An inspiring story of leadership

   By Vijay Darda | 02-10-2023

Sanjiv Mehta: Hindustan Unilever head who scripted a new chapter on corporate social responsibility

As a matter of fact, I almost never write about a specific person in this column. The External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval have been the only exceptions whose personalities were discussed here. There are few people who think out of the box and script new stories of success. Sanjiv Mehta, to whom I dedicate this piece, is one such person. He is an inspiring and motivating example of leadership and deserves being written about.

Sanjiv Mehta is known throughout the corporate world for his innovative thinking and path-breaking ideas. He has served in key roles as the former chairman/CEO and Managing Director of Hindustan Unilever Limited (HUL) as well as the chairman of Unilever, South Asia. There are armies of top bosses in the corporate world but not many who hold the common man close to their heart and yet contribute so significantly to the growth of the business they head. Sanjiv Mehta’s ideas have always been fresh and driven by ideals. Since he was born into a modest family in Kanpur, he understands the needs of the common man and hence is constantly engaged in improving the product and making it more cost-effective and affordable. His journey to the pinnacle of success is a testament to his exceptional leadership skills, vision, and commitment.

Who could have predicted that this man, who began his career as a Sales Manager with Union Carbide in 1983, would rise to such pinnacles where his worth and efficiency would be talked about around the world? He joined Hindustan Unilever in 1992 and quickly rose through the ranks to become the company’s Indian business head. He held international responsibilities for the multinational company not just in India but also in the UAE, Bangladesh, Egypt, and the Philippines. As HUL’s South Asia head, he was in charge of India, as well as Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Nepal, and other countries. Sanjiv Mehta steered HUL in a new direction. He stated unequivocally that “What is good for India, is good for HUL”.

He paid careful attention to product availability in the marketplace. He introduced the dynamic online ordering platform ‘Shikhar’ through which the company’s esteemed retailers could directly place orders by browsing through the exhaustive product range of HUL. Ordering and distribution pattern which usually took two weeks, now took just a day! This App is being used by over 12 lakh shops. He was well aware that the customer was always attracted to something ‘fresh’ in the market and that one had to constantly innovate to be a market leader. He, therefore, launched an interactive application offering to converse with the customers. The product range of HUL was so extensive that once customers logged in they wouldn’t leave without a purchase. His marketing strategies were no less novel. To quote an example, while he offered greater discounts on larger bottles of shampoo, unlike the competition he kept the price of shampoo sachets so cheap that even a man on the street could afford them! During his tenure, he also established ‘Kan Khajura Tesan’, India’s first free and on-demand entertainment mobile radio channel which has become a great success.

In an interesting narrative on how a hair oil brand was acquired by HUL, Sanjiv Mehta is known to have travelled all the way to Chennai’s slums and asked women which hair oil they used? Women claimed that the ‘Indulekha’ brand of oil kept their hair thick, dark, and strong. Sanjiv reportedly told his stunned colleagues that there was “no need for further research”. HUL took over the ‘Indulekha’ brand of oil. Sanjiv Mehta did a great job by making GSK i.e. GlaxoSmithKline Consumer Healthcare a part of HUL.

He has not only scripted many stories of success in the corporate sector but also did many such works in the social sector which make him stand apart from other corporate giants. When there was a foreign exchange crisis in the country, he focused on what could be made available locally. By doing this, he saved a lot of foreign exchange. He cut water consumption in his plants by half harnessing technology. HUL, in cooperation with Lokmat, launched a large and unique water conservation campaign in Maharashtra in associating with the ‘Rin’ brand as its medium. About 1.3 trillion litres of water was saved. This campaign was later expanded throughout the country and it saved as much water as India drinks in two years!

During his research on water conservation, he discovered that the maximum water is consumed in the toilet, washing hands, bathing, and washing clothes. He sought permission from the government and Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) to build a public convenience centre but it took more than a year for the centre to take shape. Ultimately the first facility was built in Ghatkopar. Uptil now, 12 convenience centres have been constructed and 40,000 people use them every day! The interesting thing is that the water used there is filtered and reused. Now the government is asking HUL to open more convenience centres.

When the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic gripped the nation, he began distributing soaps in the slums of Dharavi so that people could wash their hands and the spread of the epidemic could be checked. He guessed ahead of time that COVID would spread, so he ordered 70,000 COVID test kits and distributed them for free in Maharashtra, Gujarat, and Madhya Pradesh. This was when the Indian government was able to collect only 1 lakh kits! Using the influence of the CEO of its parent company, HUL procured more than 5,000 oxygen concentrators from the US, China, Britain, and France, and helped save lives here.

Sanjiv Mehta is also a chartered accountant with a Nagpur connection. Former Union Minister N P K Salve, father of renowned lawyer Harish Salve, used to own a CA firm in Nagpur from where Sanjiv completed his articleship. HUL and Lokmat have a long history together. When Dr. Datta Samant led a massive strike in Mumbai, HUL’s Mumbai factory stayed shuttered for over a year. Dr. Ashok Ganguly, the company’s the then head, sought assistance from my father, veteran freedom fighter and the then Maharashtra industry minister Jawaharlal Darda alias Babuji. Babuji advised him to decentralise the production centres and communicate in the local language rather than English. Babuji’s advice was followed. Babuji offered him a ready-made shed in Yavatmal, where construction began. Then he offered land in Khamgaon where ‘Pears Soap’ is now manufactured and sold all over the world. A production facility was also set up in Chhindwara on the advice of Babuji. Dr. Ganguly afterwards joined me in the Rajya Sabha and mentioned how Babuji helped him.

Sanjiv Mehta’s talent enabled him to richly contribute to the growth of the company taking its turnover to around Rs 60,000 crore. There is now a campaign underway to expand women’s involvement in Parliament. HUL, on the other hand, has already made significant progress in this direction under the leadership of Sanjiv Mehta. The proportion of women leaders in HUL has nearly surpassed the 50% mark. He placed high value on training. HUL was designed to function as a ‘’university’’, with its “graduates” now holding top positions in other large corporations. After retiring, he serves on the non-executive boards of Danone and Air India. In fact, Sanjiv Mehta is a priceless national treasure!

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