Meet Sanjiv Puri, ITC's GenNext leader

Succession planning at ITC has been in the works since 2010, when the company initiated board level changes

Sanjiv Puri
Sanjiv Puri

By the time cigarettes-to-hotels major ITC announced Sanjiv Puri’s elevation to the board, the surprise value had worn off.

Less than a fortnight ago, the company had said two of its executive directors — Pradeep Dhobale and Kurush Grant — were to retire, while Sanjiv Puri and Rajiv Tandon would be appointed as additional whole-time directors. Puri’s appointment was effective December and Tandon’s from January.

The rise of Puri, 53, however, had become a foregone conclusion. About a year ago, he was made president of the fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) business, setting off speculation that he was a strong contender for the top job.

Succession planning at ITC has started as early as 2010, when it initiated changes in the board by inducting Grant, Dhobale and Nakul Anand. In 2011, ITC announced extension of Y C Deveshwar’s term for another five years effective 2012. It made him the longest-serving ITC chairman.

Alongside these changes, the rise of Puri in ITC has been meteoric. “Towards the end of 2000 when I retired, Puri was not even in the fray, he was not close to decision making roles, but the rise has been swift, “ a former senior official recalled.

May be so, but it has been a long stint for Puri at ITC. An engineering graduate from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, he joined the firm in 1986. Much like most chosen executives being groomed for bigger roles, Puri has handled a wide range of responsibilities in ITC, from manufacturing, operations to information and digital technology.

The first major break came in 2001 when Puri became managing director of ITC’s subsidiary, Surya Nepal. From cigarettes, Puri drove the company’s diversification into apparel. It paid off. Surya Nepal went on to become the largest private sector company in Nepal.

In 2006, Puri went on to lead ITC Infotech. The company at that time was formulating its strategy of transformation. Perhaps, his biggest contribution was spreading ITC Infotech’s footprint overseas. In 2008, ITC Infotech acquired US-based testing solutions company, Pyxis Solutions for more than $25 million in an all-cash deal.

Puri spearheaded strategies to focus on customer intimacy and operational excellence accelerating client acquisition. For ITC Infotech, it translated to profitable growth; from a turnover of Rs 110 crore as on March 31, 2006, it grew to Rs 349.7 crore by March 31, 2009; Puri led the business till August 2009.

In 2009, Puri became divisional chief executive of ITC’s India Tobacco Division, handling additionally, the charge of the company’s trade marketing and distribution function. Many would say, that is his forte.

“Puri is a person who builds rapport even with a person at the bottom of the pyramid. He has always been a sales person and the guy at the end of the supply chain also, I am sure, knows about him. He is a firm decision maker but attentive enough to listen to suggestions even from a junior person,” said an official who has seen Puri from close quarters.

Finally, in 2014, Puri was elevated to president, FMCG businesses, a position carved out for him. It’s around this time that ITC forayed into new segments like juices with the acquisition of B Natural. More acquisitions followed; one of the biggest acquisitions in the FMCG space for ITC were Savlon and Shower to Shower brands from Johnson & Johnson, earlier this year. Though ITC didn’t disclose the deal size, industry experts pegged it at Rs 300 crore.

Acquisitions are rare for the cash-rich ITC, which has preferred to grow organically. So will Puri, in a leadership role, steer more acquisitions to achieve a turnover of Rs 1 lakh crore from the new FMGC businesses by 2030? There is probably no easy answer right now. After all, these are challenging times for the company, what with a double-digit volume decline in cigarettes and non-cigarette FMCG sales hemmed in by sluggish demand.

  • Puri joined the firm in 1986. In 2014, he was elevated to president, FMCG businesses, a position carved out for him
  • It’s around this time that ITC forayed into new segments like juices with the acquisition of B Natural
  • One of the biggest buys were Savlon and Shower to Shower brands from J&J, this year pegged at Rs 300 cr
  • Puri is likely to steer more buys to achieve a turnover of Rs 1 lakh cr from the new FMGC businesses by 2030