The toughest question Avani Saglani Davda has faced in her four-month stint as Tata Starbucks CEO was from her "biggest boss" - her six-year-old son Parav. A week after attending the gala opening ceremony of Starbucks' first outlet in India in October last year, Parav asked whether the grand-looking store in south Mumbai's tony Horniman Circle had started making money, write Shyamal Majumdar and Abhineet Kumar.
Davda laughs as she recounts the incident in great detail to show how smart today's kids are. But she ducks - equally smartly - our question about the targeted break-even time for Tata Starbucks' flagship store (the group has opened seven more since then) - which is also the venue of our meeting. "We do extensive research to ensure that our expansion is not just driven by a desire to expand our footprint; it has to make business sense," she says, as we settle down on the mezzanine floor of the store next to a group of boisterous youngsters, who are obviously enjoying their coffee and much more.
Davda could have easily fitted into that group, for at 33, the youngest CEO in the Tata system looks much younger, her business suit notwithstanding. She, however, plays down her age and reels off names of colleagues in other Tata group companies who control equally big profit and loss statements. "Age is not an issue in the group in which leadership nuances are changing. What youngsters like us love is that we are given responsibilities with a fair degree of freedom," she says.
The CEO-speak is evident throughout. Davda says Starbucks wants to "grow very respectfully" in India and the initial consumer experience has been "quite humbling" - the kind of answers her mentor, Tata Sons Director R K Krishna Kumar, would surely be proud of.
As we help ourselves to vanilla latte that Davda says is one of her favourites, we ask, surely she didn't expect to be named CEO so early in her career. The answer is prompt: she was surprised, no doubt, when she was told about it by John Culver, head of Starbucks for China and Asia Pacific, and Kumar in early 2012, but there was no nervousness since she did have a lot of conviction in her abilities to lead the team, having worked as project leader for the coffee chain's India foray for some time. "Not many people get the opportunity to see the whole cycle of a project - from planning to execution. I guess I am extremely fortunate," she says.
It has been a meteoric rise indeed for the Tata Administrative Service (TAS) officer. An MBA from the Narsee Monjee Institute in 2002 (she had gained admission to IIM Kozhikode, but didn't go since it was far from her home in Mumbai), Davda became general manager within five years and spent the next five as executive assistant (her son was 10 months old then) to Kumar, who got her involved with Tata Starbucks from the beginning and several other initiatives, including the Orient Express - stuff that has earned her the reputation of an outstanding backroom strategist.
But is she too low profile for a CEO's job, we ask. After all, apart from sundry press conferences, she has kept away from the media and is almost invisible in Mumbai's networking circuit. Davda says she certainly isn't shy of meeting relevant people, but thinks networking "beyond a point is just plain gossip", and saying the right things at the right time doesn't come naturally to her.
In any case, she says her hands are full taking care of two babies - Tata Starbucks and her son. Despite her hectic schedule, Davda hasn't missed a single parent-teacher meeting at her son's school and is a full-time mother as soon as her work life is over for the day. All this has been possible because of a caring company that gives her the space she needs as a woman, and family support (her in-laws and husband run separate businesses). Besides, her mother, who is a qualified doctor but chose to play the role of a homemaker, has always encouraged her to do what she wants to do. "I have the courage to quit the day I feel any guilt about not being able to take care of my son. Fortunately, that seems to be a remote possibility," Davda says with a smile.
Apart from work and home, what interests her is theatre, a passion she shares with her husband. Theatre has taught her many things - teamwork, how to overcome stage fright and so on, things that have been an immense help in her professional career. Her all-time favourite character is Mark Antony from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar - someone she would have loved to play. "The fantastic balance of mind and heart and the great planning and execution fascinate me. He was so loyal to Caesar, yet he did what is right for the country," she says enthusiastically.
As we go for a second round of coffee - this time cappuccino - we steer the conversation towards her other baby. Davda says Starbucks is in no tearing hurry to expand. "When you have such an iconic brand, I better make sure nobody messes it up," she says.
The business may look simple - have a standardised decor, choose a suitable location and offer good coffee and food - but ensuring that a customer's cappuccino tastes the same as it did yesterday and a service that does justice to two iconic brand names (Starbucks and Tata) every single day, is far more complex.
What it requires are carefully selected partners (store managers and stewards who go through intensive training) and an incredibly complex backend work. That's why Starbucks has decided to avoid the franchisee route that should been the obvious choice for rapid expansion. One critical challenge before Starbucks is this: the first thing many of its well-travelled customers, who are aware of the Starbucks experience, do is to check out whether the coffee tastes the same as it does abroad, and whether the store ambience is equally comfortable. If it is, they will be ready to embrace Starbucks.
Starbucks, she says, is also looking at different formats, such as "abbreviated stores" that would be smaller, and is open to setting up stores at college and school campuses, provided the fit is right. The stores in India are currently experimenting with their food menu. While Starbucks globally offers the traditional favourites like blueberry and chocolate muffins, the stress is on local innovations. It serves mushroom rap at its stores in Delhi.
The TAS experience, she says, has given her the confidence, since assignments were designed in a challenging way. She recalls her experience with Unicef in Uttar Pradesh working on women's health and child care, and at Tanishq, where she managed the platinum jewellery business that was just starting at that point. Her colleague's project required her to work on tea dust, which is a waste, and convert it into a business opportunity aimed at the bottom-of-the-pyramid segment.
As we prepare to leave, Davda says she hasn't changed one bit and credits her mother with imparting this value system. "My mother always used to tell me whatever you are at school - the head girl, president of the school society, etc - you have to leave all that out when you come back. At home, you are just our daughter. That's why I don't think I have to behave in a certain way just because I have become a CEO. Work can't overtake your personality or identity."
The most important key to success, Davda says, is to forget about ego. Her experience in working at the Taj group of hotels has helped her understanding that the guest is all important. "If I have made a mistake, I should be able to say sorry on behalf of the organisation," she says. Going by her professional track record, such instances must have been extremely rare.