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BW Businessworld

Can We Afford To Be 'Genderous'?

The spotlight at this moment belongs to Rohit Jawa. Sanjiv Mehta’s successor, much like him, is a complete man professionally and the perfect person for the biggest job in the world

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We all love sports. While watching a tennis match we do say may the best man or best player win. In life also whatever selections we are part of, we do our best to select the best person for the role or job - not necessarily the best man or best woman. We look at capability and leadership. I have been an entrepreneur for 22 years and have had the good fortune of onboarding very capable people in senior leadership positions. While many senior publishers and editors who work with me are women, none of them was hired because they are women. They were hired or subsequently promoted or entrusted with increasing responsibility because upon weighing all the factors at play they stand out as the best person for that role. 

Recently, my seniormost editorial colleague, our Group Editorial Director, Noor Fathima Warsia, wrote an OpEd about Hindustan Unilever (HUL) having had the chance to appoint Priya Nair as the India CEO. She argues that HUL missed this opportunity by choosing Rohit Jawa. I must share context about who Noor is for who those do not know her personally.

Noor is someone who has worked with me for the last 20 years and is the best and longest-serving colleague I have. She joined exchange4media as a correspondent and rose to become the Group Editor of exchange4media group in 11 years and has garnered immense respect, admiration and a name for herself in the industry. She joined me at BW Businessworld nine years back as a Group Editor and in the last six years has risen in the ranks to become the Group Editorial Director. Noor is sharp, meticulous, hardworking, and has all the leadership qualities of a great manager. She has built and led large teams and made significant contributions to the two editorial platforms that I have led in the last two decades.     

I called Noor to say I am writing a piece on why Rohit Jawa’s appointment is a great choice. At this time, Noor shared that she was writing a piece titled 'Did HUL Miss an Opportunity for its first Woman MD and CEO in India?She felt strongly about this topic and I encouraged her and Noorings (the name of her column) to get published. It got reactions across the spectrum, including intense ones from leaders – both women and men. I held on to my piece as I wanted to come out with this once the initial reaction had settled. Now that two weeks have passed, I am putting across my point of view, which with due respect to Noor, is different from hers.  

The Characters At Play 

Let me say at the outset that I do not know Rohit Jawa well, nor have met him at length, I did have a brief introduction to him thanks to my friend, Rahul Welde. In 2013, I had acquired a Singapore-based website, and it was at this time that this introduction happened. He was then a CEO in the region, and despite not interacting much, I did start following Rohit Jawa's career as he rose higher and higher within Unilever. 

He has been with Unilever for more than two decades and has held several leadership positions in the company. Before being appointed as the CEO of Hindustan Unilever, he was the Executive Vice President of Unilever Philippines. Under his leadership, Unilever achieved strong growth and profitability in the market and he was credited with successfully navigating the company through challenging market conditions.  

A graduate of the Faculty of Management Studies, Delhi University he worked across HUL globally. Before joining the parent company Unilever as Chief of Transformation, he was EVP  for the North Asia region and Chairman of Unilever China. Rohit Jawa has experience across categories like personal care, home care and food. Moreover, Rohit Jawa has a strong understanding of the Indian market and consumer trends, having worked in India for several years before moving to other countries.  

On the other hand, Priya Nair is someone I have known quite well. In addition to being a great leader, she is also a very warm and compassionate person with whom I have had the good fortune of interacting many times. She is an outstanding professional and leader, who I am sure will continue to grow and shine at what she is entrusted with. 

Nair has been with Unilever for nearly three decades and has held several senior leadership positions in the company. She is currently the Global CMO, Beauty & Wellbeing, Unilever and has spent nearly 28 years with the company. Nair is a graduate from Symbiosis Institute of Management, Pune. She has also been an advocate for diversity and inclusion in the workplace, which is an important issue for many companies today. She also serves on the board of CEAT and ASCI. 

While Nair would have been a great alternative to consider for the CEO position at Hindustan Unilever, Rohit Jawa's experience, understanding of the Indian market, and track record of success make him a strong candidate for the role. Ultimately, the decision to appoint Jawa as the CEO would have been based on a variety of factors, including leadership qualities, strategic vision and experience. 

I understand that in terms of leadership diversity, Unilever has been making strides in recent years. In 2020, the company announced that it had achieved gender balance in its leadership teams, with women holding 50 per cent of all management positions. Additionally, Unilever has committed to increasing the representation of people of colour in leadership positions.

Succeeding Sanjiv Mehta 

I met Sanjiv Mehta in India at HUL roughly around the same time that I first met Jawa in Singapore. Since then, we have interviewed him multiple times and he has spoken at various BW Businessworld events. In 2021, Mr Mehta was our Impact Person of the Year (IPOY) - after being nominated multiple times over 4 years. He was the most gracious person in the way he conducted himself. In fact, I remember in 2017 when Baba Ramdev was the IPOY and I asked him for his comment on the IPOY winner he said we should celebrate Baba Ramdev today but as an editorial platform, we should dig deeper and do more thorough research while we make decisions. I remember him saying this in a calm, happy and non-complaining way as he was just responding to my query.  

