Cricket has always been an abiding passion for Prabha Narasimhan. From her childhood days, her father and elder brother, both ardent cricket buffs, would wake her up at the crack of dawn to watch India matches played abroad. However, now as MD & CEO of oral care major Colgate-Palmolive India, her cricket viewing time is curtailed. “The India- Australia tests are unfortunately happening at a time when we are just prepping for some big reviews. And the ODI that’s there in Chennai we have a review that day too. I told the team next time they agree to a review, to at least check what’s happening on cricket,” she gripes in jest.
MS Dhoni is her favourite cricketer among contemporary players and with former captain S Venkataraghavan for an uncle, she says she can claim enough bragging rights. She has strong memories too of the famous West Indies pace quartet as well. “That team was something else; if you’re a fan, to read about what’s happening to WI cricket these days is sad,” she says.
We are meeting at the Chambers at the Taj Coromandel in Chennai and she flashes a Colgate smile, of course. I ask her if she visits the city often from Mumbai to meet family but she says it’s the other way round – she lives in Chennai and commutes to Mumbai during the week! However, even though Prabha was born in Chennai, she never lived in the city before this last decade. With a father who worked in Hindustan Unilever, the family used to move every couple of years to a new city. “So, I’ve schooled in Tiruchi, then Bengaluru, Mumbai, Kolkata, then New Zealand and again back to Bengaluru. It’s a hodgepodge of various places. So, when people ask me, where are you from, now I’m able to say Chennai, but before that, it’s a longish answer to the question,” she elaborates.
It’s a Friday morning, a day for Prabha to reflect and review the hectic past four days of the week, when she did several field visits, and more meetings lined up for the day. We are served some swell filter coffee, lip-smacking cheese sticks and cookies to take us along on the conversation.
Prabha schooled in Bengaluru and with a commerce degree from St. Joseph’s, she had a short crack at being a CA, which she abandoned quickly when she made it to IIM Bangalore for an MBA. “The hard part of IIM is to get in. Once you’re in, it’s great fun with lots of learning. A lot of the work that you do is collaborative and industry-facing projects, which was quite a challenge in, because at that time, IIM was on the outskirts of the city on Bannerghatta road. Now it is like the middle of everything; the city has caught up.”
Prabha joined Lakme Lever in Mumbai from campus. “So my first job was actually a dream one to work on Lakme brands in the middle of a large relaunch.” A year-and-a-half as a management trainee and she asked to move to Bengaluru as she got married in 1998 and her husband, Vijay’s business was based there
In Bengaluru she worked at the erstwhile Brooke Bond office at Brookefields in consumer insights as the foods and beverages, ice creams and Dalda was handled out of there. Prabha also worked on brand Bru and the tea brands and worked on the brand development structure for HUL brands. Then HUL closed down Brookefields and the office moved to Mumbai and as Prabha couldn’t move immediately to Mumbai, she quit and joined Madura Garments, only for a brief period of six months.
“I then had an opportunity to move to Unilever Dubai to work in the Middle East, Africa and Turkey for beverages, handling Lipton, an epic brand in that region” she recalls. Her husband too found a connection in Dubai which made sense for him to move there in 2007 end.
After four years of a ‘fabulous job’ as she describes it, it was back to HUL in Mumbai and, “it was felt that I should do a sales stint which could set me up to do other things, So I did the branch manager Delhi and Chennai job for three years.” Soon, she moved to personal care working with Alan Jope, CEO of Unilever, who was then global business head of the personal care business. It was a strategic role she did for a year, with life coming full circle when she worked on the skin care business with Lakme Lever, before moving to home care, handling brands such as Surf to Rin, and rising to the role of executive director and part of HUL’s leadership team.
Reaching for yet another of the cheese sticks, I ask Prabha that usually children don’t join the company their father worked in, and she did. “So my answer to that is that my father used to work in what is now called supply chain. And I don’t. He was an engineer by profession and worked largely in the technical functions and in factories. And, I stay fully clear of that,” she replies.
Though there was certainly a legacy to live up to as everyone in the company knew her father. “It was fun, though, because of all the stuff you hear, you feel like you know more than you are entitled to before you join. My uncle was in P&G, so there was enough and more FMCG happening at home, and then joining the industry you feel quite at home,” she says with a laugh.
The move to Colgate
Taking up the Colgate assignment – she took over as the MD on September 1, 2022 - was easy, she says, as, like in HUL, Colgate too has a bunch of incredible brands and “my starting point to even think about it. It’s a listed company, high integrity, values and ethics, which is really important to me, and, of course, the whole amount of learning for me; it’s one thing to run a business and another to run the whole organisation, managing a board, regulatory, external facing work you do, it’s all a value add to the work I had done earlier,” she explains.
I ask her how she intends to push the envelope for a brand that enjoys probably the highest brand awareness for an FMCG product and almost 90 per cent penetration across markets. Colgate exists in nine out of ten households in this country, she explains, and the significant advantage over the next brand is 5X the awareness and perhaps 3X the penetration. “It starts you off with a great advantage, so anything that happens in oral care, Colgate will be at the centre of it,” she says.
So, how do you build greater oral care consumption in the country? Prabha reels out figures: in rural india only about 45 per cent of consumers brush their teeth every day, so the challenge is to get the other 55 per cent per cent to brush every day. “The challenge of good oral health is consistency. Brushing twice a day, as advised by dentists, in urban india is only 20 per cent, moving the remaining 80 per cent to brush twice a day becomes the second opportunity… these are two obvious opportunities for us to increase volume,” she elaborates.
And applying the same logic to toothbrushes, “as your dentist will tell you, you have to change your toothbrush every three months, a fact that I got to learn only after I joined Colgate (grinning), which a consumer in urban India would change every six months and in rural India it would be every 15 months! So, once we get consumers adopting to right habits for oral care, that is our responsibility, there is significant opportunity to boost volume,” she explains.
And on top of that layer the whole premiumisation journey, moving people to electric brushes, and toothpastes with targeted benefits, there’s a huge opportunity to grow, says Prabha, all gung-ho.
Prabha talks about the second part of the company name, Palmolive, which is present in body wash, hand wash and face care, but says it’s underserved at the moment. “Our effort on Palmolive will be to make sure that it certainly grows faster than oral care and becomes a larger part of the portfolio. And, overall, within personal care, we’re also looking to see whether what we can bring in of the global portfolio that is relevant for India.”
The company’s performance was under par on all parameters in the third quarter of FY 23 — flat revenue growth, decline in volumes, fall in operating profit, contraction in operating margin and fall in the profit before tax. But, as Prabha says, “I’m super optimistic about the year. Like I said, it just funnels back in to do we see opportunity for growth and do we believe that we’re well-placed to take advantage of that opportunity and, I have a fresh pair of eyes, so the answer is unequivocally yes to both. Opportunity in this country remains huge, and when you have the joy of having the Colgate brand in your portfolio, you’re certainly best placed to take advantage of that opportunity.”
It’s been a sparkling conversation, but now Prabha has to move on to her next meeting. And, that wide Colgate smile again!