The past 12 months have been the most unfortunate and unhappy for millions of people worldwide. The Covid-19 pandemic was beyond comprehension in its new form since Mar. 2020 onwards and took epic proportions over the next few months.
As they say, there is always calm before storm and in my case, it worked exactly this way on the professional front. Just that the lockdown period was the calm and what followed was storm, quite literally. I consider myself a lot luckier than the unlucky millions because I not only had a job to feed my family – my parents, wife and both kids tested Covid-19 positive (and I was the sole negative member in the home!) in May ’20 but each of them fought bravely and bounced back in full form in less than 45 days; I managed to ensure my team – starting from 100 around June ’20 growing all the way to 175+ around Mar. ’21 remained cautious of the dreaded infection and less than 10% of my workforce & their immediate family tested positive for the virus; increased point of sales presence for Levista Coffee across Tamil Nadu and Karnataka from 26,000+ in Mar. ’20 to over 79,000+ by Mar. ’21 – completely led by my brave boys in the field; which eventually led to a whopping 42% growth in the Brand’s top line over the past Financial Year; and finally – painstakingly have built a “solid team” of sorts which would work cohesively (and I sincerely hope) in my absence as I step down from Levista Coffee as Vice President - Sales & Marketing after joining in Jan. ‘20.
It’s not been an easy decision for me to step down, honestly. It was unprecedented that I had to move on, even though things were looking bright for the Brand. Sometimes in life, we need to do what is right, rather than continuing to do what works well – for us and for others. More than this, I restrain from saying here or elsewhere the whys and whats of my decision – life moves on.
I wanted to summarise my learning through this tumultuous period even as thousands lost lives and livelihood, and here I was – making history by the day and night with unheard of and unseen types of marketing strategy coupled with fabulous execution by my team. By the way, these accolades have been showered by well-wishers around me – which I have openly declared as not mine and solely belong to my team, though there have been some black sheep around me.
I credit the success of the Brand with the quote “Due to Corona or Despite Corona” but for the first time, I must confess that I kept moving on all these months “despite the black sheep or due to them”. At one point, you give in - for you need to do the "right thing". No blames, Peace.
My single biggest learning during this period is to nurture people in the team and believe in them – as the adage goes, take care of your people and they would take care of the business. The moment it was formally informed of my leaving, many people within and outside my team reached out to me and expressed their disappointment over my decision. Goes to show that though I could have been harsh on them sometimes, they have perhaps realised and seen the benefit for them – the larger view, perhaps. Another learning has been that I have maintained a healthy space between those around me and myself. This measured space ensured that we all had the much required time and thought process to ourselves.
The fact that I have never called or summoned anyone on weekends or after office hours – not once in the past 12 months – is a simple edifice that appreciating everyone’s time works well. Keeping the interest of the staff and their families in each act and activity of the Organisation and staying on it genuinely works in the larger interest thereby delivering positive results.
And lastly, never to antagonise those who are closer to the people who matter and speak behind you – it probably gives them more ammunition to pull us down. I had a choice – not to antagonise people and keep moving for the sake of money and a steady career; or to do the "right thing". I chose the latter.
Obviously. When you are brought up with the right kind of “values” from childhood, that’s what you do. Works best for all of us, isn’t it. Adios, Amigos. Moving on and moving ahead in life.
On Thursday, Fitch Solutions, one of the world’s top rating agency estimated that India’s HHS – Household spending would grow 7.9% y-o-y in 2021 after 14% contraction in the year 2020 due to the Corona pandemic. In nominal terms, the HHS is estimated to be Rs. 125 lakh crores (whatever number of Zeroes, that is!), a 3.3% growth over 2019. Not bad at all, huh. Food & non-alcoholic drinks is expected to grow the highest among all other consumption categories and this, in my humble opinion is perhaps the biggest good news of the year!
Here’s why I feel that this will propel the economy to a large extent.
India has an estimated 14 million kiranas and retail touch points – who sell anything from cigarettes, biscuits, tea, coffee, grocery all the way to other household items including consumer durables, fashion, footwear among others. This segment drives India’s consumption opportunity, a key reason why the Amazons, the Walmarts, the Wall street Investors all the way to the Chinese & Japanese billionaires and everyone in between are eyeing a small pie in the Great Indian Retail Story which is yet to unfold. The world has been witnessing an ugly battle in the public involving some of the most reputed businessmen and their companies, thanks to a hostile take over which has seen stiff resistance from the other. Meanwhile, Indians are jolly well shopping their home needs and personal requirements through gadgets – apps as well as a simple phone call to order their roti, kapda and makaan – quite literally.
