In our home, for over two decades now, the only brand of coconut oil we use is Parachute. My wife steadfastly refuses to consider other brands. A significant proportion of the cooking oil we use comes from Saffola. Both these iconic Indian brands have been created by an Indian company, Marico — the name being a play on its promoter’s family name, Mariwala. Therefore, I was particularly curious to read the story of Marico, narrated by its founder and Chairman, Harsh Mariwala.
The book Harsh Realities lives up to its name, because many episodes of this story illustrate how Mariwala overcame the harsh realities of an entrepreneur’s life. The challenges of breaking away from a traditional family business and creating a professionally run FMCG company, overcoming a sad but inevitable family separation, facing up to a behemoth like Hindustan Unilever, owning up to both successes and failures — they are all part of this immensely readable book, co-authored by two legends — Harsh himself, and Ram Charan, the well-known management guru, who has also been Mariwala’s coach for several years.
The book is a compelling read because it works at many levels. First, it takes us through an exciting story of how a very successful company has been created from scratch, with all its ups and downs. Marico was created in 1990, when the consumer products business of his family firm, which had been primarily in the commodities business for many decades, was demerged — a move that took many years for Mariwala to accomplish. He calls this the most important milestone in his life, because he could now mould the future of the company, free of any shackles.
Mariwala then painstakingly built a strong foundation for Marico. He brought on board top-class talent from reputed consumer goods companies such as Asian Paints, SmithKline Beecham and Colgate. Not an easy task for a relatively unknown firm, but his recruits were drawn by Harsh’s earnestness, simplicity and transparency. The story of how this top team went about defining the vision and strategy, then building the right culture for an agile consumer and brand-led company is the stuff of legend.
Battle with HUL
One of the most dramatic interludes in the book is the battle that Marico had to wage with Hindustan Unilever, which wanted to acquire the company. HUL, with its deep pockets and its own coconut oil brand, Nihar, spared no expense to try and bring
Marico and its flagship brand, Parachute coconut oil, to its knees in the marketplace. This would be a prelude to making an acquisition offer. In a sequence that is worthy of a Bollywood plot, Harsh suddenly received a call one evening, from Keki Dadiseth, the then CEO of HUL. Dadiseth wanted to buy Marico, and he made his case, along with a compelling offer. He then went on to hold out a not-so-veiled threat. “Marico will be history…sell, if you don’t, you will regret it.”
Mariwala was rattled, spent a sleepless night, but the next morning, he decided that there was no question of giving in to a threatening call and selling out. Marico fought back in the markets with a vengeance. A few years later, at the end of a bruising battle, HUL stepped away, for its own strategic reasons. In fact, Marico then went on to acquire Nihar from HUL, thus cementing its market leadership. David had beaten Goliath, yet again.
The book contains many such fascinating episodes, where Mariwala’s dogged persistence, and his ability to inspire his people, come to the fore. To win in the markets, his team and he create a stream of distinctive products, innovative packaging and, most importantly, a strong sales backbone. The relentless search for appropriate solutions to customer needs, and the sharp focus on consumer-centric innovation, take centre-stage in the story multiple times, highlighting how central these key themes have been to Marico’s remarkable progress.
These stories and their lessons apart, a second reason that this book works so well is that it gives us a ringside view of Mariwala’s mind, and his evolution as a corporate leader. He stays close to the consumer. He is always open to learning, never letting his ego get ahead of him. From his failures, he learns valuable lessons. He trusts his well-honed instinct, built on years of experience. He ensures that the company which he founded builds the right corporate governance. Finally, in a move that is rare for Indian entrepreneurs, he hands over the operational reins of the company to a professional CEO, stepping back to become Chairman.
Most importantly, alongside these fine qualities of leadership, he has absolute belief in the core values of trust and transparency, which have, in the final analysis, created not just a commercially highly successful business, but also a greatly respected and admired corporation. This is perhaps why Marico’s impressive portfolio of consumer brands, which include Parachute, Saffola, Mediker, Revive, Setwet and Livon, enjoy the complete trust of millions of consumers today.
Mariwala’s commentary on these milestones in his journey is insightful, and holds invaluable lessons for us. And, as icing on the cake, we also read, at the end of every section, Ram Charan’s candid views on each of these milestones, which are a gold-mine of management wisdom. That is perhaps what makes this book unique: it is a remarkable real-life tale, narrated by the chief protagonist himself, with sharp reflections by one of the world’s leading management thinkers.
I wish the book had contained voices of a few Marico consumers from across India, who have been the bedrock of the company’s success. And I would have relished some personal vignettes about Harsh the human being, including narrations from his family members, who perhaps know him best.
Harsh Realities is a fascinating story, which every entrepreneur and manager can learn a lot from. It is written in a simple and lucid style, and can be read with ease. As I completed reading the book, aptly on Independence Day 2021, I came away hoping that our nation can produce several more Harsh Mariwalas, and many more Maricos.
The reviewer, Harish Bhat, is Brand Custodian, Tata Sons