family is, Mumbai during the week, and in the past few months, several trips to London and one to Russia as well.
While he’s not counting miles like George Clooney’s Ryan Bingham in Up in the Air, the former chief operating officer of Titan Industries’ watch division says it’s part of his job description given that Tata Global is truly global with brands it owns in the US (Eight O’Clock Coffee); in Russia (Grand Café) and, of course Tetley, which is headquartered in London, a mega acquisition by the Tatas in year 2000.
We manage to catch Bhat for about an hour on one of his frequent trips to Bangalore. We meet for lunch at the Mynt coffee shop in the leafy environs of the Taj West End, one of the few vestiges of large, green areas in Bangalore.
India final frontier
The obvious question to put to him is about Starbucks, which opened its first store in Mumbai a few days before we meet Bhat. “Both Starbucks and Tata Global have a strong heritage in coffee. So it’s a marriage of like-minded companies,” he explains.
India, he says, is one of the final frontiers for Starbucks, which is present in many large markets of the world. So, is the timing right for Starbucks’ entry, we ask Bhat. He says it is and explains why.
“The premium coffee experience is something that is waiting to happen in India. Indian consumers are getting increasingly affluent and are looking for experiences which elevate them or which make them feel good about themselves. Starbucks is famous for offering consumers the ultimate coffee experience, and we hope to bring that same experience to India.”
The waiter is hovering over us to take our orders, but we plump for the ‘smart lunch’ buffet and get our soups served at the table, some warm sea food and hot and sour vegetarian soup.
Though it doesn’t show on his slim frame, Bhat, who turned 50 last week, is a self-confessed foodie, who loves to try new cuisines and wines around the world on his travels.
Tata Global’s focus, says Bhat, is on being a natural beverages company with tea, coffee and water as the main ingredients. The company has grown through a spate of acquisitions around the world and in the country, where it acquired the Himalayan brand of water.
Apart from the Starbucks alliance, earlier TGB had also aligned with PepsiCo to form a joint venture in NourishCo, which makes its vitamins-fortified brands of water — Tata Water Plus and Gluco Plus.
“Broadly,” explains Bhat, “if you look at our revenues across the globe, about 65 per cent is tea, about 20-25 per cent is coffee, and the remaining 5 per cent is water. So we are certainly looking at enhancing the proportion of coffee and water in our portfolio even when we grow tea.”
We make a quick recce of the large buffet spread, loading our plates. Bhat himself, mindful that he has to go into a long con-call after lunch (which is how he keeps in touch with TGB’s various Presidents around the world), eats light with some chicken and breads to go. And, with some crumb-fried fish, which is something he loves, he confesses.
We ask him from where and how the growth for TGB will come. Chiefly from innovation, he says. How can we make the world of tea, coffee and water exciting for consumers is how he puts it. If you thought not much can be done to that hot cuppa you swill, Bhat disabuses us of such notions. There are plenty.
For example, with Tata Tea Gold, a leaf tea, a 15 per cent of the blend is long, orthodox leaf that gives a distinct flavour to the tea. In the UK, it launched Tetley Blend of Both, a blend indeed of green and black tea where consumers can get the health benefits of green tea while retaining the flavour of black tea.
In Australia, TGB launched Chai Latte, a thick tea drink spiked with cinnamon, nutmeg and spices which, he says, dissolves in water like hot chocolate. “So there are many such innovations. That is also going to be the future direction for our company,” he adds.
Bhat went on a sabbatical for a few months when he was at Titan to write a book on the Tata group, which will be released in December. A ‘lister’ with the Tata group, which he joined in 1987 after his MBA from IIM-A, in his 25 years with the group Bhat has observed many ‘untold stories’ which inspired him to write about them.
He learnt about his new assignment while on this break, and he had to take on his new role while giving the finishing touches to the Tata tales.
But tea is not new to him, having spent the first 13 years of his career with Tata Tea, starting as a sales manager and later as the marketing head. He was also involved in the due diligence process to acquire the Tetley brand in year 2000. Stints with Tanishq and Tata Teleservices followed before he moved on to the COO role in Titan for a little over six years.
This stint was most rewarding, recalls Bhat, as he played a key role in growing the Titan and Fastrack brands.
We ask him how his role is different now. “Well,” he says, “For one, Titan earns 90 per cent of its revenues from India, while Tata Global earns 70 per cent from abroad, so that’s a crucial difference. Also, I’m now more involved at a strategic level, as each country has its own Presidents who run the business hands on.”
Bhat himself is a prolific writer, churning out columns, for this newspaper and others as well. His new role has shrunk his writing time, but he says he squeezes in the time to write on his laptop while on long flights.
He’s fascinated by consumers and brands “and how they intersect,” which is often the subject of his articles. Office humour is also something he writes on, tongue firmly in cheek!
Many of Bhat’s batchmates remember him as someone academically brilliant, which he is, being a topper right from school in Madurai, one of the several Tamil Nadu towns he grew up in as his father worked with a bank there.
BITS, Pilani, and IIM-A followed, where he counts among his classmates the present chief economic adviser, Raghuram Rajan. Both Rajan and Bhat were gold medallists of the batch of 1987. “Yes, he was brilliant on campus.
He was always keen on economics. We both joined the Tata Administrative Service after our IIM, but he was there only briefly, as he was inclined to pursue academics as a career,” recalls Bhat.
We wolf down some dessert; Bhat just a mousse, and us a wee bit more from the large spread the restaurant offers. Bhat has to run — there’s that long con-call to do and in the evening, it’s yet another flight to Delhi. For sure, Bhat is indulging in many of the cups that cheer.