I started working in the retail Industry 24 years back scooping ice-cream and later with one of the pioneers of Grocery Retail, Foodworld Supermarkets two decades back. Even back then, most Indians in bigger cities had to travel not more than 2 kms to buy their food and grocery. Every locality and neighborhood had a kirana store who offered personalised and tailor-made solution for her / his customers. From topping the shopping bag with FMCG freebies (what we call as Loyalty points these days) to offering a chocolate to the kid (instant gratification in today’s terms) all the way to a speedy home delivery (some Start-Ups who never made a transaction level profit over 10 years are now Unicorns!) and so on. The Kirana offered credit at a time when a “Credit Card” was a western phenomenon and raised capital – through internal accruals and market offering, rather than the obnoxious Equity based Investments.
Cut to 2021, my excitement with the latest Fitch report is simple. Though the Kiranas have dwindled in real numbers – not because the Modern Retailers or E-Commerce companies replaced them – rather than many of them did not have second-gen successors to run their businesses, they have simply been replaced by “Convenience Stores” – family owned as well as Corporates who vie for the consumer’s spends. And daily shopping for Food & Grocery shall never go out of fashion in the India’s consumption story. As most Indian households are small and barely have refridgerators, and even if they do, no more than 165 – 200 litres that cannot hold over 2-3 days’ needs; the kitchens of India are big enough to accommodate one adult to stand and cook with a provision to carry 3-4 weeks dry grocery requirements. Daily use items like Milk, Biscuits and snacks are almost bought every other day, rather than the large packs of colas, juices and nachos which are more the western phenomenon. Small is Beautiful and India’s sachet revolution is a glaring example of how and what India consumes.
If you are unable to relate to most of the above, I can understand as yours and my house are perhaps a lot bigger than the majority of consumers in India, for you are reading this on a digital gadget which is a privilege for a few of us Indians. The majority still read physical newspapers, watch sops and news on TV sets and shop from their neighborhood stores as they walk back home after work or leisure. In fact, shopping is a form of entertainment in India, isn’t it, for we make-up and dress up for buying groceries or eat at a restaurant.
I have always reckoned that “Consumption is Growth” compared to “Consumption leads to growth”. The moment, we are consuming, there is a need to repurchase and the cycle continues. The Covid-19 pandemic has pushed us behind, but not by light years. The recovery across segments, from automobiles to entry level smart phones, consumer durables to even the more discretionary types, is a confidence boosting measure that things are back on track, slowly but surely.
As Indians, what we can do to boost our economy is to consume. And consume a tad more than the previous one. Be it our daily dose of coffee & tea to household needs or fashion, every rupee that we spend will go in to building back India, one step at a time. But where’s the money to spend, one may ask. I have eternally believed that India is one country where no Indian can sleep hungry – if they choose to work and earn their meal. Such is the opportunity in this country. While lakhs of people have been displaced of their daily jobs, we have seen a resurgence in our mental strengths, especially from the marginally placed and the lower strata of the society. One will find enough work in this country, if they choose to. And the entire ecosystem has to work together. Am I living and writing this from Utopia, No. Am I sure that we shall survive this crisis? Well, we have always created history with our resilience over the centuries and this pandemic is also one which shall pass by.
Back to the Fitch estimates, Food and Grocery are the real propellers to the Economy’s consumption pattern. We earn our dough, spend at the neighborhood stores which employ people and provide them a livelihood; they in turn spend on their basic necessities and slowly but surely increase their non-discretionary spends and the cycle continues. Daravi in Mumbai has more set-top boxes than many urban clusters in India, remember.
At Levista, where we sell Instant and Filter Coffee across Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, we have grown 50% in our sales over last year (and we have 1 more calendar month to finish). I added 70% more manpower this year over last and increased retail touch points by 3 times to 79,000 as of 1 Mar. 2021. And we still occupy less than 2% of the Rs. 2,200 Crores pa packaged Coffee market in India which excludes B2B / Restaurant & Café consumption business. We have just begun, I believe. With a 98% headroom to grow and such confidence building measures – our real growth as well as estimates like that of Fitch solutions, I guess we are headed upwards and northwards, even as we should remain grounded to reality with a eye and ear on the consumer who’s always sending us notes, thoughts and reactions. If only we listen… more!
On 13 Jan. 2021, I was driving back yet again to Chennai from Bangalore on my XUV500. Even as my playlist kept jumping from 90s Tamil film songs to the latest tunes, spiritual discourses to FM Radio, my thoughts kept wandering from one to another to another. I was driving back in a spacious SUV, all alone and reasonably well placed in life than what I had imagined for myself 24 years back when I first joined the Retail Industry scooping Ice-Cream at Baskin Robbins as a part time salesman during the day, learning computer languages in the morning at NIIT and studying B. Com in the Evening College. I am ever thankful for my Stars, the Creator’s benevolence, blessings of Elders and good wishes of my close friends for where I am today in life. Professionally, Socially, personally and of course, most recently on the spiritual lane.
