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Yum’s the word!

    Sravanthi Challapalli
    Vinay Kamath
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NIREN CHAUDHARY, PRESIDENT, YUM! INDIA
NIREN CHAUDHARY, PRESIDENT, YUM! INDIA

“Global brands have to have a local heart, and we need to understand it well.”

It’s a mildly cloudy day in Chennai and the grey-blue of the sea seems to intensify through the vast windows of the KFC we are sitting in.

It’s easy to be entranced by the vista of Elliot’s beach but we are there to meet Niren Chaudhary, President, Yum! India, for whom it’s an exciting day — this outlet is the first of KFC’s ‘green’ ones.

While we wait for Chaudhary to finish his tour of the outlet, our hosts bring us some vegetable and chicken strips with an assortment of dips. Chaudhary’s latest project, which he talks passionately about, is providing equal opportunity employment for the deaf in KFCs across India.

The trigger was a young employee at a franchised outlet in Kolkata, who spoke with him in sign language. “The intensity of her dialogue and clarity of vision” set this initiative in motion, he says.

“To make it truly equal employment opportunity, we don’t discriminate on the type of job. They should be able to do everything the others can. So we had to redesign our kitchens, our light systems … even the training material. The general managers of the restaurants where these employees work have to learn sign language. We have almost 400 such employees and 14-15 ‘special stores’ where they are the majority,” he says.

“Of the differently-abled population in India, I believe 10 per cent is deaf. So 10 per cent of stores on an ongoing basis will create opportunities for deaf candidates. They value the opportunity given to them and tend not to leave,” he explains.

(Incidentally, about a week after we meet Chaudhary, KFC is in the news again: live worms allegedly found in the chicken at its Thiruvananthapuram outlet forced it to close but it has now been allowed to reopen after a court order.

When we follow up with him on this issue, Chaudhary “strongly refutes” the allegations, saying it is impossible to find live worms as the chicken is prepared at 250 degree C for 14 minutes. No other such claims have come in from anywhere else, and KFC has strict internal and third party audits to keep tabs on quality. “We welcome people to take a tour of the kitchen any time any day,” says Chaudhary.)

Eating-out market

We make slow progress on our snacks but our chat is getting along famously.

The zeal to be environment-friendly is manifesting itself in stores across many countries. The KFC we are at is the laboratory. The goal is for all new outlets in the works to be 20 per cent more energy- and water-efficient by 2015.

Chaudhary, a “Delhi guy”, as he calls himself, graduated in economics from St Stephen’s, Delhi, and has an MBA from FMS, Delhi University’s B-school.

Before joining Yum!, where he has been for the last 18 years, he worked with the Tatas’ Indian Hotels (as part of the Tata Administrative Service) as Resident Manager at Taj Palace, Delhi.

“It wasn’t easy,” he says, shaking his head, when we ask him how they let him get away. It was a tough choice, but a “great decision in hindsight, a huge adventure and lots of fun”.

He started off working in Pizza Hut — this was when it was still owned by PepsiCo — in its India operations, then in the UK and in Europe, looking after the Netherlands and Germany businesses before he returned to India five years ago to head its business here.

Yum! hopes to have 1,000 restaurants operating in India by 2015 and 2,000 by 2020. In India, apart from KFC, its other brands include Pizza Hut and Taco Bell; the latter’s still in test mode. The business model is a mix of company-owned and franchised restaurants.

He won’t talk hard numbers, citing confidentiality, but says, “We have invested around $100 million in the market and plan to invest another $100-120 million in the next five years.” Only an insignificant portion of India’s $90-billion eating-out market is organised.

“There is enough and more room for everybody, for many more brands for many more years to come.”

uniquely indian

India puts its own, unique spins on value, says Chaudhary. There’s ‘good enough’ value, for one.

If, say, a computer is as good functionally as an Apple or HP product, people are quite happy with it if it’s half the price. They don’t feel the need to spend money on the brand.

Then there’s the price point value, ‘this is what I’m willing to spend, not more, tell me what I can get’.

Brands have to be seen to be accessible and very, very affordable. The price point at which you can have explosive growth of transaction and bring in a different sort of consumer and fit it into your business model is important.

“Global brands have to have a local heart, and we need to understand it well,” he says.

As we abandon the snacks and move on to the Crème Ball, an ice-cream, he goes on to list some of the innovations for local tastes: Veg Zinger, a vegetarian burger that was made only for India; a garlic-chilli sprinkle for KFC’s famous Hot Wings; and for the land of the tandoori chicken, the Fiery Grilled chicken.

The Streetwise menu is another: “KFC food at college canteen-like prices”, says Chaudhuri.

Prices start at Rs 25. In Mexican food brand Taco Bell, there’s even the Kaathito. (Yes, a cross between the kaathi roll and the burrito!)

Hungry to learn

Time is running out and not much about Chaudhary the person figures in the conversation.

Inspiration comes from Yum!’s Chairman and CEO David Novak. “He encourages and nurtures an environment in which leaders can think bigger than business.”

His ‘Growth With a Big Heart’ mission, Chaudhary explains, is a three-pronged task envisioning growth for the business, for the people working there and involves giving back to the community.

China, with its 4,000 Yum! Restaurants, is another big source of inspiration in terms of what is possible and how to do it.

He hasn’t worked there “but we have a very good process of knowhow building and sharing”.

A big reader, he says he has a hunger for learning and is energised by thoughts and ideas and what could be possible.

His team is a big source of motivation. In Kochi, his colleagues took up a project to clean the streets, and when the team leader was rewarded for it, he used the cash prize to plant trees at colleagues’ homes on Republic Day.

“Igniting compassion in the hearts of leaders, creating their own growth with a big heart collectively … as a team we seem to have begun to own this,” says Chaudhary with a satisfied smile, as he heads back to Delhi after a few hours in Chennai.

He has to take in more of the spectacular view of the Bay another time.

(This article was published on November 2, 2012)
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