I must say that I have met almost all the leaders of India Inc and interacted with a lot of them. And I must tell you a story before I go on to tell you about what I have felt when I have interacted with Mr Mehta over the last eight years or so.  

Two years back my friend Sunandan Bhanja Chaudhary called me and suggested that we must do an IP which recognises the most complete man in the ‘Businessworld’ - as in India Inc. I found it interesting and I told him that I would think about this and draw up an outline and the criterion for such an award. I remember saying that we should create a ‘Complete Person’ award which is inclusive of both women and men. We then went on to develop the framework and came up with three sets of criteria for the complete person, complete woman and complete man. We also prepared the initial lists and stress-tested the criteria and the names – which we shared with some very wise people.   

For the complete man, I drew up the framework and criteria which to my mind should have the following qualities: 

  • Should have exhibited excellence over a long period of time and been consistent in his performance and contributions. 

  • Impact at scale is the key - scale separates boys from men  

  • Humane and compassionate  

  • Created more leaders  

  • Been in leadership roles for long  

  • Widespread acceptance of leadership and contributions 

  • Contributions beyond one’s own company and industry  

  • A family man who has harmony with his family  

  • Would we want to meet this person even after they had left their job -  no job, no official title and no work that he could help us with or collaborate with? Would we meet him or her if we had no work?  

  • High integrity and flawless character  

  • Ability to contribute to Nation Building in the true sense  

We came up with a shortlist of six after spending two months on the internal process. We also then called 200+ CEOs and Promoters and asked them their choices. We reached out to headhunters, media people, PE & VC community, bankers, peers and senior employees and came up with a list from this external process.  

We had 9 names in the end and we took it as the final list. I am taking the liberty of sharing that list as part of my article to make a point.  

  • Mr N Chandrasekaran, Group Chairman, Tata Group 

  • Mr Sanjiv Mehta, Chairman & MD, HUL  

  • Mr V Vaidyanathan, CEO & MD, IDFC Bank  

  • Mr Sanjiv Puri, Chairman, ITC  

  • Mr Uday Kotak, Chairman, Kotak Mahindra  

  • Mr Suresh Narayanan, Chairman & MD, Nestlé India 

  • Mr Anand Mahindra, Chairman, Mahindra Group  

  • Mr C P Gurnani, MD and CEO, Tech Mahindra  

  • Mr Sudhir Sitapati, MD and CEO, Godrej Consumer Products 

We then again went through internal and external consultations and came up with our first choice – Sanjiv Mehta. I must add though that there was little that differentiated the top three choices across our entire spectrum of consultations. But let me restrict this discussion to Mr Mehta.  

The point I am making is that he is a complete man in the most literal way, who has in the last decade transformed and grown HUL. With him at the helm, the company has withstood the storm from challengers across categories and across seasons. During his tenure, HUL grew in turnover and in market capitalisation. The global giant doubled up on its investments in India. 

Mr Mehta did big acquisitions, stayed clear of controversy, was affable and always balanced. In any conversation with him, one walked away feeling satisfied having had a fair discussion and arriving at a fair decision in anything - big or small - you interacted with him on. His personal warmth to senior and junior people, externally and internally, was cherished by whoever he interacted with, professionally or personally. He is the epitome of a complete man and has become synonymous with HUL in India in the last decade. His growth and influence came out, not from his position and performance which were both unmatched, but from the fact that there was genuineness, warmth and a humane approach to whatever he did.  

Naturally, when Unilever was looking for a successor to Mr Mehta there would have been some very big shoes to fill. They had to select a person who had respect within the company, and outside and one who had qualities similar to him. No two leaders are the same and looking for similarities is the best you can do when you want to make the right choice for a successor. Cultural orientation is key too. 

After a transformational tenure of 10 years at the helm of HUL, Mr Mehta will retire from the company. HUL now has a turnover of close to USD 7 billion and a market cap in the range of USD 75 billion and growing. While at HUL for a decade, he helped scale the market cap increasing nearly five-fold from USD 17 billion to 75 billion,  reinforcing HUL as India’s most valuable business. He also became the President of FICCI and also was invited by Tata Sons to the board of Air India. 

Rohit Jawa  will take over as the new MD and CEO from 27 June 2023. He will also take over as the President, Unilever, South Asia and join the Unilever Leadership Executive from April 1, 2023.  

Both Sanjiv Mehta and Rohit Jawa have growth mindsets and growth track records. 