It was a Makara Sankrathi / Pongal day that I landed up at Bangalore in 2004 to be part of a revolution in the making, little which I knew when I was interviewed in Oct. 2003. Even on the inaugural day of Bangalore Central in May 2004, none of us back then knew how big the Indian Retail Consumption story would grow to and that some of us would be a strategic part of it with our own tales of success, failure and most importantly, that of abundant learning.
As the playlist kept changing every few hours during my recent drive, I couldn’t help but realise how my life has been such a roller-coaster drive and that I have enjoyed, messed up and have overcome many such moments all along. The morning chills of my bike rides from my temporary stay at a cousin’s house in RT Nagar, Bangalore back in 2004 all the way to MG Road (where the Mall was located) and getting lost every now and then on my way to Jayanagar 4th block where the Regional Office of the erstwhile Pantaloon Retail was once located gives me the chills in the spine till date. Honestly, I never thought I will come this far in my professional life, that I would write about the last 20 years every now and then and fondly recollect the moments that has made me an eternal Student of Retailing for the rest of my life.
Last Sunday, I had met a former colleague for Lunch at a posh Restobar which was once upon a time a suburban hamlet that was Sahakar Nagar. I was sharing how I could never feel “belonged” at “Bengaluru” although the city has given me so much. My retail resurrection has happened multiple times and Bangalore has lifted me up multiple times. A few other cities hold as much or more importance to me – of course Madras being my hometown is always the dearest. Every time, I enter or exit Bangalore city - the iconic arch at Attibele, the retail library that is Brigade Road / MG Road, the eponymous UB City, the wet markets of Malleswaram or Basavangudi, the Windsor Manor underpass, Mekhri Circle, the new Airport Road towards KGIA and so on – each one of them have a deep meaning and a related anecdote in my life. But the attachment is always temporary. Just that this temporary attachment turns 17 this Uttarayan season and remains an undetachable part of me forever.
Yet again, I moved to Bangalore during Uttarayan 2020, bag and baggage for my current role at Levista. What was once supposedly a guest accommodation at my current abode in the Western suburb of Bangalore, Peenya and “the so-called home” at Chennai has now been reversed, with me spending more time at my own Bangalore Headquarters even as we march against an insurmountable business target of achieving Rs. 100 Crores of turnover for the 4 year young brand in the next 12-18 months. Am I dreaming, yes. Are dreams good, yes. Do they get achieved, sometimes yes. And how about this one, I am working harder than ever for it.
I am once again grateful to this once-upon-a-time quaint town which has given me so much yet remains detached from my life and expects nothing from me, other than gratitude and thankfulness in my thoughts. But I vow to make this city proud of an outsider like me, in one way or another and give her the due recognition as I share a great part of my professionally somewhat-successful career to this place.
I won’t get attached to her ever. But would always ensure that this city is always a part of me and My Retail Journey in the making. Forever.
More than anything else, I once again learned to unlearn a lot of things in the year that passed by that was 2020. I learned, yet again, that Change is the only constant and over time, we realise that “Change” in any form is good. Honestly, when I look back 365 days behind as the train was chugging in to the Mysore Railway Junction on the morning of 3rd Jan. 2020 around 7.30am, little did I realise that I would come this far. I was on my way to take up the new assignment at Kushal Nagar as Vice President of Sales & Marketing for Levista Coffee, where the parent company SLN Coffee Pvt. Ltd. is head quartered. As always when I take up a new assignment, I went with an open mind, so I can learn as much as I could and decided to take up the new role, one day at a time. Within a few days, I had settled down in the Company’s Guest House in Bangalore and spent a good amount of time trying to understand the various aspects of our business, Industry, colleagues, external & internal stakeholders.
I would avidly look forward to returning to Chennai where my family lived. And it was quiet emotional for me to leave on a Sunday night often even as the kids would get in to all gloom for not being able to see me in person for 2 weeks or so. Until one day, everything turned topsy-turvy and life took a 180-degree turn. U Turn, if I could say so. From mutually missing each other, at one stage it felt like an over-dose (not really!) that we spent 150 days precisely under one roof, thanks to continued lockdowns. In the first 2 weeks of the first Lockdown, life came to a standstill, literally and figuratively. None of us had much to do other than watch News channels in multiple languages to get different perspectives. By mid-April, there was some action slowly on the work front but still we were all locked up at home with limited chances of stepping out, even to shop necessities.
