New Manager

The Italian’s Indian job


Stefano Pelle, Executive Vice-President and COO (South Asia, Middle Eastand Africa), Perfetti Van Melle Group.

Picture a man with an Indian wife, a dog named Lucky Kumar Singh, a house in Rajokri and a customised Royal Enfield in the backyard for weekend rides. Sounds like an Indian movie star? Think again. The man is Italian, has his roots in Rome but has spent nearly 15 years of his career in India — selling candy

Meet Stefano Pelle, who currently serves as the Executive Vice-President and Chief Operating Officer Perfetti Van Melle Group, South Asia, Middle East and Africa, and has put his Roman antecedents to perfect use. His book When Not in Rome, don’t do as the Romans do (Sage Publications) looks at India through the eyes of the first wave of expatriates to hit India in the post-reform era.

Peppered with personal anecdotes, the book is about the learning of practical management beliefs. Pelle learnt his India management lessons the hard way — by trial and error. It was a tough ask. He had to learn to adapt to local cultures and tastes, had to ensure that his portfolio of Italian brands — Alpenliebe, Center Fresh and Big Babol — became household names in India.

Tricked into a life-change

“When I first came to India it was because it was my final destination on a holiday trip, after visiting the skyscrapers of Kula Lumpur and green and tidy Singapore. From the old and dirty airport to seeing hundreds of people sleeping in the porch of the airport or the stinking Ambassador car that took ten minutes to start and the driver who did not inspire much confidence in me, everything was a cultural shock. I had promised myself not to come back to India, at least not till my retirement age,” says Pelle.

But in the spring of 1998, Pelle applied for a General Manager’s (GM) position in Asia and went to Milan for his induction in Perfetti. “I was almost tricked into coming to India,” smiles Pelle. “I was told I would be the GM for one of the four Asian operations but I didn’t know it was India till the last minute.”

But once he landed, the rest was history. Despite the first two years being a challenge for him, India not only became his home sweet home for 15 long years but this is where he met his Indian wife. He worked towards developing Perfetti’s Indian operations. They have become a centre of excellence now and the second-largest market for the company globally.

Asked how he got the time to pen down his thoughts for the book and Pelle gives a quick lesson on time management, “I fly a lot…travel a lot and… planes are ideal places to write, whether its early in the morning or late at night.” No wonder the book actually has a picture of an airline fast track pass of December 2011, on which Pelle jotted the first thoughts for the book.

Pelle says his journey in India was “fantastic” and was almost “like a video game”. “I never had a minute of boredom. I was always on my toes,” he says. He got so used to the hectic pace of work heading the Indian operations, that when he got a promotion and moved to Dubai, he took time to get used to the slower pace.

Adapting to India

Describing Prefetti Van Melle’s Indian journey, Pelle writes how Perfetti first launched its products, Center Fresh and Big Babol, just as they were marketed and produced in Italy, with a “stick pack of five pieces each,” which were sold in display boxes of 24 pieces at a consumer price of Rs 7 each. He writes, “The price was above the market prices from two different perspectives — local gums were sold at Rs 0.5 each to Rs 1 for premium ones, and they were mainly sold in mono pieces. Formats like those initially introduced by Perfetti were unaffordable both for the retailers and for the consumers… the communication used were standardised — Italian commercials were dubbed in English.”

The management realised it needed to change its strategy and decided to reduce prices of the stick pack and single pieces offers and also started locally producing advertisements using Indian talent, that changed the game for Perfetti.

Today, Perfetti is known for some of the most edgy and humourous advertisements. Pelle said that with India being such a cluttered market, Perfetti had to do something different. “We broke all rules of advertising for our brand campaigns,” he said.

Asked what his favourite campaign was, he said, he loved the ad made for Center Shock with the tagline “The Electrik Gum.” The ad shows a young guy showing a barber a picture of the kind of hairstyle he wants in a magazine. The barber gives him a Center Shock, which gives him an electric-like shock, giving him the spiked hair cut that he wants.

Pelle stressed on how being open to new cultures and ideas was a key thing he learnt in India. For instance, the Indian wedding. An entire chapter in the book is dedicated to Indian weddings, as Pelle also talks about his own wedding in Rajasthan. He states in the book, “There is perhaps no better way to understand the culture of India than studying what revolves around marriages in this country.”

On a lighter note, Pelle says the two most striking similarities between Indians and Italians is the role or the omnipresence of the ‘mother’ and, of course, the way cars are driven, especially on Delhi’s streets!

Published on April 04, 2013

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