Business Economy

A holistic grasp of business realities

Suresh Mony | Updated on November 20, 2021

Biji Kurien shows how MBAs can be successful at the top in a long and glittering career

A business memoir can be challenging to capture the interest of the reader, but the 551 pages of anecdotal experiences of Biji Kurien on business management, leadership and networking make compelling reading. It is a veritable primer on how MBAs can build successful careers and attain leadership positions. Kurien has, during the course of his glittering half-a-century-plus career, secured a coveted place in the rarified group of MBAs graduating to CEOs within a short span of 12 years and is an exemplary role model. Kurien graduated from IIM Ahmedabad in 1968.

The book offers plenty of practical learnings in the functional areas of marketing, operations, finance, strategy, the FMCG space and paint industry; MNC culture and entrepreneurship. The marketing curriculum at most B-schools focuses on consumer behaviour, segmentation, targeting and positioning, pricing, promotion, marketing strategy but often makes short shrift of marketing operations - the confluence between marketing/sales and supply-chain management. Chapters 4 to 8, abound with numerous practical decision-oriented experiences on market research, dealer incentives; servicing on time, warehouse space management; MIS for sales efficiency; ensuring congruency of objectives amongst company, branch and salespersons, that should benefit anyone entering the sales/marketing profession.

His expositions on new product launches in the highly competitive paint industry comprising the strong, organised and the dispersed small and medium sector encapsulating the seven Ps of marketing is insightful. His marketing acumen at value creation is visible in his pioneering initiatives at Asian Paints to develop an import substitute paint for construction of a Prill tower for a fertiliser plant; a plastic emulsion-based alternative to cement paints, where Asian Paints was weak, enabling it to make deep inroads in a competitive landscape.

Meteoric rise

Over 15 chapters, Kurien chronicles his meteoric rise as a corporate leader who effects far-reaching changes in British Paints and the paint industry. While by designation he was a marketing manager, his general management capabilities get showcased through business process reengineering, negotiations, strategic sourcing. At a time when outsourcing was not much talked about, British Paints pioneered outsourcing of low-end paints to the small and medium sector to not only reduce manufacturing costs but also be close to the customer wherein Kurien played a key role.

Although this was triggered by union agitation and resultant lock out in its Calcutta factory it was an inflection point for the company and industry. Taking cognizance of the implications of the excise duty structure leading to outsourcing paints from small-scale units; eliminating the one stock keeping unit-one delivery order policy and expansion in Gujarat through an innovative shareholding structure were all in the realm of strategic decisions that gave the company a competitive advantage. Kurien’s holistic grasp of business management that led to his rise as CEO at the young age of 36 should be a lesson for MBA students who tend to focus on their specialisation to the exclusion of other functions thereby failing to build general management skills that are so essential for attaining leadership positions.

Chapter 14 onwards, after Kurien becomes CEO, are racy as he recounts one success after another in his inexorable march, consolidating his leadership within the company and for the company in the industry. His entrepreneurial outlook when he says “recruit a good person even if there is no vacancy”, choosing the right people, informal style, removing obstacles that aid the ‘we versus they’ syndrome and creating a culture of transparency and trust show that he was a people’s person with uncommon qualities that qualify him to be a Level 5 leader, a term coined byJim Collins.

A successful leader has to be a visionary, which was evident in Kurien’s strong advocacy for the futuristic powder coating technology, much against the wishes of most colleagues, effecting plant layout changes and computerisation at the risk of provoking the union, establishing a niche for Berger India by executing global project management services, exporting Indian machines and fabrication knowhow. Thereafter, his proactivity and consummate networking skills led him to play pivotal intermediary roles in mergers, acquisitions and group re-organisation which are exciting for MBAs.

A second career

Kurien created a second career for himself after early retirement, initially with a unique management programme for executives at IIM Bangalore and subsequently through his consultancy assignments with struggling companies. Interestingly, his consulting activities with a Finnish company matured to a third career, an executive operation management role which he took up in the interest of his oft-quoted ‘loyalty to one’s profession’, not so much bothering about the size of the company which was far smaller to Berger Paints. The common thread that ran across all these was his focus on achievement, money being secondary.

Most CEOs confine themselves to operating within the boundaries of their company but few pay back through mentoring and/or protect the interests of the industry and society. Kurien did all these by mentoring Skillveri, a start-up for simulating painting; taking up a leadership role in the India Paint Association; and contributing to the beautification of Kolkata. His networking skills with industry titans, politicians, royalty, came to the fore when, on behalf of the Calcutta-I-Care Committee of the Bengal Chamber of Commerce & Industry, he was able to cut through the bureaucratic maze and get the state government to approve the proposal of Tata Steel to light up Victoria Memorial Museum, which they themselves could not.

Peter Drucker famously said, “Thinking is hard work, and in our fast-paced society, it is sorely devalued. Every professional should break from the daily grind and think about where one is and where one is going; find an organisation and cause to believe in — and get to work!” Biji Kurien’s professional career of half a century exemplifies this in toto.

Half a century and still at the crease: A journey through 50-plus years of a management professional
  • Biji K Kurien
  • Published by: Productivity & Quality Publishing
  • 597 pages, Rs 795

Check out the book on Amazon

(The reviewer is a leadership coach, certified by Marshall Goldsmith. He was founder Director of the Bengaluru campus of NMIMS)

Published on November 20, 2021

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