The CEO of one of India’s largest listed food companies says a conventional professional life doesn’t interest her.
Vinita Bali" height="264" alt="Vinita Bali" hspace="5" width="150" align="left" src="/newsimgfiles/2011/september/26092011/092711_04.jpg" />The original plan was to have a leisurely tea with Vinita Bali but thanks to the Taj Palace’s appalling mobile connectivity, I ended up waiting in the lobby for 20 minutes while Bali waited elsewhere, neither aware that the other had arrived. After finally making contact via an associate’s Mumbai mobile, the time wasted meant tea was reduced to Juice with BS, writes Kanika Datta.
At first glance Bali looks more suited to her role as chair of the Britannia Nutrition Foundation (BNF), which had brought her on a visit to the capital from her Bangalore headquarters, than managing director of the Rs 4,600-crore Britannia Industries. Spry, energetic and forthright, she is dressed simply and quite lacks the gravitas that CEOs of large companies often acquire. She chooses fresh orange juice, which turns out to be a better option than my tasteless pineapple juice, before we settle down to talk.
Today, she’s vigorously enthusiastic about the Foundation, which, to her, “is more than just a job, it provides an opportunity to impact wider agendas”. Created two years ago “with the belief that something needed to be done about the abysmally low levels of nutrition in the country,” BNF’s starting point was an involvement with the World Food Programme for which Britannia made specially-formulated biscuits as part of a special package. “The insight was, if we’re doing it for the rest of the world, what about doing it for the people of India who have equally great nutrition needs,” she says, explaining how it fit in with the company’s credo of “Eat healthy, think better”.
She talks at length about the Foundation’s approach, one of which was to create a platform for all the disparate agencies that deal with nutrition – NGOs, the department of education that oversees the midday meal schemes, the department of women and child welfare that is responsible for the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) scheme – to “understand each other and to dimensionalise the problem and, hopefully, lead to some concerted action”. The Delhi symposium was the third in that series.
She is particularly proud of BNF’s partnership with Hyderabad-based NGO Naandi Foundation and Geneva-based Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN). Under this, Britannia supplies iron-fortified biscuits via Naandi’s midday meal scheme to schools, and she proudly tells me that Bill Gates listed the programme as one of the eight examples of creative capitalism in an article in Time.
The core point about this partnership is that Britannia does not supply these biscuits for free but at cost. As Bali explains, “When you give it free, the money runs out. As I see it, this is not corporate social responsibility, it’s simply corporate responsibility — which means figuring out a way to do the right thing and incorporating it into your business model.”
I change gears to discuss her time at Britannia, a company she took over in 2005 in difficult circumstances. Its former high-profile managing director Sunil Alagh had been sacked two years before, and the two principal shareholders, the Wadias and French food major Danone, were at headline-grabbing loggerheads. She laughingly agrees that she took over in “interesting times” but says those issues didn’t really bother her.
“All these issues are in other people’s minds,” she says, adding, “frankly for me, it was no different from any other role that I had gone into. I had worked in new companies and different countries with a similar brief which was to turn around the business — in Santiago with Coke, for instance, or in Nigeria and South Africa for Cadbury’s. Like those experiences, I knew I had to go into this to figure out what needed to be done and then go about fixing it.”
Bali came back to India for purely personal reasons — to spend quality time with her ailing mother. So why choose a troubled company like Britannia? “Because, I have always gone for something that is not conventional,” she replies.
Certainly, she seems to have voluntarily subjected herself to adventure in her professional life after her MBA from Jamnalal Bajaj. In Nigeria, for instance, “where nobody would have thought of going, I went happily and willingly. It was a great experience.” Then to South Africa — “now this was in 1993-94 when Indians didn’t really go and work in South Africa, especially in marketing jobs.” And when she worked in Cadbury in the UK in 1984-85, she was “the first Indian to ever work with the company in that country.”
But Britannia, I persist, surely she had options? She did, from two other multinationals (“no, I’m not going to tell,” she pre-empts my question) but those were for head of the Asia Region. “It wasn’t a challenge. I never want to be in a place where you grow the company seven or eight per cent and everyone is happy. I like to go in there, take things apart and put them together again.”
In that sense, Britannia was a good fit. But what about the shareholder feud, did it not take a toll? “Again,” she says patiently, “I have talked myself hoarse on this subject. It had nothing to do with the business. Frankly, I did not spend more than one nano-second on Wadia/Danone because it was not an operational issue.”
Since she had worked abroad more years than in India when she took over, I ask her how working in India compared with elsewhere. Obviously “very different” but she saw challenges in little things. “For instance, we don’t take deadlines as seriously as the Americans do”. This was not, she clarifies, special to India. The Africans didn’t either. “In Nigeria, when you said you want something now, it meant anytime between now and the next week. So you had to specify that you want it now, now!” The Chileans have a word, ‘ahora’ (which means now) and ‘altiero’ which means right now.”
She also says Indian work culture is not as process-oriented as it could be. “We don’t have a clear line of sight of how we go from start to finish and who does what. In fact, nutrition is an example. It sits on the fringe of many things but is not the centre of anything. We don’t even have a national nutrition strategy.”
Then, I raise the inevitable question about gender prejudice. “I gave up thinking about that a long time ago. Sometimes, people make silly comments but I don’t take those things seriously. My attitude to that is if you have a problem with my gender, it’s your problem.” She says she never experienced such prejudice. “That’s why I sometimes feel that when we talk about it so much we make it bigger than what it is. The core is equal access to opportunities, which women don’t have all the time.”
Did she agree that board positions should be reserved for women, a proposal that has raised considerable controversy? Her take was that “the debate is not about gender, it’s about competence”. India Inc, she adds, is still “very much an old boys’ network” and “if we are saying there are competent women – who are getting more qualified – then we have to create more opportunities for them. In that context if you are saying competent women have to be encouraged more, then, yes, sure, they do.”
We have almost finished our juices and I ask her about an alarming article I read in which she had said she carried her work wherever she went. So is she a self-confessed workaholic? No, she replies emphatically. To her, work-life balance means how work fits in her life and not how life fits into work. It is a question of doing what you enjoy – like Foundation work – and she finds the time to do many other things that she wants to do. “I spend time with people, read, go to the movies, am interested in classical music and dance (I learnt kathak and dabbled with the sitar for a while), love to travel and used to play tennis, squash and racket ball (no longer because I have a back injury). I don’t even think of work-life balance in the conventional sense.”