A chance visit to a local retail store and my Father seemed to have picked up the dreaded Coronavirus which eventually moved on to my Mother. Little did he realise and when he visited our home one fine morning to deliver vegetables, we panicked and rushed my parents for tests which proved positive. Meanwhile, my daughter picked the infection from him, her sister from her and my wife from them. I tested “Negative” being O+ve (or for some strange reason) and was blessed to take care of the family for the next four weeks until things settled down albeit very slowly. However, it was in May ’20 that Levista achieved a historic highest monthly sale followed by another historic Sales milestone in June. And I was here, in my bed as I write this article, seven months ago when all members of the family were fighting an unknown infection.
The fact that we as humans were so vulnerable and life is too short was a shot in the arm for me from those days and I vowed to be ever so grateful and thankful to the Creator and Mother Nature for bestowing whatever we have today. From sighing that I had lost crores of rupees on my StartUps over 5 years since 2014, to being happy that my Parents came back home in flesh and blood from the hospital after treatment and that my wife recovered though slower than anticipated was the last nail in my box of worries. From that day onwards, I have been the happiest if all members of my family woke up the next morning and lived a basic, normal life.
My second XUV500 AT was 2 years old when I joined Levista. This was my sixth vehicle in 15 years after self-driving over 2,75,000 kms all by myself across India on work & leisure, I was contemplating an upgrade to a more posh German beast in the coming months. That’s when I had to call a mechanic to jump start the engine of my beloved XUV whose battery went dead due to no usage for weeks together! How things change… From planning to buy a new car, I decided to sell the XUV so I can save on the EMI since I had almost NIL travel during those 6 months. I ventured out from home on the 151st Day on 10 Aug. 2020 to Bangalore well equipped with E-Pass for an Up and down Travel and have driven 13,600 kms till date on my beast ever since. The entire discussions of Levista’s partnership on Bigg Boss Tamil Season 4 feat. Padmashree Kamal Hassan was decided and finalised during one of those long drives between Bangalore & Chennai. Every 40-50 mins, I would stop at a Toll Booth and make calls, internal and external to seek views. What a drive this has been – I mean the ones to Bangalore / Chennai as well as life overall. And many such discussions while the Office driver was behind the wheel including Zoom Calls with my iPad perched behind the seat.
In the middle of Nov. ’20, our team completed the total Turnover of FY 19-20 and that was a moment to celebrate with fellow soldiers even as they ventured out carefully everyday those 8 months fighting an unknown enemy that Covid-19 is. A big round of applause and hearty thanks to their family members for allowing their beloved to go out and conquer the world. As is the case of MS Dhoni, I realised that all the noise in the stadium (read: my surroundings who kept cheering and booing me!) was insignificant as long as I don’t take it too much to my heart. As Lord Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita, don’t get very upset when something unfortunate happens and don’t get too ecstatic when something very cheerful happens. Easy to say for you, Dear Lord as you are the Creator and we are mere mortals.
Listening 15 mins daily about the epic Mahabharatha narrated by a noted and eminent scholar Velukkudi Shri. Krishnan helped me immensely for the past 225 days. In his daily bulletin, he would move the story as written by Guru Shri Veda Vyasa and narrated by Sage Vaishampayana to King Janamejaya. It was so timely that there would be gems every few days which had a direct impact on my daily life, personal and professional, that it was surreal to hear those advices.
Even as I ended the Calendar Year professionally with a first ever Virtual Media Launch on 28th Dec. ’20, with our new flavours of coffee and the much awaited mass market variant - Levista Supreme Instant coffee, it seemed to be a memorable, meaningful and a successful year that I completed, much to the chagrin of my detractors, happiness and joy of my well-wishers and with the constant love and encouragement of my immediate family and a few close friends. Without the unstinted support of my Management and my colleagues at work, this journey wouldn’t have been this smooth – even if I wish to call it so. It certainly has been the fastest, toughest and perhaps the most fulfilling professional journey I have had in the past 24 years in Consumer Retail.
I started the year (lockdown) with virtual classes for MBA students whom I was teaching offline until Mar. ’20. Over time, this virtual address became a way of life with me having spoken at over a dozen Webinars as well as my 4th consecutive year at BIL Trichy teaching the Retailing Elective for the second year students. While I didn’t miss my walk through during the lectures – my laptop screen would be off and I'd keep walking in my room as I gave the lectures using my bluetooth earphones, I really missed my campus stay at the guest houses, the morning walks within the sprawling BHEL dwelling in Trichy, the food feasts and of course the much awaited train travel. And yesterday, I addressed over 100+ MBA students of XLRI Jamshedpur, a session which I must have presented at the campus in the third week of Mar. ’20 to the previous batch.