When Jawa's name was announced I called an eclectic set of people who know him personally and have a nuanced point of view on him. What I got about him as refreshingly positive and there was a commonality of feedback on him as a leader from different people. Here is how I would summarise this: 

  • Career Unilever man  

  • Extremely hardworking  

  • Very likeable  

  • Grown internally through sheer persistence, consistency and strength of character  

  • Understands all markets of Unilever and has cultural sensitivities that make him the perfect successor 

  • Worked in Vietnam, Singapore, the Philippines, China and the UK after having started his journey from HUL’s Mumbai office  

  • Performed exceptionally in China and the Philippines 

  • As the Head of Transformation knows what it takes to shape the HUL of the future  

  • Out of 15 senior people I called, 12 unequivocally backed the decision  

Points of View 

I have tremendous respect for Noor and her point of view. I am intricately aware of where Noor came from when she wrote her piece. I feel her piece was making a larger point; and knowing her admiration and respect for Sanjiv Mehta, I know without a doubt that she believes he would have made the best decision – along with all who participated in the process including Alan Jope, Nitin Paranjpe and the Unilever Board. However, the headline and the stance regarding women and gender takes away from the real substance. Priya Nair and Rohit Jawa are years apart not only in experience but also breadth. Nair is brilliant too, but this is Jawa's moment and I would not have taken it away.   

To my mind, it's not as though they were contemporaries or such and one won while the other lost. Comparisons are avoidable and not always healthy, and from my perspective, this one was not even apples to apples. Noor is independent and I am sure she will have a comment on my perspective but that’s OK. I respect her point of view, and I am sure she will respect mine. The way I see it the situation is akin to a celebrity or some other person stealing the limelight from the bride or groom at their wedding.  

The spotlight should firmly be on Rohit Jawa for the right reasons – that is that he is the perfect choice for HUL to succeed Mr Mehta. My perspective and article are nothing about talent or personalities. It is the angle which I reckon should have been different in Noor’s article. I firmly believe that time will tell that Rohit Jawa is the perfect choice as a successor to him.   

Perspective of Scale 

As I conclude, let me also bring another perspective to the onerous requirements of this job. It is possibly amongst the biggest corporate jobs in the world not just in India in terms of sheer scale. Let’s consider how Hindustan Unilever, which is the Indian subsidiary of Unilever, compares to other Unilever subsidiaries and other global FMCG companies in terms of turnover, profitability, and market position. 

Firstly, in terms of turnover, HUL is Unilever's biggest subsidiary in terms of volume and second largest subsidiary with a reported turnover of nearly USD 7 billion in FY22 and based on a nine-month turnover in FY23 of over USD 5 billion – a 14 per cent YoY growth – the numbers for the full year could possibly be in close to USD 8 billion. This puts it ahead of other major subsidiaries such as Unilever North America and Unilever Europe, contributing 40 per cent to the parent company.  

In terms of profitability, HUL has consistently reported strong financial results. In the financial year 2020-21, the company reported a net profit of over USD 1 billion. When it comes to market position, Hindustan Unilever is one of the leading FMCG companies in India, with a significant presence in several product categories such as personal care, home care, and food and refreshments. The company's brands, such as Dove, Surf Excel, and Lipton, are household names in India and have strong brand recognition and loyalty. In terms of market cap, HUL is higher than the likes of RB, Colgate Palmolive, General Mills and Kraft Heinz globally. 

As of March 2023, Colgate-Palmolive had a market cap of USD 61.57 billion, Reckitt Benckiser was at USD 53.67 billion, General Mills at USD 49.85 billion and Kraft Heinz had a market cap of USD 47.36 billion.

Rohit Jawa brings the Indian ethos and understanding of Indian culture and has worked in multiple countries and in multiple roles. He is affable and has the acceptance of his peers. I believe that for an operation of this scale, he is the most suited in the most absolute sense.   

A Question to Close 

One key question to ponder though is when will Unilever have an Indian CEO. Will Nitin Paranjpe be Unilever's CEO in the next few years? Will Sanjiv Mehta find a more significant role and be in the running to be a Global COO or CEO in the future? I am not asking this question just because I want an Indian to head Unilever. I feel leaders like Nitin Paranjpe and Sanjiv Mehta are as good or better than anyone in the world, as they have successfully operated at the scale and with challenges that Hindustan Unilever has, but also the right value system and moral compass to boot. 

Clarification: This column is not sponsored by Raymond, though I would welcome Raymond sponsoring this. Because this is a complete column.  Now that I have coined this new term "Genderous' Oxford will have to add this term to its new editionGenderous - Oxford will have to add it to its new edition!

Dr Annurag Batra has been a media commentator and analyst for 22 years and has been writing on business, media and startups for the last two decades. He is the Founder & Editor-in-Chief of exchange4media and Chairman & Editor-in-Chief of BW Businessworld.

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