Of all things, I learned to appreciate life as it is; from what we have to seeing what others didn’t have and to compare ourselves to be blessed than them. We cannot change the system, the nature and destiny. But we, as humans are blessed with the knack of converting adversities in to opportunities. That’s a choice we all wake up with. For Ex., I sensed an opportunity that the Out of Home Coffee Consumption and Workplace Coffee consumption could be coupled with incremental household consumption, add to it the WFH woes and the initial days of adjusting to the new normal. After 8-9 months, it sounds boring to hear or to utter the phrase “The New Normal”. It is, rather “normal” and it shall be so all along now.
While I didn’t have time, rather didn’t make time to learn a professional course or start gaming on one of my i-devices, "i-learnt-cooking" was perhaps the proudest moment for my me and more for my Mom rather, who still is unable to come to terms that I could take so much interest in this “art” which she has been an expert at that I have shown no interest for the past 30 years! Other than exploring life from different perspectives, it’s been a yet another adventurous year for me. So, thank you 2020. I am clear about my destination by 2030. But until then, I shall enjoy the journey every day. As I always say, the Journey is as important as the Destination. #Miles2Go
It was the second week of April 2020. Three weeks into Lockdown 1.0, a broken supply chain, employees and team members dispersed all across and most retail stores closed, it was one of the toughest moments in my professional life. That I had a roof and secure four walls, three meals to eat, a lot of snacks to munch and salaried job – the real luxuries of the Corona-crisis made me feel a lot luckier than the millions who were displaced world over. And that I was staying with my wife and kids – I had come on a work trip to Chennai on 13th March and remained here ever after through the lockdown – was the happiest thing I could enjoy in life. Honestly, we have never spent such a long time together within a single precinct all our lives!
Yet, I was beginning to crack under pressure – workwise as well as managing household chores including mopping the floor intermittently, washing vessels, drying and folding clothes among other things all day. To get a peaceful uninterrupted 7-hour sleep was becoming a challenge. I am usually a reasonably disciplined guy. I cannot fathom that my bed is not done within a few mins of waking up; a small slush on my white car and I get it cleaned as soon as I could; from rotating my shoes, watches and dresses on FIFO basis to booking darshan at Tirupati 4 months in advance, it’s been a usual rigor. After all, when you are the son of a Factory Worker whose salary gets deducted for late attendance and a schoolteacher mother who must arrive before the students come to school every day, this is just a way of life.
Even as I was struggling to manage things better, was when I recalled I should speak to one of my professional mentors, a former boss of mine whom I’ve admired for his multi-tasking Leadership abilities. Working with a popular Promoter Entrepreneur, managing a team of a dozen high-flying direct reports and handling a Retail business spanning the length & breadth of the country, I couldn’t think of anyone better than him to seek advice and assistance in my Leadership role at Levista Coffee which I began in January this year. I too have a similar professional assignment at the moment although the complexities are quite different and a lot lesser, so a comparison may be inappropriate.
A scheduled 60-minute call with him helped me sort out my stuff quite easily. To begin with, I created scheduled buckets of my time for all my key tasks – regular VCs with direct reports, allocating time for emails, for clearances & providing approvals, Meetings with external stakeholders, Interviews with Candidates & Media interaction and so much so, that I also included “Lunch” on my Calendar. Keeping my EA involved in all my day-today business activities helped immensely so he could follow up on important tasks from others and revert to me as per schedule. And most importantly, absolutely no out of turn calls or VCs unless it’s tearing urgent. All my day's activities get captured in the iWatch which my beloved wife gifted me 5 years back and the device keeps reminding me of my schedules as well as measures my sleep patterns (through the Sleep++ App) and my daily fitness goal - how many steps I walk inside home. This is such a blessing.
I also included slots to, don’t exclaim,Read Newspaper & Articlesas well as for myDaily dose of Yogaat 6am! In exactly one month’s time, my entire day has been well sorted out and results are showing up. My Blood Sugar is well under control, I sleep and wake up on time with my 5am routine, spend enough time to read 4 Newspapers and a couple of Articles early in the morning and of course, write and share my thoughts regularly on social and other public media. I ended up doing Four Webinars each weekend too.
And on the work front, not only have I been more efficient, my team has also done a spending job in the month of May and we have set new business standards for ourselves. I cannot thank my former Boss enough for that timely intervention and take this opportunity here to acknowledge the same. I hope this schedule gets better, so I get more efficient in June and beyond. How does your time management go about? What's your kind of Scheduling of Tasks?